Like many of the team members at Mega Cat Studios, a Pittsburgh-based independent video-game company, James Deighan didn’t study video-game development in school. Instead, much of the institutional knowledge at Mega Cat comes from firsthand experience.
“Most of us have varied education and work backgrounds unrelated to game development,” says Deighan, owner of Mega Cat. “We just like to think gaming development found us.”
The video-game studio specializes in retro-style games — new titles reminiscent of those nostalgic favorites from the 1990s. Visually, the games look a lot like games from that time, but the developers also try to make games that evoke the feel of those games.
“We’ve all been collecting and playing retro games since we were growing up,” says Deighan. “I like to visualize what it would be like if 8-year-old James would meet 32-year-old James. He’d probably high-five him.”
Today, many gamers never hold physical copies of the titles they buy. Instead, they’re stored on the cloud. But Mega Cat believes that game cartridges, their packaging and presentation are an important component of the gaming experience.
“We like feeling and holding the games,” Deighan says. “We’re trying to recreate that experience of being in the back of your mom’s van on the way home from Hills, opening up the game and reading the instruction manual on the way home.”
Mega Cat is also especially focused on creating “couch co-op” games — those that can be played together by multiple players on the same console. (Millennials and Gen-Xers will recall these are the games that often erupted in fights among siblings.)
“Couch co-op is a big thing for us,” says Deighan. “So, sitting in the same room with your friends, and either building or destroying friendships is a very important facet for us with gaming.”
But although Mega Cat has adopted many facets of video games from generations past, Deighan says he’s glad that attitudes around gaming have shifted. And he’s particularly glad that games are now being utilized as educational tools, as opposed to being considered a hindrance to learning.
“Growing up, we were told that games were bad, they’re a distraction, they’re toys,” says Deighan. “I think that’s shifted and evolved a lot. Being playful is the engine of innovation and creativity. There’s been a lot of activity in the edutainment space and getting people to engage in creative play. We’re combining some of those wonderful evolutions in gaming with all the parts we love and grew up with.”
Mega Cat’s titles range from the horror-boxing mashup Creepy Brawlers to the patriotic-themed arcade game Justice Duel. And if you’re a proud Pittsburgher, there’s also something for you.
At their retro-video-game convention a couple of years ago, members of the Mega Cat team got to talking with staff from Black Forge Coffee House, a café in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood. The result of that conversation is Coffee Crisis, an arcade style game where players face off against aliens who have stolen the city’s Wi-Fi, coffee and metal music.
“I thought it would be fun to have a game set in Pittsburgh, that shows Pittsburgh stuff,” says Deighan.
While other gaming developers try to top each other with better and better graphic quality, Deighan says there’s an art form to making retro games — one he and his team plan to continue.
“I think the pixel-art asesthetic is timeless,” says Deighan. “And the technical limitations that the retro cartridge puts on the artist and the developers is both the challenging part, and the beauty, of making games on these consoles.”