translating Neko Atsume

Neko Atsume (Kitty Collector) is a mobile game with fairly simple gameplay. The game is a virtual yard, where you can periodically leave food and toys in order to attract cats, who will thank you with silver and gold fish, which in turn act as a currency to allow you to buy more food and toys to attract more cats. There are many different cats that show up, each with a unique name, look, and personality (including favorite toys and food). Whenever a new cat is at the yard as you open the game, its face appears in your “catbook”.

As the title suggests, the main goal of the game is to collect all cats in your catbook. You can also collect all toys, or all yard expansions (to change the look of your yard), or all cat mementos (random objects that cats gift you as they become “regulars” in your yard — basically, once you’ve earned their trust). And that’s about it. Compared to your average mobile game, bursting in color and movement, Neko Atsume has a very simple art and animation style — and that’s the appeal. It’s the type of game you open up when you’re overwhelmed during a study session and need a break. You say to yourself, “I wonder how Snowball’s doing,” and see her playing with a red ball, and watch and smile for a second before getting back to the real world.

When thinking about how to translate that into a physical form, my mind immediately went to advent calendars. I was given a Polly Pocket advent calendar as a child, before I knew what they were. I opened every little compartment on the first day, since no one told me how it was supposed to work. For those who also don’t know — from my (still limited) understanding, an advent calendar counts the days from December 1st until the 25th, but gamifies it by adding things like chocolate treats, or Polly Pocket accessories, that you open on each day to add some extra joy to the countdown until Christmas. My physical Neko Atsume wouldn’t have anything to do with Christmas, or counting down days even. The thought just helped me connect to the idea of a box with slots where surprise treats show up.

In this case, I imagined a box with two compartments: the top, being the yard, and the bottom, being closed off “storage” with a drawer or something of the sort. You would buy the box and any collection of cats you want, and then insert the cats into the drawer. The cats (as 3D figurines, maybe encased in snow globe-type domes so they have the same shape regardless of their pose) pop up to the yard section of the box through the round slots.

My first sketch

To include the food component, I imagined a food slot — either weight sensitive, or able to recognize the shape of the food token — which would make it more likely for cats to pop up when food is present. The slot would slowly rotates or lowers the food down to storage, so eventually you’d have to pick it up again in order for the cats to come back. To incorporate another aspect of the game (the higher quality food attracts more cats, or rarer cats), each food token could be a different weight or shape in order to be recognized and computed by the game.

The biggest struggle in translating this game was toys. On mobile, a plurality (if not majority) of toys go underneath the cat — pillows, cushions, cat trees, and so on. If my cats are popping up from below, the ground has to be clear, which limits the design possibilities for the toys. The only other option I could think of was to sell specific cat figurines with toys attached, but I wasn’t very happy with that idea.

To build the prototype, I found .pngs of different cats and food cans from the game, and had them printed in heavyweight card stock at Staples. Since I wanted to also build the box with that card stock, but planned to draw it in pencil, I also printed three extra empty sheets. I cut out the cats and food, with little flaps so I could prop them at an angle, then cut two boxes (one of which I drew on as my yard, and one which would be the storage compartment). I used the scrap paper to draw my toys, keeping the limited toy selection: a scratching post, a red ball, and a butterfly chase toy.