Catch 22 marks first PAX 10 indie Facebook game

This year, Penny Arcade’s carefully curated showcase of independent games PAX 10 will for the first time include a game set to release on Facebook, Catch 22.

In Catch 22 a small green sphere spins around the surface of a “planet.” The player clicks (or taps) the screen to make the green sphere jump to collect yellow pickups and avoid another blue sphere that orbits the planet in the oncoming direction. When you collect a set of yellow pickups you take control of the blue sphere, which you must then maneuver to avoid the path of the green sphere you’ve just set. Collect another set of yellow pickups and the tables turn again; now you’re controlling the green sphere again, avoiding the path of the blue sphere which was avoiding the first path of the green sphere. And so on, ad infinitum, or until the spheres crash into each other, which will happen early and often.

If the above description seems a little disorienting it’s because that’s what playing Catch 22 feels like. It’s like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time, but in a good way.

When it’s released on Facebook and the Apple App Store on September 1, Catch 22 will have gone through only four months of development, a very short period of time even when compared with other small, independent games. Even more impressive is that much of Catch 22 was developed in a mere 48 hours by four people, Roel Bartstra, Marlon Etheredge, Sander Brattinga (no longer with the team) and Guus Hoeve, who together formed Mango Down!

The three amateur Dutch developers got together for the Global Game Jam 2012 in Amsterdam. A video featuring developers like Will Wright and John Romero kicked off the competition and introduced its theme: uruburos, the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail. “It made us want to make a game in which you’re playing against yourself, where you were actually making it harder for yourself,” Hoeve told us in an interview.

Etheredge, Hoeve and Barstra had the basic concept down by the time they got back to their hotel room. 48 sleepless hours later they had a game and a prize to go along with it.

“It was the biggest surprise ever for us. We were completely beat and glad that the game was finished but for us it was a nice game, nothing more. In the weeks after when we showed the game to the public we got really good responses. We started to realize that the game is actually good. It’s really minimalistic. We realized that it can be made for any type of device, especially mobile devices because you want to play it in short bursts. We started to realize that there’s some business in it as well.”

Catch 22 is not the kind of game we expect to see on Facebook, and the developers who made it are not the types who play Facebook games. For Hoeve, for example, Facebook is just about the only platform he doesn’t play games on. “I played Mafia Wars for a bit. I thought that was a really funny to do. That’s about it, to be honest.”

But Hoeve also sees the untapped potential. “I think social games shouldn’t revolve around building cities, I think that it should be about playing together. That’s what Facebook actually says: ‘playing is a lot better with friends.’ And I think this game can be played by literally anyone. If you’re three years old or 90, there’s no target demographic. The game is really calm and serene, and the only thing that frustrates the player is the player himself. I think that concept is suitable for everyone. We really think everyone should be able to play the game for free. Not everybody has a smartphone, but everybody has internet these days. You’ll be able to play against your friends on Facebook if they don’t own a smartphone.”

Hoeve also thinks that Catch 22 is well suited for Facebook because it benefits from friendly competition, something they plan to encourage with online leaderboards.

Another reason Mango Down! is bringing Catch 22 to Facebook is that it will take relatively little effort. It was difficult to port the game to the iPhone because the standalone PC version relies on visual effects that are simply not possible on mobile devices, but once that transition was made it was easier create a Facebook version. “We actually made the mobile version the same as the Facebook version so anyone with a really crappy PC or Mac can still play the game in his browser. The Facebook and mobile version will be practically the same.”

Why don’t more independent developers try to bring their games to Facebook? It seems like an easy way for a developer to distinguish itself in two crowded markets; Catch 22 can become a very visible and easily accessible indie game by releasing on the most populist platform out there, and it also easily differentiates itself from the glut of Facebook games by virtue of not being another city building or farming sim.

“Your audience is key as an indie developer to get your game viral,” Hoeve said. “Facebook lets us integrate the best of both worlds; being a game platform and the social giant we need, and all that from within the same browser window. Sharing our game, liking our game and inviting your friends to play is just a few clicks away without leaving the site or the game. And you don’t have to have an iOS or Android device to play it, so that means you can play with everyone, everywhere.”

“The key difference is that we don’t see Facebook as direct sales, but indirect. Therefore the game is available for free and doesn’t require a business model behind it to generate sales inside of Facebook (except ads, but that’s a bonus, not a primary source of income). The Facebook version is meant to traffic people to the paid version.”