This case study follows the format established as part of my research into virtual pet design, which will culminate in the design of my own virtual pet.

Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector is a mobile game available on iOS and Android platforms which centres around building a virtual garden to attract a host of colourful cats to visit. Players purchase different types of food and furniture with either currency earned in game or purchased with real-life money; these can then be dropped into your garden, and different cats will appear over time depending on which items are available to them.

A busy garden in Neko Atsume.

A busy garden in Neko Atsume.

Neko Atsume was designed by Yutaka Takazaki of Hit-Point, and released in Japan in October 2014. The game was later translated into English by studio 8-4, and released on Western app stores in October 2015. The game proved incredibly successful, passing 5.5 million download as of July 2015, with current downloads estimated to be close to 10 million.

Illusion of life.

Neko Atsume is less concerned with creating realistic virtual animals than it is with being as cute and visually appealing as possible. Rather than create bonds with players through realistic behaviours and believable agents, the game instead relies of its colourful cast of cats and their undeniably appealing animations to engage its audience.

The game’s aesthetic is very obviously Japanese; the character design adheres closely to the standards of the kawaii style, using strong lines and minimal detail to create expressive cats with an emphasis on cuteness. This simplified design makes each cat easy to distinguish on a small screen, and makes each design easily identifiable, despite the fact that the only visual difference between many of the cats is their colour and markings.

The inherent visual appeal of the cat designs is enhanced by simple yet effective animations, which differ depending on which item the cat is using or playing with. Much of the appeal of the game comes from acquiring new items to see how the cats interact them.

There are 58 cats available in the game at the time of writing, with the emphasis being on trying to attract all of them in order to fill a cat encyclopaedia, apparently taking inspiration from the Pokemon-style collect-’em-all design. Of these 58, 20 are ‘rare’ cats, which have unique visual styles often based on real-life celebrities. While standard cats share the same animations for all toys, certain rare cats can only be attracted with specific items, and have unique animations to match.

The game's rare cats have distinct visual types and personalities.

The game’s rare cats have distinct visual types and personalities.

The draw of the game is very much centred on creating the most appealing garden in order to view the greatest possible range of cats and observe their behaviours as they interact with the scene.

Interaction design.

Neko Atsume is not a virtual pet game in the traditional sense – there’s actually no way for the player to interact with the cats directly. Instead, players have control over their garden space, placing items that are most likely to attract the cats they want. Players first choose a ‘theme’ for their garden, from a base selection that can be expanded by expending either real or in-game currency. They then purchase food and items, and choose where to place them in the garden.

All of this is achieved with a minimal interface that makes the most of commonly-understood touch screen gestures to make operating the software feel natural and unobtrusive. All information is communicated visually wherever possible; there is almost no text in the game aside from cat names and item descriptions, neither of which are crucial to enjoying the game. This lack of reliance on language may go some way to explaining the original Japanese game’s popularity in English speaking countries, before the English language version of the game was available. The very visual nature of the interface design minimises the language barrier.

The game's menu interfaces are all very visual-focused.

The game’s menu interfaces are all very visual-focused.

In order to attract cats, a player must have some food available and at least one toy in their garden. While this is true, cats will arrive periodically in the garden. When cats are present, the supply of food slowly drains, so players have to keep an eye on their food level to keep cats coming to visit. This leads to a relaxed style of play that encourages players to keep checking into the game every hour or so, to keep their food topped up and see which cats are currently visiting the garden.

There is no real challenge to the game; as Elizabeth Lopatto writes for The Verge, ‘the stakes couldn’t possibly be lower.‘ There’s no penalty for forgetting to put food out; Neko Atsume doesn’t employ the ‘guilt’ mechanic common to many virtual pets. Virtual pet games from Tamagotchi to Boo attempt to guilt players into returning to the game by showing obviously distressed or depressed pets if they do not. In Neko Atsume, if the player doesn’t put food out cats simply won’t show up; as soon as the food is refilled the cats will return, as happy as ever.

Golden fish are Neko Assume's premium currency, purchasable with microtransactions.

Golden fish are Neko Assume’s premium currency, purchasable with microtransactions.

Progression is controlled by a dual currency system, which ties into the game’s monetisation mechanic. Players collect two types of currency; silver fish, which are left by cats every time they visit the garden, and gold fish, which can also be left by cats, but rarely and in small amounts. Players can buy gold fish with real life money via microtransactions; silver fish can only be collected from cats.

Most items in the game can be purchased with either silver or gold fish. Certain rare items can only be purchased with gold fish. There are also upgrades to the size of the garden (allowing the player to place more items and attract more cats) and additional cosmetic themes which can be purchased with gold fish.

Like everything else in the design, the game takes a relaxed approach to monetisation. There is no pressure to spend money, and the special items are relatively inexpensive. The premium currency can’t be purchased in huge single payments, with a high-end purchase around £3.99, and the player feels able to make the most of the premium options by only spending a few pounds in total. It’s a fair and moderate monetisation implementation that relies on players being engaged enough by the base game to be willing to spend a small amount to upgrade their experience – mostly cosmetically.

Social factors.

The game has proven to be phenomenally successful; while there’s no publicly available data on the amount of money the game has made to date, with downloads allegedly approaching 10 million it’s an undeniable hit. The game amassed a large western following while it was only officially available in Japan. The release of the official English version was met with much excitement, and the game has continued to amass downloads in both Western and Japanese markets.

The game has spawned numerous fan sites, with a focus on fan art and unofficial merchandise. The level of engagement with the game’s character designs speaks to the strength of the art style and the inherent appeal of the cats themselves. These fan pages are so popular that the game has since spawned a range of official merchandise and, improbably, a live-action movie adaption, due out next year in Japan.

Quantifying exactly what has made the game so successful is difficult. Even the game’s creator didn’t foresee its eventual popularity; Takazaki revealed in an interview that Hit-Point only expected the game to reach around 50,000 downloads annually. “We created a game that even children can understand and play,” he said. “Honestly speaking, I don’t understand why it became so popular.”

Bu using icon-heavy menu design, the game managed to largely sidestep the problem of a language barrier.

Bu using icon-heavy menu design, the game manages to largely sidestep the problem of a language barrier.

Some of the game’s popularity can undoubtedly be put down to the simplicity and accessibility of its design. The fact that it can be easily understood and played regardless of language had a big impact on its initial success outside of Japan. Its relaxed attitude to gameplay means it can be picked up and played casually by almost anyone, regardless of game experience, and it never pushes its monetisation in a way that feels intrusive or could put players off.

A likely second reason for the game’s popularity is the inherent appeal of its cast of cats. The cats are designed in such a way that they are just appealing to look at, a key element of kawaii design. Sammy Nickalls writes about the appeal of cats as game characters, and as popular animals on the internet in general. The inherent appeal of cats combined with the simple and engaging design likely has a lot to do with the impact Neko Atsume has had on an audience that’s approaching 10 million users.

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