An Interview With Henry Truong and Victor Bui of Cat-in-a-Box Games

An Interview With Henry Truong and Victor Bui of Cat-in-a-Box Games

Hot off the release of their fourth title, Fastar!, I had a chance to interview Truong and Victor Bui of Cat-in-a-Box Games. Like their games, their answers to our questions were both entertaining and engaging. They seem like a great group of humble guys just doing what they love to do and trying to make a living from it. I’d really like to thank the team again for taking the time to answer our questions, I just barely caught Victor before he was taking off on a plane bound for London and unfortunately John (Kooistra) was busy trying to stay alive while canoeing at the time.

Hello Henry and Victor, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for our readers. First off congratulations on the immediate success of your latest title Fastar!, which has been getting a lot of favorable buzz.
Since Henry was the “brains” behind this title, I’ll start with him. When did you decide that you’d like to transform this simple game that you conceived while in University into a full-fledged action RPG Fastar! iPhone game. How long did it take? Any particular hurdles you had to overcome, like convincing the rest of the team?

[Henry] Bringing back WFR (the game Fastar! is based on) was John’s idea, actually. I was looking for a little project to get my feet wet, and he told me how he was always fond of the essence of WFR. Around the same time I had been thinking about control schemes for a side-scrolling action game, so I married the two ideas into what would become Fastar!. I’m lucky enough to work with two guys who trust me enough to take that oddball concept and run with it, supporting me throughout. Of course, every time in the future I want to try something weird and am met with ambivalence, I’m totally going to cite Fastar!‘s success as precedent. 😉

[Victor] It’s going to be hard to weird me out, Henry. I’ve known you long enough just to expect it from you. =P

[Henry] As for development time, it took longer than it really should have — I have some serious flaws as a programmer =). Probably five or six months, mostly me working alone with John and Victor coming in to support towards the end, and interspersed with other tasks, like audio work for Red Conquest.

On your blog you say, “We call ourselves Cat-in-a-Box, but really, there’s three cats in this here box. Blue Defense, Blue Attack and Red Conquest are “John games”; they’re his brainchildren and they exude his personality. Fastar! is our first “Henry game”. You’ve not yet seen a “Victor game”, but they’re coming. Everyone works on every game, but each game’s soul comes from just one of us.” Before Fastar!’s well embraced launch, did you have any fears of how your fans would react to such a huge departure from the theme/style of your previous titles?

[Henry] Absocompletely. (I really do that when I talk. Now you know where “Gifrigginormous” comes from.) All the press leading up to Fastar!‘s release — and some of it now, still — refers to Fastar! as the next game from John Kooistra, which I have no problem with, since it gets us positive attention based on his reputation. But yes, I was worried that I might end up ruining his good rep with my wacky little sloppy doodle button masher! Fortunately, Fastar! seems to be well-liked, and for those who do prefer John’s style, they’ve got Blue Defense: Second Wave coming very soon, and it looks fantastic. But the idea that we would have John games and Henry games and Victor games each being different, that was always the plan for Cat-in-a-Box. Fastar! was just the first non-John game.

Now that you have several successful titles on the app store do you find that development time is quicker because of experience, or longer due to the high quality that fans have come to expect from a Cat-in-a-Box title? Do you feel like you can take more risks, like Fastar! for instance?

[Henry] Heh, we’re in a weird spot to be answering that question. Our last project was Red Conquest, which took way longer than we wanted, mainly just from underestimating how long it would take — and it’s still not done! But through that development we started to lay the groundwork for our future titles, and now we’re in a much better position for our coming projects. (You should have seen how fast John got Blue Defense: Second Wave put together. I swear, he was at the brainstorming phase, and then I think I blinked, and suddenly I was playing it, with UI and levels and everything. He’s a monster.)

[Victor] Red Conquest: Episode 1 ended up being a technical monster, but we gained a lot from that experience; the lessons learned from that game were the basis for the foundation on which Fastar was built. I can’t say that development time will be any quicker for our future titles, but I do think that with what we have, we’ll spend less time with technical work and more time with spit and polish. =) ]

[Henry] As for taking risks, again we’re in a weird spot for that question, since Red Conquest was a pretty big risk for us, I think, with mixed results. Fastar! was never intended to be a risky project, but instead a short (ha!) little thing I could use as a springboard into something larger. I didn’t expect it to be as successful as it has been, but it never felt like we were betting the farm on it or anything. As for whether it was a creative risk, well, in my view, that’s the whole point of being creative, isn’t it?

[Victor] I personally believe that if we’re not taking financial risks with our projects, then we’re not really indie developers. =P

What is your creative process, was the way you went about developing Fastar! drastically different from your previous titles? You obviously each have very different ideas, so how do you decide which project to work on next? Are you each fairly independent, or is it more of a group effort?

[Henry] I’m not sure I personally have a creative process — that makes it sound like I have experience or something — but I try to stick to a general guideline: remember the essential “heart” of the idea that compelled you to start the project in the first place, and never lose sight of it. I knew what kind of animal Fastar! would be as soon as we picked the first concept sketch, and while the gameplay design fluctuated a lot in development, its personality was always the same.

Because we started working at Cat-in-a-Box at different times (John was first, Victor second, me last), and because we mostly collaborate online, it sort of naturally ended up that we each have our own project we look after, drawing on each other’s skills as needed, and I think that’s a good thing, to have a single person in charge of each project’s vision. I could never make a John game or a Victor game.

Other than the sequel to Blue Defense can you give us a sneak peak into future titles from Cat-in-a-Box; what crazyness will be unleashed from the mind of Victor and will this take the company in yet another wild and unseen direction? Has the introduction of the iPad and new features/capabilities of the iPhone 4 influenced your project decisions?

[Henry] Well, we still have two more episodes of Red Conquest to put out, which I think is next on John’s plate. Victor has been doing a lot of fantastic support work for us until recently, but he’s finally getting a chance to start up a game project of his own and I’m eager to see what he turns out.

[Victor] The framework and supporting tools were a lot of fun to write, but now that most of the stuff has matured, I can focus my attention on creative development. I want to provide a glimpse of another world, so I hope with all my heart that I’m capable of such a feat.

[Henry] As for me, I’m notorious for being secretive about my projects, but I’m also notorious for dropping vague statements about them. =) My next project is one I’m quite excited to have been given the opportunity to do, and is definitely inspired in part by the iPad. The project I’m looking at after that is very specifically for the iPhone, and it’s unconventional enough that the prospect of sitting down to design it actually frightens me. And neither one will look a thing like Fastar!

Finally, what games (other than your own) do you guys play the most, which are your current go-to tiltes on your own iDevices?

[Henry] Oh man, this is totally going to unmask me as a lame-ass gamer. =) I find myself going back to Pinball HD a lot, because I’m very fond of pinball, even though I’m terrible at it, and it scares me every time I have to shake my shiny new iPad. To kill time I find myself playing Catan, Crosswords or good old Real Solitaire, but I’d probably still be playing Electric Box and 3D Mini Golf Challenge if I hadn’t devoured them in an afternoon.

Thanks again for taking the time to give us a look into your development process.

[Henry] Thanks again for coming to see it. =)