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Mikan House creates a new gaming adventure

Posted on February 15, 2024 by Taber Times
Times Photo Submitted.

By Cal Braid
Taber Times
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A local group of video game developers have set out to make their mark on the gaming scene, and their ambitions are large. Mikan House Inc. is an indie game studio spearheaded by Donna Sato of Vauxhall. She started the company in Oct. 2022 and worked to create a game that embodies her love of cats. Sato is the president and game designer and has a team of six working with her filling the roles of level designer, programmer, concept artist, animator, media designer, and marketing coordinator. The project began “kind of by accident” after Sato applied for a grant just for fun and to see what the outcome would be. She received that grant, and after the startup, she brought two partners on board to help her. They pivoted from their original concept and moved in a new direction as the result of a personal loss. “My cat had passed away from cancer around that time, so I wanted to build a game that was kind of a tribute to her. The main character is named after her,” Sato said.

“The game is called Neko House,” she said. “Neko means cat in Japanese. It’s a cat shelter game where Mikan, the main player, goes out and rescues other cats from the village. It’s kind of two-fold. The object of the game is to adopt out as many cats as possible. We’re also hoping to educate people about what it’s like to adopt a cat and care for them. It’s very different than getting one at a pet shop.”

“The other part is more on the fantasy side; we have a little bit of a battle structure, where if a cat is being abused, the main character goes and fights the abuser and brings (the cat) back to the shelter. Our hope, if we get production to a certain level, is to have a feature where we can connect people directly to shelters. So they could purchase items within the game where a portion of the proceeds goes straight to the shelter.”

Kiri Stolz, marketing coordinator for the project, said, “If I were to compare it to anything,  I would say a similar game that’s quite popular would be Stardew Valley. It’s not a farming simulator, but it is a bit of asset resource management, with bringing cats into the shelter,  adopting them out and making money so that you can improve things there. There’s also an addition to the shelter that’s going to be a cat cafe that you can also use to make money. And then there’s going to be some story elements where certain cats have broader storylines that you end up working through. Hopefully they tug your heartstrings a little bit.”

The game isn’t a finished product yet but is on its way. Sato said, “Games take a really long time to build. On average it’s about two to three years. We’re almost done with our playable demo. We’re about a month away from getting that done. People will be able to play a simplistic version of it and the basic gameplay will all be there.”

Stolz further explained the demo, saying, “A good way to describe it is as a vertical slice of all the features that we’re planning to implement, but in a compressed 10-minute demo. When we expand that, we already have a lot of the features built, so we just sort of add to it at that point and grow the world.”

The project vision aligned with available grant money, and Stolz said, “A lot of the grants that we’ve accessed have been around social impact, because there is a social impact aspect to the game. We’re seeking to connect with local shelters and adoption centers for animals–mostly cats–because it’s a cat-themed game. They would be able to connect with potential adoptees through the game. So the social impact aspect is about partnering with these shelters, and those would be our partner clients, but then on top of that we could also have paying clients use parts of this to make their own project as well.”

Creativity, passion, tech skills and business acumen are all part of the group’s recipe for success. Sato said one of the biggest mistakes that a lot of indie game companies make is that they don’t start marketing until they’re ready to sell the product. “With any product I think you should be marketing from early on. With our game we don’t just want to build a game, we want to build a brand. We’re hoping that people will fall in love with our main character Mikan, and that we’ll be able to do other things like animation and merchandise. It’s a big aspiration.”

She used Super Mario World, a game made in the 1980s, as an example. “They’re still milking that thing,” she said, “and it’s because they built such an amazing character and they have such great intellectual property around it.”

Stolz said, “Games need publishers. We’re developing the game but we need someone to back it. We’re talking to different people to see if they would take us on. In addition to that, we’ll be launching the playable demo and some other material including a video that you can check out and some screenshots of what it could look like through Steam, which is a game publishing platform. We’re also going to be creating some other promotional materials so we’ll be going to YouTube, Tik Tok, and Instagram and sharing both the progress of the game getting built and also sharing Mikan as a character and bringing her to life.”

For local marketing, they’ll attend an event called the High Level Innovation Conference at Exhibition Park in Lethbridge on May 3 and 4. “We’ll have a booth there,” Sato said. “Geekfest is also at the same time so we’ll be having two booths. If anyone wants to check us out we’ll be there.” For those unfamiliar with Geekfest, Stolz laughed and said, “That’s okay. It’s a place for nerds. It’s a safe haven. We’re really looking forward to that.”

Though Sato is the entrepreneur and project leader, she is intent on maintaining a spirit of collaboration and equality on her team. “Even though I’m the person that’s running the finances and the business portion, I’ve never once thought of this game as my game. It’s everybody’s. I hope that I’ve made a comfortable environment where  everyone feels like they can express how they feel.”

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