Race Cat Games’ CN Match Land is my most played game of 2018. I’ve played it pretty much every single day since it launched earlier this year.
I’m addicted to the fast-paced matching action, the adorable pixel art and the overarching RPG elements like levelling up my heroes, shops and building the best team. It’s one of the most polished mobile games I’ve ever played, and the core gameplay is so mesmerizing it has a Tetris effect on me where I see matches in my mind when I close my eyes at night.
I was surprised to learn that CN Match Land is a reskin of Race Cat Games’ first game Match Land, which released in 2017. I wanted to know more about the team behind it, how they got hooked up with Cartoon Network for the reskin and how they stand out in the oversaturated Match-3 genre on the equally oversaturated mobile market.
Chris Savory is the co-creator of Match Land and CN Match Land as well as the co-founder of Race Cat Games. He works with his team around the world remotely from his home in Vancouver, Canada.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
[Stephan] What educational background did you have when you started designing games?
[Chris] I went to Vancouver Film School (VFS) for Game Design. From there I got a job in QA and worked my way up to design positions before quitting to pursue an indie career.
[Stephan] Were you interested in games as a child, and if so what were some of your favourite?
[Chris] My dad brought home an SNES when I was 6 years old with Paperboy 2. My life was never the same after that. I obsessively played SNES and N64 my entire childhood. My favourites would include The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario World, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 4, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye 007.
[Stephan] What inspired you to get into game design? Did you always want to work in games or was it something you came to later in your career?
[Chris] I definitely loved games my entire life but did not know it could be an actual career until much later. I was working at Telus (a phone company in Canada) and a customer walked in who was a teacher at VFS. He told me a school had just started that could teach you game design and, well, I was sold!
[Stephan] How did Team Race Cat get started (and where did the name come from)?
[Chris] Race Cat is a two-person team with my friend Rafael, though we’ve worked exclusively with two main contractors in Tori Dang (Pixel Art) and Matt Creamer (Audio). We met through a mutual friend and both had quit our jobs to go independent. After a few solo games each we decided to team up and raise the stakes. The name comes from our very first game idea that we had come up with while drinking at a bar. Racing games were big on mobile at the time and we thought instead of Fast & the Furious we could do a similar game with backyard cat racing. The next morning, we came to our senses and buried that idea as far down as it would go. Fast forward a year and we found ourselves digging it back up to use but thankfully only in our company name.
[Stephan] What were some inspirations you drew on for Match Land and/or CN Match Land?
[Chris] There are two main games that inspired Match Land. The first is a game called Spooky Pop which was made by Supercell. It only came out as a limited launch in Canada before being cancelled. They had similar action match-3 gameplay and it really hooked us as something new that would differentiate us from the crowd. The second is a game called Zombie Catchers which was made by Two Men and a Dog. This game had such a clever and creative theme that involved catching zombies and turning them into different kinds of slushies. The idea of catching enemies as resources really stuck with us and well you can see that all throughout Match Land.
[Stephan] How do you approach designing a game in a genre with so many low-quality copy-and-paste titles such as the Match-3? How do you make something unique and exciting?
[Chris] We knew right away that we had three major differences from other matching games. The first was our action/turn-based gameplay that let users make multiple matches in a short time limit but still remain turn-based. This immediately would hook most players at least for a few levels. The second was our theme and the fact that you were building up a medieval market instead of simply moving along nodes on a map. The third was our pixel art aesthetic. Giving the game an indie/pixel look would separate us from the high gloss candy crush and farm heroes’ games. These three pillars let us design the rest of the game free of worry that we’d be too similar to anyone else.
[Stephan] Why did Team Race Cat decide to develop for mobile?
[Chris] We never seriously considered any other platforms. We both previously worked at mobile companies (DeNA and Kabam) and absolutely love the idea that billions of people around the world can download and play our work for free in a matter of seconds. I don’t play console games anymore myself and rarely use Steam aside from some CSGO. We are primarily driven by getting as many people as possible to play our games and to be honest, revenue potential for mobile is also a key motivating factor over other platforms.
[Stephan] How did Team Race Cat get connected with Cartoon Network? Were CN fans of the original Match Land or did you pitch the redesign to them?
