Imagine a game that might be described as the opposite of Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. These are first-person shooters set in wartorn, post-apocalyptic cities, so their inverse might be a third-person game with no weapons at all, set in a warm, buzzing metropolis of friendly characters, maybe starring an adorable cat. Weirdly, the result could look a lot like Little Kitty, Big City, the first project from former Valve designer Matt T. Wood.
In nearly 17 years at Valve, Wood helped build and ship the company’s most notable titles, including Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, Portal 2, CS:GO and both episodes of Half-Life 2. He was a founding member of the CS:GO project and worked on that series for six years; he was pivotal in crafting Portal 2’s co-op mode, and he created choreography and combat scenes in Half-Life and Left 4 Dead. Level design was one of his specialties.
Wood left Valve in mid-2019, and today he’s the head of his own game development company in Seattle, Washington, Double Dagger Studio. He didn’t plan on starting his own studio post-Valve, and he certainly didn’t think he’d be building and self-publishing a game about an adorable cat. But, he is, and it’s called Little Kitty, Big City.
“It really is more about cozy exploration,” Wood told Engadget. “The game has aspects of platforming, but it’s very light platforming. It’s more about exploring vertically, and exploring nooks and crannies. I’ve done a lot of things throughout my career, but one of the things I spent a lot of time doing was level design in video games, so I have a lot of personal interest in creating spaces that feel fun to explore, to sort of poke around in.”
Little Kitty, Big City has Saturday-morning-cartoon vibes, with hand-animated scenes and a clean, friendly art style. The main character, Kitty, has wide green eyes, inky fur and batlike ears, and they’re on a mission to find their way home to an apartment complex in the center of a bustling downtown. However, procrastination is highly encouraged. Little Kitty, Big City is an open-world game filled with adorable animals to befriend, people to pester, quests to complete and hats to wear.
The hats are embellished bonnets that come in various forms, including a fish head, a half-shucked corn cob, little devil ears, a cowboy situation, a hedgehog and even some root vegetables. Kitty’s face endearingly pokes through the center of each hat, and they can be equipped at will throughout the game. Aside from a few unique cases, there are no stats attached to the hats — wearing the ladybug head doesn’t grant Kitty movement speed, and the construction hat doesn’t add bonus armor. Mostly, they exist to be cute.
“As a game designer, you kind of sit down and go, what is the purpose of this thing that you’re doing?” Wood said. “You always need a function, a purpose, a reason for doing the thing. I think 10 years ago, I would have said, OK, hats are gonna give you this ability, or, like, there’s going to be all of this gameplay tied to all this stuff. And while that is true for some things regarding the hats, largely, they’re cosmetic. It was refreshing to come to that conclusion to say, no, these are just for fun.”
Wood’s long history at Valve contextualizes his current role as the founder of an independent studio, and his years inside the insular company have helped shape his approach to game design.
Valve is a unique behemoth, even in the AAA space. It owns Steam, which functions as a bottomless bank; it’s a private company, so it doesn’t have shareholders to appease; and it’s the steward of iconic franchises including Portal, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress and Dota 2 (many of which are on Wood’s résumé).
“Valve is not a typical large game studio,” Wood said. “You have a lot of autonomy and freedom to do things there. But, you still sort of live within that direction that Valve goes in.”
Valve’s internal structure has long been the subject of myth and legend among video game fans, with the company’s founder Gabe Newell in the role of messiah and the Valve Handbook for New Employees as its sacred text. The handbook made its way online in 2012 and went viral for its Libertarian-inspired corporate ideals — it outlined a flat hierarchy at Valve, suggesting employees had the ability to manage themselves and work on their dream projects at any given time. This cemented Valve’s reputation as an ultra-rad, super-cool video game company in the public eye, and this perception persists today.
In practice, this structure has resulted in an incredibly rich company that doesn’t produce much. It’s a running joke that Valve can’t count to three: Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 came out in 2007, Left 4 Dead 2 came out in 2009, and Portal 2 came out in 2011. In 2020, Valve debuted Half-Life: Alyx, a VR game exclusive to the studio’s Index hardware, and after ignoring an extremely disruptive bot invasion, the company rolled out an update to TF2 this summer, largely comprising community-made maps and assets. Meanwhile, Steam has been printing money while maintaining Valve’s deathgrip on the PC marketplace.
When Wood talks about the fun and freedom he feels building Little Kitty, Big City, he compares it with a top-down rigidity and complacent bureaucracy he experienced in Valve’s production line. Here’s how he described it:
“Valve talks a lot about, like, you can do anything you want. And it’s like, well — that’s never true. You know, Valve has a direction and they have a trajectory. And so, for me, it was realizing that the direction that Valve was going in was not a place that I wanted to be long-term. Because I’d been there for a long time and they were sitting on their laurels a little bit, and it’s like they weren’t really challenging themselves, taking risks or doing anything. Steam’s making a lot of money so they don’t really have to, but I was not OK with that. And after many years of trying to figure out how to manage that, I decided, you know, it’s important for me to go and make my own decisions for a while.”
Wood made it clear that he appreciated the opportunities and stability that Valve provided him, and overall he called it a “great company.” It’s easy to see why so many talented game developers are drawn to Valve, a studio with unlimited resources, a laissez-faire management style and a library of prestigious IP. Working at an established studio also means there are plenty of experts around to check your progress and offer advice, and these are fail-safes that Wood doesn’t have any longer as an independent developer.
“That can be a bit scary,” Wood said. “But it’s been great. I love working with a small team focused on a game where, to us, it’s different. To me, it’s a challenge.”
Wood said that even though he likely works more now, he also has more energy and passion for his projects than he did in his final five years at Valve. Little Kitty, Big City represents a litany of game-design firsts for Wood, including the fact that it’s a mini open world and it has zero combat. There are now seven full-time team members at Double Dagger Studio, plus a few contributors, and they all found each other naturally, by Digital Age standards — Wood shared early ideas of Little Kitty, Big City on Twitter, and interested developers got in touch.
“At first I did reach out to some of my co-workers who had left Valve already and they were interested, but like — this was a common theme about reaching out to people who used to work at Valve, is that most people when they leave Valve, they’re kind of done,” Wood said.
Despite the current surge of indie-focused publishers like Annapurna Interactive, Devolver Digital, Private Division, Humble, Netflix and Raw Fury, Wood is self-publishing Little Kitty, Big City under Double Dagger Studio. That’s not to say he didn’t explore a potential partnership — he actually made it all the way to final contract meetings with one publisher in particular, but in the end, he turned the deal down.
“It didn’t make any sense,” Wood said. “Because what they were able to do, for me, absolutely did not justify the money that they were gonna take. And so it was really hard to find a publisher that made sense. I think that the difference between where I was in my career, and where someone maybe right out of school would be, is that I walked away from Valve with a chunk of money that I said, ‘I’m gonna invest that into a company.’ And so I didn’t have to rely on a publisher to spend $100,000 on a year of development or whatever. I did have that freedom and space to say no.”
This year alone, Little Kitty, Big City was announced for Switch, it had a successful showing at Summer Game Fest, and it’s getting some fresh swag in the form of a Makeship campaign offering an exceedingly cute Kitty plush and a salmon-shaped, zip-up catnip toy. The Double Dagger team is finishing the game while Wood oversees it all, no safety net in sight.
When we first started talking, Wood described Little Kitty, Big City as something like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, a game about a lost soul trying to find their way home and meeting a colorful cast of characters along the journey. This may be Kitty’s story, but at this stage in his career, it feels a lot like Wood’s, too.
Little Kitty, Big City is on track to come out in 2024 for Switch and PC — via Steam, of course.