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Developets: A tribute to the four-legged friends of indie developers

Cassidee Moser

Chris Chung with the family cat, Nippy

At the start of the 2013 7DFPS Game Jam, Chris Chung was given the challenge of creating a unique first person shooter within seven days. No other rules, requirements, or qualifications; just complete creative control over a project and a week's worth of time in which to complete it.

This task in mind, Chung began brainstorming ideas, trying to come up with something that could be both unique and feasibly accomplished. He remembers the idea forming in his mind during a long car ride on the first day of the jam. "I was thinking of what kind of interesting first-person game I could make that I hadn't seen before, and 'cats' was the first thing I thought of."

After drawing rough sketches of the idea, Chung deemed it possible and started right away. The result was Catlateral Damage, a Unity game in which players assume the role of a mischievous cat and try to score 10,000 points within two minutes by making a complete mess of a room.

Although seemingly random, its inspiration stems from Chung's animal-loving background. "My mom has always been an animal lover, and I've definitely acquired that trait," he says, citing that his family never had fewer than 2 cats at home. "All of our cats have had different personalities, so I have a lot of experience with how they act, what their motives are, and generally what makes them tick. I've always wanted to know how they perceive their environment and us humans, plus being able to do what they do without getting in trouble is quite fun."

Chung's love for animals is shared by many within the indie community, and for good reason; in a career that often breeds stress and frustration, indie developers have been savoring the benefits of four-legged companionship for a long time. The effects of these relationships are often just as varied and unique as the owners and pets themselves. Some serve as muses and therapists, while others are simply devoted friends known to sit on keyboards or cuddle up at a creator's feet. They're some of the unsung and unlikely heroes of our industry, whose stories of influence, support, and unconditional love largely go untold. Yet, their behind-the-scenes influence has had far-reaching and often surprising effects on video games and the people who create them.

The Star of Starbound

Pin (left) and Peep (right)

Pin the pit bull isn't Mattie Watson's dog. At least, he wasn't at first. A pet lover, Watson's partner had always wanted a pit bull, but thought them to be illegal in the area in which they lived. Instead of adopting, her partner tried fostering animals and perusing ad services such as Craigslist while researching breeders and looking at pictures of puppies. Still, nothing quite filled that void, and Watson took note of her longing. "I could tell she wasn't happy and nothing could make up for it," Watson remembers, "so one day I just made her schedule a viewing with this breeder in backwoods Kentucky."

Choosing a puppy from a litter can often be a difficult task, but Watson was drawn to Pin the moment she saw him. "We went there and there were a bunch of puppies jumping around in a pen, yet Pin stood out to me because he was the only one not," she recalls.

Since then, Pin has become just as much her dog, often keeping her company and sleeping at her feet while she's working as an artist on Starbound.

Pin may look somewhat familiar to those who have played Starbound. He (and later their second dog, Peep) makes an appearance in the game, a result of Watson making good on a promise to make Pin famous should dogs ever be added to the experience.

The Floran race in Starbound also owes its origins to Pin and the pit bull breed. Watson originally had the idea for this race and their attributes based on her observation that pit bulls "tend to be simple minded, but not stupid, and aggressive in their interactions with other dogs. They can't really help it, and it's nothing personal." Using this observation, she began laying the framework and working with the game's writer to bring them to life. "I thought it'd be cool to incorporate [these traits] when concepting the Florans, who are a very aggressive race with a known propensity for stabbing things."

Today, Pin is content to lay around and serve as a full-time companion and foot warmer, completely unaware of the fact that without him, Starbound would be a different game. But, that sentiment beautifully illustrates the kind of love a dog is willing to give; they're happy to pour out their affection, letting their humans do with it what they see fit. All they ask is a little bit in return.

Ska Studios' Resident Felines

James Silva with advisors Neko (left) and Gato (right)

Owned and operated by married couple Michelle and James Silva, Ska Studios is known for the highly stylized The Dishwasher series and the 2013 punk rock brawler Charlie Murder. Their success has netted them a fair fan base, although Michelle jokingly attributes much of the studio's site traffic to fans wanting to get a peek of Good Morning Gato, a blog post featuring random pictures of their beloved cats Neko and Gato.

The two often face confusion surrounding how the pets came into their lives. "People who don't know us often assume the cats are mine and I brought them into the relationship," laughs Michelle. "The truth is, the cats were originally James', and he is the definition of a crazy cat man."

Named the Japanese and Spanish words for 'cat', Neko and Gato are often the subject of the couple's affections, whether they're being fussed over on vacations, having pictures taken of them for the blog, or being missed while Michelle and James are traveling.

Like most cats, they are known to engage in various antics while the couple is busy with their work at home. Although not quite as destructive as the cat in Catlateral Damage, both Neko and Gato have been known to jump in laps, sit on keyboards, open Xbox disc trays, and wake Michelle up at night while going on what she calls "recreational face hikes."

Their antics are easily excused by their personalities, however. "They are the most tolerant and loving cats I've ever met," Michelle says, ending with a sentiment shared by many other pet owners: "We love them and talk about them far too much."

Ulysses the Four-Legged Boss

Chris Robert's cat Ulysses strikes a majestic pose

The creator of the survival-based card game Shelter, Chris Roberts lives the independent life, working from home and operating as his own boss. While the setup is a dream situation for many, working in this environment can often be a tough challenge thanks to being isolated for hours on end. Luckily, Roberts has managed to find relief from this in the form of a wily Devon Rex named Ulysses. "As a lone indie developer with no real financial backing, I have been working from home for more than a year," he says. "While there are people around me, spending most of your working time in relative isolation can be difficult, and Ulysses has been a constant distraction from that."

It wasn't until he moved in with his girlfriend in Bristol that the discussion of adopting a new cat began to take place. A discussion, strangely enough, of which he was on the side of opposition. He had always been a cat person, but Roberts was of the opinion that they should wait a year before bringing a cat home. Eventually, her persistence wore him down. "She would show me pictures of kittens for sale from the internet every night," he remembers, "and at one point, she showed me this goggle-eyed, curly-haired gremlin called Ulysses, and I was smitten."

Roberts speaks of Ulysses as both a companion and a taskmaster, claiming that the cat keeps him in his chair and ensures productivity during coding sessions using an assortment of awkward resting positions in his lap. Ulysses has even been credited as easing eye strain and helping avert the risk of being overworked by randomly jumping on the keyboard or nudging for a stroke when Chris has been laboring for longer than the he deems necessary.

It's Ulysses' knack for providing therapy, however, that arguably stands as his most important trait. "I can sit there swearing at my computer for an hour when suddenly he runs in: 'Stop that! Ball... String... Have a little perspective, eh?'" Roberts muses, adding, "I reckon cats can teach us a lot about what is really fun, and what we've just been taught to think of as gameplay."

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