[Chris] Precisely. Someone from Cartoon Network reached out to me on LinkedIn after Match Land had launched and said if we ever wanted to considering working with them that they’d be interested. Things quickly progressed and a year later we had completely redone Match Land in a Cartoon Network skin.
[Stephan] What other major changes did Team Race Cat make between the original Match Land and CN Match Land aside from the obvious visual change and being able to move pieces diagonally?
[Chris] Cartoon Network was clear from the start that they did not want us to make any drastic changes to the game and there was even some debate about diagonal movements. They really loved Match Land exactly as is and wanted a CN version. It took longer than expected to visually revamp the game but mechanically they are almost identical. We made some refinements that we have since brought over to the original Match Land but nothing major.
[Stephan] Did Team Race Cat receive any criticisms about taking their existing game and “reskinning it with Cartoon Network IPs” or anything like that? If so, how do they respond to those criticisms?
[Chris] I think some people were surprised it was not a complete sequel and instead just a reskin. The original Match Land has a little over a million downloads lifetime so doing a reskin that would expand to many more millions of users was enticing to us. Essentially, we felt 99% of our CN Match Land users would have never played Match Land before so doing sweeping changes for the sake of being different from the original was silly.
[Stephan] What do you see as the challenges and opportunities unique to the mobile market?
[Chris] The main challenge, and I’m sure it’s similar on Steam just not to the same degree, is the over saturation. There are just so many games released every single day and so few of them make significant income. It is hard to gain meaningful exposure, although, I think Apple does an absolutely phenomenal job of turning the spotlight on indie games and developers much more than Google. I can’t think of much else as I believe mobile is an excellent platform to thrive on as an indie developer. I’m sure people will disagree, but, the fact that one developer can release a game on the App Store for minimal cost in just a few months and get a feature from Apple and earn significant income is something special to me that we should not take for granted.
[Stephan] How does Team Race Cat make their games stand out in the saturated mobile market?
[Chris] We like theme and polish. Thematically we love games like Soda Dungeon and Disco Zoo that are simple addicting games matched with a quirky and attention-grabbing theme. We spent a lot of time working on theme and think it’s probably the single easiest way to stand out from the more high production larger studio games. The second is game polish. We strive so hard to create polished games. Nintendo is king in that world and we are constantly referencing their games. If you choose to download Match Land we don’t want to lose you in the first 2 minutes so everything has to be Nintendo level smooth. We also want users to feel good about spending money in our game and polish is the key ingredient in encouraging that feeling. Basically, just emulate Nintendo and Supercell! 😅
[Stephan] What’s next for Team Race Cat? It was a year between Match Land and CN Match Land, can we expect your next game in Spring 2019?
[Chris] We actually have no concrete plans. We are still updating both games and have just launched a massive content update for the original Match Land. We will bring this over to CN Match Land soon and then who knows. Making a brand-new game is a daunting task and I’m not sure we’re up for it just yet.
[Stephan] What’s one thing you wish you knew at the start of your career that you know now?
[Chris] For me personally, one thing I wish I knew, not necessarily at the very start of my career but definitely earlier on than I did is how relatively easy it is to program and develop a mobile game by yourself and get it on the App Store. I’m not a technical person in any way and had never tried programming until the day I quit my job (smart, I know!) but within 30 days of quitting I had a finished game on the App Store. It wasn’t good, but it was finished and it gave me the encouragement and had broken down all the barriers I needed to start making better stuff. Unity is a godsend of a development tool and no matter how bad you are at programming you can still get the game finished, working, and published. Had I known just how possible all of this was I likely would have went indie a lot sooner.
[Stephan] Is there anything else you want people to know about you, your work or about game design?
[Chris] Not particularly but thank you for the interview, Stephan. If anyone has any feedback or thoughts on Match Land or just being indie in general, please feel free to reach me at email@example.com and I’d be happy to respond.
Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in Chris’s work you should follow him on Twitter @savorygames and follow Race Cat Games @racecatgames. You can play CN Match Land as well as the original Match Land on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store right now!
If you want to read some of my other interviews check out my interview with IGF award winner Mattias “D!TTØ” Dittrich, my interview with RunGunJumpGun‘s music, sound and story designer Jordan Bloemen or my interview with totally rad Swedish indie developer Dead Toast Entertainment, a solo developer releasing the highly anticipated My Friend Pedro: Blood Bullets Bananas with Devolver Digital.