Interview: John Kooistra of Cat in a Box Games

If you remember, last week Chris wrote a review about a game called Fastar!, a quirky, fun, throwback to the epic NES RPG days. The minds behind Fastar!, and the App Store hit Blue Defense, are Cat in a Box Games. John Kooistra, the main cheese on the team, was kind enough to sit down with us for an interview.

We discussed topics such as his inspirations, the upcoming sequel to Blue Defense, and much more.

Hi John. Thank you so much for giving World of Meh this opportunity. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

John Kooistra: Sure! I’m 27, just had my first wedding anniversary, and I’ve managed to find two very skilled friends willing and able to start up my dream company with! We all graduated in 2007 from the University of Waterloo here in Ontario, Canada, and we’ve been building up towards this goal ever since:

To make video games that we love, and to love what we do!

How did Blue Defense come about? Is it the result of a random thought, a dream, or was there more to it?

JK: It was kind of a random thought, or perhaps an experiment. I had just purchased my iPhone, back in 2008, and was trying to imagine what this shiny new piece of hardware could do in terms of user input. I tried to think: “what can this device do that other video game devices can’t?” - and the answer was the accelerometer.

Basically it was the only device at the time where the accelerometer was directly attached to the screen, so I thought it would be pretty neat to take that to its logical extreme - requiring the user to actually turn their screen upside down, and sometimes even spin it around!

The original Blue Defense was given rave reviews on multiple sites, and on the iTunes App Store. What prompted you to begin work on a sequel?

JK: Basically, age. The graphics and controls on Blue Defense are a bit outdated, and the controls especially are restrictive. The original game is interesting, and solid as a strategic survival shooter (as in, who do I kill first? Who’s the biggest threat? Can I make that decision in two seconds before I get killed?) - but I knew I could do much better, and make it bigger and more fun than before.

I really enjoyed Blue Defense, and though we’ve created a top-down shooter, a real-time strategy, and an action-rpg, I think I still enjoy the gameplay of Blue Defense the most.

So I wanted to give it another shot, using all the skills I’ve gained in the last two years!

Having a heavy retro feel to it, were you inspired by any of the classic Atari or Intellivision games? If so, which ones in particular?

JK: I think the only real inspiration for graphics was Geometry Wars - I didn’t even grow up with a TV in the house, so I missed out on the early video game days! By the time I got into video games, it was the Genesis/SNES era, when everything was either sprites or flat-shaped polygons. So sadly, my retro styles are inspired by retro-inspired games. It’s kind of meta-inspiration.

Even then, though - my true inspiration came from my own technical guidance, knowing what’s good and easy to process on the GPU, how to design the user interface, etcetera [sic]. The bright overlayed graphics in the game use a simple blending technique called “additive” blending, which means that all colors you draw on the screen are added to the colors already there. Normally the colors are blended between the old and new colors being drawn, but when you use the additive blending exclusively, you don’t need to worry about what order you draw things in.

So oddly, the decision on how to design my art style was partly an intelligent choice to cut down on development complexity. Poetically, form and function were one and the same when designing Blue Defense.

While creating Blue Defense: Second Wave, what were some challenges you encountered during development?

JK: Development has been an absolute breeze. As I mentioned before, we have a really solid codebase that we develop on top of right now - the high scores leaderboards system designed for Fastar! was very easy to reuse, all our graphics and interface code is basically done and optimized, and all that was left was to make the game itself!

I made the decision early on to completely rewrite it from scratch, instead of updating the old code, to re-optimize absolutely everything about it. Now, there can be almost twice as many enemies on screen at once, the UI is vastly improved (and looks beautiful, in my opinion), and the enemy trail effect has been smoothed out a lot.

The trails, actually, probably provided me with the most trouble. Everything else was a snap - the new multitouch controls, quadrupling the types of enemies, the art assets, everything was very easy for me. It’s all been percolating in my head for awhile. But the trail effects, trying to make them efficient, smooth-looking, and above all smooth-moving was tougher than I expected. It was my own fault, there are a number of things in the code that made it difficult to move the trails smoothly, and there’s a lot of math that goes into calculating the vertex positions of the trail segments, For some reason, there were about four or five things that needed to be either added or subtracted to each other and factored in to find the exact starting point of the trail, and I don’t know what it was, but the day it just took forever to add and subtract them in the right order. Sleep deprivation, that was probably it - but what should have taken an hour or so took about a day and a half of pounding my head against the wall wondering why it wouldn’t work! So I hope you all appreciate the smooth trail effects, they’ll scale up nicely and still look thick and smooth on iPad resolution screens.

Are there any features in the sequel that weren’t in the original? If so, what are they, and which one is your favorite?

JK: There are a few new features, but mostly a ton of new content. I really like the addition of green units to the planetary assault, it opened up my creative mind to create a slew of new enemy types! As for features:

So many leaderboards! We’ve got over 70 different leaderboards, for different game modes and levels, so you can pick your battle and work your way to the top on your own terms.

Planet Cannon: this is a lot of fun, but it’s limited. You can touch the planet and drag it any direction to blast most enemies right out of the sky! The planet cannon is directional, so it kills everything within the beam, and we recently changed it to also kill things that are close to the planet with a shock wave effect.

