The creator of The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman, released a new cat-themed mobile word game called Kitty Letter earlier this week that feels like playing one of his silly comic strips. That feeling was intentional, Inman told me.
“My comics have always been rhetorical,” he said. “You don’t interact with the comic, you have no say in it, you’re just experiencing it. So, with [Kitty Letter], I got a chance to introduce some elements where people get to play the comic, and I thought that was a lot of fun.”
Kitty Letter has a structure that Inman described as “Scrabble combined with Clash Royale.” Your goal is to beat your opponent by spelling words from a combination of letters at the bottom of your phone’s screen. When you spell a word, you’ll send a small army of cats up an invisible “lane” toward your opponent. Meanwhile, your opponent is sending armies of cats to try and defeat you.
The game was actually going to be multiplayer-only at first, Inman told me. This might be surprising for those who’ve played the game, since it has a robust story mode spanning 13 chapters. But that story mode was born from creating the game’s tutorial, said Inman.
“I started drawing this tutorial on how to play, and then the tutorial became that single-player mode, where you have this neighbor that moves in and tells the whole story about him,” Inman said. But then, he realized, “I got in too deep. I had written all this stuff, I was like, ‘I have to end this,’ and I ended up writing like 12 chapters. But it became my favorite part of the whole thing.”
Inman also discussed the game’s free-to-play model, which is very generous. Unlike many free-to-play games, Kitty Letter’s single-player story mode and multiplayer are completely free, with no restrictions. The decision to offer all of that came from what Inman disliked about other free games.
“I play free-to-play games, but I play them because I like the games,” Inman said. “The actual mechanics involved, like grinding and unlocking chests and getting gems and coins, I hate them. I fucking hate them. If [developers] were like, ‘pay us $20 and we’ll give you everything,’ I would do that. I much prefer that model.”
The game does offer paid cosmetics for multiplayer, but they don’t provide any gameplay benefit and they’re buried in a menu. And Inman says that revenue from them has been “pretty much non-existent.”
Inman acknowledged that he can offer the game largely for free because of his other successful ventures, which include The Oatmeal and the hugely successful card game Exploding Kittens. “I’m not just some altruistic guy that doesn’t want to make a living from his work,” he said. “To be completely candid, we make a great living from our card games, and we make a great living from some of the other things that I do. With [Kitty Letter], it felt like we could just get away with making it as enjoyable as possible.
“This app more generates that currency of — and this is so fucking corny — currency of love and joy, like you have a joyful experience with the game,” he said. “So, in turn, you love Exploding Kittens more, and maybe one day, if you want to buy a card game from us, you can.” It’s a business model similar to that of The Oatmeal. Inman offers the comics for free online, but sells books and has offered merch.
“It was cats from day one”
Inman has a lot of ideas for what’s next for the game. He’d like to improve the arcade mode, add more single-player levels, and squash bugs. He’d also like to port the game to Steam and the Nintendo Switch, but those might be a little further away. “I would probably call it six months,” he said.
And I had to ask: were cats always the focus of the game?
“It was cats from day one,” Inman said. “It was called Cats Royale, originally.”