How CHKN is Reinventing the Sandbox Survival Genre

Gaming News
Gaming News

When Thomas Edison declared that “to invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk,” he most likely wasn’t rummaging through the new releases on the Steam storefront. But, if he were alive today to take part in that Tuesday afternoon ritual that millions of gamers participate in weekly, he may find that the digital space has embraced these words in ways the physical world never could. Video games have had a G.I. Joe kung fu grip on human imagination since their most primitive incarnations in the 70’s, but largely in the realm of power fantasy and wish fulfillment. 

Today, in a post-Mojang industry, Edison’s vision has given way to a human infatuation with molding innocuous blocks into scale replicas of famous cities or works of art.  The industry’s independent developers have rushed into this new subgenre with a renewed vigor. Building games serve as tool boxes that let players build whatever their hearts desire. They’re the best way to traverse that gap between player and creator, so that – for the first time – a generation of gamers can get the same satisfaction as the developers that produce the games. We can all collectively “astound ourselves.” 

But how does one find ways to push the boundaries further still? Katapult may have found the key with their bizarre survival game, CHKN.

Since CHKN’s demo took the Internet by storm late last year, it’s become somewhat of a YouTube/Twitch phenomenon. Everyone from PewDiePie to jacksepticeye has found themselves under the warm glow of a white dome, recklessly plugging together animal parts to make something that is equal parts awe-inspiring and terrible.

As it stands, Katapult Studio’s quirky exploration into the relationship between man and beast sits triumphantly in Early Access, where fans of all ages have been singing its praises since early April. But who is Katapult, and what exactly possess a group of people to make something so strange and interesting? Kate Howley, Katapult’s Community Manager, sat down with me to walk through the process.

The initiative that drove Katapult towards designing a game like CHKN originated long before the team was official Kataput. Under the name Kandu, the desire to create interactive technology for a younger, more creative generation was the overall goal. The iOS app, Kandu Builder, was designed to introduce young kids to the concept of app development. It didn’t use commands and functions in any code language that a proper programmer would be used to, but it introduced the relationship between objects and the functions that tell these objects what to do. Using drag and drop icons on a blank canvas, Kandu Builder was to young programmers what LEGOs are to young architects.

John and Roman, the creators of CHKN, wanted to take the experimental climate from Kandu Builder and create a game that inspires the same sort of creative drive. Looking around the industry, there were many products that were trying to carve out a name in that same space. From Minecraft to Terraria, the building block sandbox adventure game was the genre speaking directly to the crew’s target audience. That’s the group their next game had to fit into.

Now nine members strong, Katapult is a beefed up version of the micro project it was even just a year ago. Their mission: boldly go where no sandbox video game has gone before.

The Miracle of Life

With Roman being a father, creating a game that walked that Dreamworks Pictures line of being for both kids and adults was a big design imperative. Having the gameplay be more than just building something stationary or mechanical (like a building) was another challenge. Changing the company’s name from Kandu to Katapult, they set out to find the answer. The solution to both challenges came from one source: building creatures.

There’s something inherently fun about creating your own creatures. When you put a bunch of parts together and watch the spark of life fill your beast, it invokes a sense of pride that anyone at any age can appreciate. It can be as serious and efficient or as goofy and nonsensical as the player wants it to be. Your creature’s journey through its digital life continues after you build it as well.

“When you build it, it’s alive,” Kate explained, “and we wanted you to interact with it as a living thing.” Where as typical building games task you with building machines out of odds and ends, they’re only as useful as your use for them. A buggy is only important when you’re driving it, for example. In CHKN, when you give life to a creature, it exists with its own set of needs, interests, and personal boundaries like a grotesque Tamagatchi. This factor is what makes CHKN truly stand out among its peers.

Figuring out how to manage a particular creature’s behavior can be a surprisingly intimate experience. The only guidance you have when figuring out how your creature is feeling is through body language. You have to look at its eyes, how it’s moving, and how it’s treating other creatures. Almost how you would a household pet, who probably can’t speak your language, but can speak volumes through actions. “We wanted people to have to interpret things that way, instead of being prompted in a HUD with a worded response.”

