In our previous interview with Tariq Mukhttar, he talked about the indie game development scene in Saudi Arabia. His heavy involvement with the community doesn't prevent him from working on his own games, though, and this second part is about his game in development, A Cat's Manor. Due out in Q1 2017 on PC, with console and mobile releases to follow, the puzzle-heavy adventure game reached #8 in the Steam Greenlight rankings before being accepted.
While marketing his first breakout hit in the region, a game made in three weeks to capitalize on a football team's historic comeback, he encountered folks from Sony Saudi Arabia. They told him about Sony's annual Gamers Day convention and invited him to participate.
"I took it as a chance to learn a new game engine and programming language," says Mukhttar. Although the game was originally developed in the Unreal engine, he switched to the locally popular Unity so that he could promote discussion within his community and learn from others. "I developed a precursor to A Cat's Manor in two months, and the reception was very positive at the convention. The next two years were spent upgrading and improving the game."
The inspiration for the game sprung from Mukhttar's experience of living in a house with twenty-four cats. "Having the cat as a protagonist was a no brainer," he says. "Then the go-to genre for beginner gamedevs [is] platform games, so it was a natural fit. But then my tendencies for the creepy had me populate the then-first location of the game with a stereotypical, eccentric, crazy family. By then, I'd drifted away from a platform style game to more of a puzzle adventure type. The game started to take on a life of its own."
Mukhttar takes an iterative approach to level design, starting with an environment that mirrors real life settings. "Then you make changes so that it facilitates a few things: allow reasonable flow of gameplay, provide logical story flow, and hide technical issues," he explains. "Midway through development I employed the 8 Point Story Arc methodology to test how well the narrative plays out. It forced me to make some big changes to the level design. Ones I'm glad I did, as the story plays out better for them."
His favorite things about developing A Cat's Manor are creating the world and doing animation. "I just enjoy these two activities most. Just creating the creepy world the characters inhabit with all its little audio, visual details is so enjoyable. Trees slowly [swaying] in the howling wind, grass that reacts to movement, an ominous grandfather clock, creaky attics, dangling chains, and dripping water," says Mukhttar.
"Then I have an obsession with smooth animation that's full of personality. The dancing and waltzing, the irritated shivering of limbs, the fancy and unnecessary footwork, and uncomfortable smirks and smiles," he continues. "I get such a joy out of seeing them come alive!"
Aside from the inclusion of Arabic subtitles, he doesn't feel like the game is particularly Saudi Arabian at all. "This a game built from the ground up for the western market," says Mukhttar. "If anything, my Saudi experience is holding me back. I have removed elements and themes which are regarded offensive and sinful from the game for fear it would hurt my reputation in my country. The game was a lot darker than it is now. Arabic games that are successful in Saudi Arabia are tightly grouped around football, racing, card games, and online strategy."
Catching up with western standards of quality is one hurdle Mukhttar seeks to overcome. "I need to elevate the game from the status of local Arab amateur mobile game to high quality global console game standard," he says. "Something that looks like a celebrated indie next-gen game. Things like soundtrack, voiceovers, tons of animation to give the game life and appeal. All the while staying true to its creepy, cute aesthetics."
Although learning Unity and C# has been a challenge for Mukhttar, he says the biggest challenge is getting certified for consoles. "Either your country is not supported or recognized, or some requirements are obscenely expensive in this part of the world, or some require legal documents simply doesn't exist here! For instance, telecommunication services are abysmal," he says. "There is no concept of shared or creative workspaces for indies to setup and work in. Legal and business papers and registrations are in Arabic, not English."