Game Design Breakdown: The Simplicity of Neko Atsume

Want to make a game? Keep it simple.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when creating games is that they overcomplicate the design of game systems and mechanics. This not only adds more features that need to be built, but it also requires that the user understand each system and how they work together. The process of explaining complicated game systems or mechanics is an endeavor in itself.

A fun game doesn’t need a ton of game systems to be interesting and effective at getting players to return to it.

I’ll break down the once super popular cat collection game, Neko Atsume, to demonstrate that game systems don’t have to be complex to be engaging.

Simple Game Systems

Neko Atsume is an easy-to-learn game that acquired over 10,000,000 players on Google Play alone. It has a simple onboarding that asks you to background the app to demonstrate how cats wander into your yard when you put food out. At that point, the cats give the player currency when they leave, and that’s really all that’s needed to teach the player how to progress in the game. The remaining information is easy for the player to obtain by exploring the shop with their fish and gold fish to purchase goodies to attract different cats.

The basic gameflow of Neko Atsume is this:

There are only a few different gameplay systems at play here:

  1. Placing goodies — This requires some tradeoffs on the player’s part, as the garden has limited space to place goodies.
  2. Collecting currency — The player collects currency over time, but this resource is sunk into the goodies and food.
  3. Cat collection — This offers the players a sense of progression, and all the features within the Catbook, like photos, offer players more content to collect than just the cats themselves.
  4. Food timer — This retains the player. They must return to the game to place food in order to have cats return to their garden.

Here’s how all the systems work together to provide an engagement loop:

Because there are fewer game systems in the game, there are also fewer opportunities for leaks within the systems. Players are retained because they can easily understand the game, and there’s an obvious progression of collection which demonstrates a reason to return. Neko also rewards the player for coming back sooner, since the more they place food, the more cats and currency they’ll be rewarded with.

When designing a game, once a game loop has been defined, it’s helpful to make note of all the places where the element of chance can be tuned. The element of chance is the opportunity for monetization and timed events, which are important in any live games, whether they are VR, mobile, or any other platform.

In Neko Atsume, the places where the designer would need to tune chance are:

Simple Acquisition Strategies

The simplicity of these game systems, along with the cute and charming aesthetic that can easily be shared, optimized for the acquisition of players. There’s not a ton for the player to learn and the game is charming and guilt-free.

An in-game camera feature was a smart move by the developer to encourage people to share their cute cat photos with their friends, who may not have tried the game yet.

Even the monetization strategies the developer employs are guilt-free. You can optionally view an ad that is brought to you by a kitty, or purchase fish in order to buy more goodies.

Can we also take a moment to appreciate the simplicity of the artwork of this plant? It reminds me of the low poly gopher in World of Warcraft. It’s stylish and fits with the aesthetic, so no one pays it any mind. Just goes to show that even if an aesthetic is simple, as long as it’s cohesive, it will draw players in with its style.

So the game is pretty simple, but what makes it fun?

  • Choice. You can pick and choose what you want to put in your garden. You can theme it, or add things to strategically get rare cats.
  • No guilt or pressure. If you put food out, the cats will come. If you don’t, then nothing bad happens. There is no pressure to complete any real goals in any timeframe, the game is open-ended.
  • Sharabilty. Based on your choices, you have some cute photos to share with your friends. The in-game camera feature encourages sharing.
  • Style. The game is cute! There’s a stylized aesthetic with a charming narrative and theme.

How does this apply to your game? How do you keep it simple?

Instead of making super complicated systems, start your game out small. Cut anything from the core game loop as you’re starting off, and iterate once you’ve implemented the core game loop. Some suggestions:

  • Make a chart of the systems in the core game loop, starting with each of the main objects with a software like Lucidchart or Visio. In this case, it’s the cats, garden, catbook, and resources. Start linking them to each other and identify any leaks in the system.
  • Further iterate on those systems by getting specific about how chance and player strategy affect your gameplay. You can simulate economy and systems without implementing them. Try it out, and cut what you think doesn’t work, support the core loop, or isn’t linked to a direct reward loop for the player.
  • Build those core systems out. Playtest them, and iterate. Slot other ideas for post-launch, or at least until you build the core game systems out and find the “fun” and any loop or UX issues that may arise.

The simplest of games are typically the most successful. It’s easy to do a market comparison on other games and see that they have so many features. But a lot of live games that have been around for years tend to have a lot added to them over time. They didn’t ship with all of those features. When shipping, it’s about the core loop and the player sensing some progression over time.

Focusing on these things will ensure a fun, successful game!

game designer | writing about game design & product leadership | current: Niantic, prev: Oculus | twitter: @flexmandeville