This is on the cusp of a new way of thinking about in-game organisms. If, say, your first interaction with a wild beach chicken goes poorly, maybe it isn’t just because it’s automatically hostile. It might need a reason not to bite you. The same thought process can be applied to wild dogs or cats in the real world, whom any reasonable person wouldn’t just approach without a proper assessment of the creature’s body language. Many wild creatures in CHKN have to be treated the same way. Come bearing gifts in the form of food, and maybe that beach chicken will be more receptive to your advances. It’s more nuanced than the average game’s approach to wildlife, which usually casts creatures as hostile or peaceful, but never really any gradient in-between.

Another factor that really blurs the line between kid game and adult game is the inherent sense of humor it has. There are no outright jokes being told and no explicit moments made with the intention of being funny. But when you put cactus legs on a furry lion body, you will probably chuckle. Then, there’s the existential dread that you feel while watching that creature roam about. It provides its own sort of dark humor for the bigger brains in the crowd. “Sometimes, i’ll make a creature and it’ll look incredibly sad, and in my head I’ll hear it saying ‘Why did you make me!?’” Kate admitted amidst chuckles. She equates the humor CHKN can provide to the kind of layers of funny that exist in shows like Spongebob Squarepants. “There are adult jokes, but the kids don’t get them because they’re masked by kid humor.”

Making the game funny wasn’t necessarily the goal from the outset, but more of a consequence of being made by that group of people. “Everyone on the team is funny. We laugh constantly, and it only make sense that that translates into a game we put a lot of ourselves in.” The surrounding YouTube and Twitch community helps cultivate an atmosphere of laughs as well. The community is infatuated with the fun of CHKN, and as the liason between them and the development team, Kate gets to see the birth and growth of a tight knit family of social media jokesters pull the fun out of their passion project every day.

A Big, Bold Future

The future is remarkably ambitious, considering the strides Katapult are making in the creature department presently. Creatures have their own sets of attributes and stat blocks that can be customized by mixing and matching creature component pieces. A special ability feature is underway that would add yet another layer of personality and uniqueness to each creature.

“Crab claws can pinch, scorpions will have lethal tails,” Kate explained. “Bees will fly and give honey, cows will give milk.” These abilities, ideally, will be carried over no matter what creature they’re attached to. So finding crabs in order to get claws because you want your new Mary Shelley masterpiece to be able to pinch things becomes a small example of a new sort of strategy being developed. Creatures who can create specific resources become attractive livestock for farming. All in the name of becoming more of a survival game.

Creatures you make are going to become more vital to your successful survival as time goes on. Not only will they be able to make you resources, but you’ll be able to train them to do things for you. Cut down trees, guard your home, collect things from resource points, fight on your behalf – your CHKN creature is going to look more and more like your own personal Pokemon.

Multiplayer is also a big priority. “Were in the middle of a huge overhaul in multiplayer,” Kate said. “We kinda want to have that Rust experience. Where you could go into a game, and there are people there working on their houses, and they could be friend or foe. Things like that.”

Maybe one of the most exciting plans in the works are new environments. Currently, the only play space in the game is the tropical island that was available through early access and the demo. Soon, snowy tundras and desert dunes will join a number of other locals, and with them will come new types of creatures. The pipe dream is that creatures that are more appropriate for certain locales will be more helpful in their comfort zones. Something with camel legs would navigate a desert much easier than something with octopus tentacles.

Many of these grander ideas have tentative time frames for being added into the product, and they’re far enough out where it’s still not safe to chat about. That said, some of these updates will be coming sooner rather than later. On August 3rd, the first wave of creature special abilities will be added. Snakes and spiders will have venom, elephants will shoot water, and octopi will shoot ink. More creatures will make their way onto the island proper, like bats and cows. More crafting recipes will be added as well, to take into account the new objects you’ll be getting from these new creatures thanks to their new abilities.

Katapult is demonstrably committed to making the absolute best Frankenstein’s Monster Lab Simulator they can, one cactus leg at a time. The sandbox survival genre is one defined by slow change through rapid imitation and iteration. CHKN‘s focus on giving value and life to your creations outside of the simple joy of building may be the first big step in the genre since Minecraft. By combining the freedom to tinker from games like Gary’s Mod, and the survival aspects of a more light-hearted Day Z, Katapult is on the bleeding edge of a new sort of game chimera equally as enthralling and complex as a beast you’d create on a desert island in CHKN. Watching this game turn into the bold vision Kate describes for CHKN is promising to be a fulfilling experience, one that everyone can watch and stay updated on via Katapult’s public development roadmap Trello board. For more information about the game itself, come to the CHKN Wiki. Let us know what future feature you are most excited for on Facebook and Twitter.