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Cat cafes and escapes in outer space: New Zealand studios Runaway and Flightless launch new games

Ever wanted to open a cat cafe, but would rather not deal with kitty litter and furballs? Never fear: Dunedin-based games studio Runaway lets you experience such a life vicariously with their newest free mobile game – which just so happens to be bringing worldwide attention to Aotearoa’s burgeoning games industry. PLUS: Mount Maunganui-based Flightless’ new cross-platform game, Element.

It’s fair to say the team at Dunedin-based games studio Runaway have been busy. After all, following the runaway success of their VR game Flutter last year, and a visit by none other than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, they launched the #GirlsBehindTheGames campaign which highlighted women working in the games industry and went viral worldwide thanks to the support from some of the largest games studios on the planet.

Now they’re earning more rave reviews for their newest free-to-play mobile game, Furistas Cat Cafe, which already has achieved an “app of the day” accolade from Apple.

Released worldwide on July 26, on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, Furistas Cat Café allows players to adopt cats and ethically run a cat café. Not only does the game encourage adoption and ethical pet ownership, but the cats featured in the game are based on real life cats belonging to Runaway staff and their friends or cats at local shelters.

The company is also forming partnerships with local cat rescue charities, including a relationship with Cat Rescue Dunedin and Ombrellos Cafe – to run a Pop Up Cat Café to celebrate the launch of the game, with funds raised going to support the rescue and care of cats.

Runaway creative director, Emma Johansson says although Runaway’s success seems sudden, the studio has actually been around for eight years. She attributes the studio’s success to their strong adherence to core brand values, passionate staff, and emphasis on fun and inclusion.

“Runaway’s parent company is Natural History New Zealand, a television company who make natural history content,” she explains.

“This meant that Runaway had a very clearly defined brand from day one – to make mobile games inspired by nature. Alongside this, we have made three casual titles with over 10 million downloads, and have had the chance to iterate and learn from our designs.”

Check out this podcast with Runaway's Zoe Hobson and Emma Johansson on VR, feminism and gaming in New Zealand:

She adds that the team also work really hard to ensure our staff work on games that they are truly passionate about. 

"The Furistas team is a mix of the studio’s senior design talent as well as staff members who truly love cats. This mix of experience and true passion is key.”

Three of Runaway’s mobile games (Flutter: Butterfly Sanctuary, Flutter: Starlight and Splash: Ocean Sanctuary) are played by more than a quarter of a million players each month around the world. Runaway also have a mobile VR title, Flutter VR, made for Daydream by Google. With the casual gaming market expected to reach $70.3 billion in revenue this year, it would also seem to be a lucrative industry, even without Runaway’s contest for players to have their own cat appear in Furistas Cat Café (more about the contest, which bears some similarities in terms of how it works to the Idealog + Blunt + Generator Umbrella Experiment from earlier this year, here).

But Runaway isn’t the only New Zealand games studio making waves lately with new releases.

On 27 July, after four years of development, Mount Maunganui-based Flightless released Element for Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac and Linux.

In short, Element is a real-time strategy space game for people who don't have time to play real-time strategy space games. Such a seemingly oxymoronic concept works by making accessible and understandable to people with minimal real-time strategy experience – meaning they don’t have to invest hours upon hours learning how the game works to get started.

Available for download worldwide from Steam and on the Nintendo eShop in North America, Europe, Australia and of course New Zealand, the game will also be available for iPhone, iPad, and Android.

In Element, players attempt to escape a decaying solar system. They must visit each planet, mine enough element, and defeat enemies to progress to  outer planets and beyond. “Element distills down what an RTS (real-time strategy) game is,” says Flightless creative director John O’Reilly.

“I think we’ve managed to create something that is a bite-sized experience, but still fun and challenging with a design edge to the aesthetic.”

Element supports a wide range of systems and capabilities, from normal desktop computers to full specialised gaming rigs, mobile phones and tablets, and of course game consoles. For Nintendo Switch, it fully supports Joy-Con and touch input, multiple user accounts, and can be played handheld or docked. Element for desktop supports 4K+ monitors, keyboard and mouse, touch, and native game controllers, with rumble and lighting effects. The Steam version also supports cloud saves and trading cards.

Greg Harding, Flightless’ technical director, says such a multi-platform approach was deliberate. “Element was designed from the ground up to be cross-platform,” he says. “We worked hard to craft our take on the real-time strategy genre and make the experience smooth across traditional desktops and smaller screens using touch input and game controllers.”

An interesting thing about Element, too, is that Flightless is far more than a games studio; in fact, it’s much better known for being a multi-award-winning design and development firm producing digital content, interactive software and immersive installations for commissions large and small, across museum and visitor experiences, games and moving image, online and the visual arts.

Flightless and Runaway’s success comes after it was revealed that New Zealand’s game development revenue cracked $100 million for the first time last year. “Much of our success to date comes from creating our own original creative IP and self-publishing it,” New Zealand Game Developers Association chairperson and lead game designer at Weta Workshop and Magic Leap James Everett said at the time. “Game development is a mix of two of New Zealand’s strongest sectors, creative and hi-tech. In a global digital market, New Zealand creators have the same opportunity as anyone else to compete and succeed.”

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