Keen’s turn-based combat combines sliding-tile puzzles and dungeon-crawling, and it features a cutesy cartoon aesthetic. It is developer Cat Nigiri’s latest game, and it’s slated for a release on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and mobile devices in February. And though the studio originally targeted the U.S. market, it has discovered that its biggest fans come from Asia.
I interviewed Cat Nigiri cofounders Nando Guimaraes and Marcello Lima at Brazil’s Independent Games Festival to learn more. Keen stars Kim, a pint-sized samurai girl who wields a sword and zips about on hot pink roller skates. This stylish mode of transportation means she can travel in whichever direction the player chooses, but she will only stop once she hits an obstacle. In each level, players have different objectives, like finding secret items or keys or clearing out all the monsters.
“Every enemy will introduce a different mechanic, but the player’s mechanics are always the same,” said Cat Nigiri’s studio director Guimaraes. “It’s swiping, up-down-left-right. The scenarios and the enemy mechanics, they add the difficulty. When they’re introduced for the first time, when they’re mixed together. Then we have boss fights.”
Cat Nigiri has been invited to demo the game at Indie Megabooth in the U.S., BitSummit in Japan, and ChinaJoy in Shanghai. It has found the most enthusiasm in China, South Korea, and Japan, even though its original plan was to do a big push in the U.S. But Guimaraes isn’t necessarily surprised that the studio is now finding more opportunities in Asia.
“It’s one thing that I always thought would happen, because it’s just a lot of people. The gaming culture is there,” said Guimaraes. “In Brazil, the national sport is soccer. In the U.S. it’s basketball or football. In China it’s games, and in Japan as well. It’s only natural. That’s one of the reasons I thought it would work. Second, it’s really hard for us to get in the U.S. A lot of indies there. It’s difficult to connect to everyone. In Japan and China, for some reason, for us, they’re more accepting. It opens doors to the U.S. as well, which is good.”
Cat Nigiri is talking to a few Chinese publishers, which is imperative for releasing a game in China. That process has yielded up a few roadblocks, however, because many of the deals it’s been offered aren’t “indie-friendly.”
Guimaraes says that the publishers have tried to negotiate vague terms about how they would “recoup user acquisition” without explaining how much they’re actually planning on spending on reaching new players or details about their user acquisition plan. This is bad news, because it could mean that the developer might not start earning revenue from a game until much later on — if ever. When I asked indie publishers about their top tips for developers, keeping an eye out for the recoup rate came up as a crucial point.
“I don’t know how much they’re spending. That has to be clear in the contract. [They] should say, ‘I spent this much on the game. I think it’s worth that much,'” said Guimaraes. “We know that there are extra costs in China for publishers. A lot of platforms, all the certifications. A bigger rev share than the U.S., that’s agreeable. We understand. But the recoup on the user acquisition we don’t understand.”
Cat Nigiri started making games in 2012, and its original strategy was to make freemium mobile games. Guimaraes described these as “great games and awful products” — meant to compete with other titles that were trendy at the time.
“Then we made Keen as our own IP. We said, let’s drop this freemium stuff and do what we like to do, something traditional,” said Guimaraes. “It worked. We received government funding. We were selected by the Square Enix Collective. At the time we passed [Steam] Greenlight in eight days. Really fast. Then we were invited by Tokyo Game Show and Indie Megabooth and so on. Because we were doing something we believed in.”
The studio has its own set of challenges, like getting Keen on the Nintendo Switch. This is something that Brazilian studios struggle with, because Nintendo doesn’t ship dev kits to Brazil. Guimaraes and Lima are working on making it happen, but in the meantime, Cat Nigiri is making moves. Keen was selected by Global Top Round, a games accelerator program that has roots in South Korea and Singapore and can help Keen penetrate those markets.
“We were one of the 10 [games selected by Global Top Round]. It’s an American company, but both owners are from Korea,” said Guimaraes. “Now they’re opening all the gates for us in Japan and China. It’s a different step than what Brazilian companies traditionally try to do, which is going directly to the U.S. We’re doing the opposite. It’s working, or I hope so.”
Disclaimer: The BIG Festival organizers covered the travel costs for GamesBeat. Our coverage remains objective.