Multitouch: some people complained that the original only had tilt controls, and asked for a touch-aiming mechanism. Well, we’ve done them one better, and added multitouch and target-locking controls as well! This means that you can actually split your fire into multiple directions at once, if you want that level of control. The game has been tested, so we know it’s possible to beat all levels without multitouch, but it certainly makes some levels easier. Double-tapping locks a stream of fire in one direction, which is useful for bosses - if you lock two or three streams on the boss, you can use a fourth stream with fewer bullets to take out the small fry that are threatening your planet without wasting too many shots.

My favorite feather has to be the new enemy types though. The Red Hive, or the Green Converter are two of the more interesting enemies. Red Hives slowly grow bigger as they descend on the planet, and when you blow then up, they spawn up to 25 Red Streamers all coming down at once! If you kill them early, they have fewer Streamers inside. The Converter, on the other hand, quickly lands on your planet, and is not a threat until you shoot it - at which point it converts your shots into Green Missiles, that shoot up and curve back down towards the planet! You can avoid them for a time, but be careful - if enemies spawn above the Converter, you’ll have to kill it first to get at the enemies behind!

Were there some features you wanted to add, but weren’t able due to time constraints or other reasons?

JK: I don’t think there are any features that I thought up and cut from the game, actually! I hadn’t thought of that yet, but I’m glad you reminded me. Since all our code is in order, and I haven’t had to fight with online leaderboard systems and everything, all my time has been put toward making this the best for of Blue Defense I can think of!

If somebody has never played Blue Defense before, how would you describe it?

JK: Blue Defense is an addictive arcade title, where you defend your planet from hordes of enemies coming from all sides. Literally. The game will change orientation on you with little notice, showing enemies coming from a new direction all the time - you have to have lightning fast reflexes and steady nerves to reach the top of the online leaderboards!

Cat in a Box Games recently released another fun title, Fastar!, to the App Store. Now, Fastar! is drastically different from Blue Defense, but equally enjoyable. Out of everything you’ve released so far, do you have a personal favorite?

JK: It really is a toss-up between the original Blue Defense and Fastar! Fastar has a lot more soul, but Blue Defense has that interesting device-twisting gameplay mechanic that will always cause people around you to raise their eyebrows. Once we’re done Blue Defense: Second Wave [sic], I’m sure they’ll both be on my iPhone’s front page.

When can gamers expect to get their hands on Blue Defense: Second Wave?

JK: We’re aiming for the end of September.

Thank you so much for your time John. Is there anything else you’d like to add or share with our readers?

JK: We here at Cat in a Box Games just love what we do, and we hope that it shows through our work. If you love what we do, let us know! The countless words of encouragement from our fans keep us in good spirits, and help us to continue working quickly and happily. I’ve met a lot of new friends just from people who play and like our games, and I want that trend to continue - you, the player, are what makes Cat in a Box Games possible. Happy Gaming!

For more information on Cat in a Box Games, go to their website, follow them on Twitter, and check out Fastar!, Blue Attack!, and the original Blue Defense that are available now in the iTunes App Store!

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4 Responses to “Interview: John Kooistra of Cat in a Box Games”

  1. Austin Alan Austin Alan says:

    I really wish the Android market would hurry up and snag some real developers for games

    there is some good stuff on the market, but most is just the same old crap

    apple has has a long time to gather a lead in the App market wars, but I think Android is going to catch up(I read that Sony might be working on an android based PSP hybrid phone and that could mean PSN on the Android Market

    I am not much for shooters on my phone, but I wouldnt mind some serious attempts at an RPG

    • chris says:

      Aside from Apple having the head start on the sheer volume of developers and apps they have in their market, I think their real strength is in the organization and functionality of their App Store compared to Android Market. Having used a Motorola Droid and an iPhone extensively, I can say that in my opinion the categories, interfaces, etc are all far superior on the iPhone’s App Store than on the Droid’s Android Market. Throw in iTunes to that mix, and the fact that I can browse for apps on my computer more easily for my iPhone than my old Droid, and the user experience is just so much better.

      I love that the Android Market is fairly unregulated in terms of content, but that is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you get programs like Google Voice that fully integrates a wonderful service into your phone (and is not available on the iPhone for obvious reasons). On the other hand, you get more junk to have to filter and sift through to find the programs worth downloading.

      If Google would improve the on-phone interface for the Android Market, create a kind of iTunes-like program for browsing and purchasing apps from a computer, improve the Android Market’s app organization, and find some way to either discourage shitty apps or encourage better programming, I think that they could really skyrocket, especially given the sheer number of Android phones being released each year.

  2. Austin Alan Austin Alan says:

    I whole heartedly AGREE!!

    the android app market is so ugly and unorganized.

    there is no way to find anything usefull :(
    and Google wants to be in charge of the internet??? the web is unorganized as is….we don’t need google adding to the mess

    • chris says:

      Absolutely. When I had my Droid, I didn’t bother searching for ANYTHING through the Android Market on my phone. I’d go to Google and search for the type of app I was looking for, or for app recommendations, and then I’d search for the app within the Android Market. With the iPhone, I do that as well, but I also spend a lot of time in iTunes or the App Store itself because it makes it so easy.

      Apple understands that, while function is very important, form is what gets products in the hands of most consumers, and they have done a VERY good job of exploiting that.

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