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"Quake" for kitties

Double Twenty Productions has released its first product: a collection of online toys and games intended to amuse felines and their owners.

For close to a decade, video game designer Matt Wolf tried to home in on the instincts of 13- to 24-year-old males, the key demographic for most games.

Now the 32-year-old former game producer in Los Angeles is courting a much more finicky and inscrutable audience: cats.

Wolf's software company, Double Twenty Productions, released its first product last month. CyberPounce is a collection of online toys and games intended to amuse felines and their owners.

The software includes 11 virtual kitty treats, including helpless little birds, dangling spiders and a furry mouse, that dart around the computer screen. The victims either move on their own as part of the program's screensaver mode or are manipulated by the cat's owner.

The main goal is to get housebound cats to spend some quality recreation time batting at a PC monitor.

Wolf said the twittering, jittering creatures are the video equivalent of "Quake" for cats--a totally immersing experience, at least by feline standards.

"If a cat pays attention to anything for more than a minute, it's amazing," he said. "We've seen cats glued to this for five or ten minutes."

Wolf, who worked on games such as "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Soviet Strike" as a producer at Sega and Electronic Arts, said the idea came to him while he was house-sitting for a friend with several cats, one of which made a habit of chasing the cursor on the home's PC.

"I just thought it was fun watching the cat, and then--you know how ideas happen," he said. "I wanted to bring something to the market that had never been done before, and this seemed like my chance to be an entrepreneur."

After extensive consultation with an animal behaviorist and product testing on more than 100 cats, Wolf had a pretty good idea of what would get a paw going. He offers no guarantees, though, that buyers won't experience the "Here, Fluffy, look at the nice squeaky mouse" routine.

"Cats are cats," he said. "They are very difficult to predict. If I had this thing totally down, I could go into business as a pet trainer."

Wolf's approach is the exact opposite of the other piece of commercial software targeted at cats. PawSense from BitBoost Systems aims to prevent cats from walking across PC keyboards. The $20 program runs in the background and, when keys are depressed in "paw-like" combinations, it emits a shrieking sound to scare the cat, shuts down keyboard input and displays the message: "Cat-like typing detected."

Wolf acknowledges CyberPounce is not for folks who have problems sharing their workspace with furry companions. "I haven't had anyone complain about the cat messing up their computer," he said. "But people who don't want the cat anywhere near the desk or computer aren't going to buy this."

Although cat owners can control CyberPounce as much as they want, the main benefit is likely to come from using the screensaver mode, which provides an all-day incentive for housebound kitties to get off the sofa.

"Domestic housecats sleep for like 90 percent of the day," Wolf said. "They're very lazy creatures when they're inside the house. You want to give a good environment to your pet, and vets will tell you that part of that is providing some mental stimulation."

So far, "CyberPounce" is available on Wolf's Web site for $14.95. The budding entrepreneur said he's heard from several pet product companies interested in acquiring the software for use as a promotional giveaway or new product line.

Wolf plans to branch out into other areas of the vertebrate world. He's planning an audio screensaver that would teach pet birds to pronounce selected words. And he's trying to come up with a safe way to extend computerized fun to pooches.

"Doing a dog entertainer on a PC kind of scares me," he explained. "Some dogs are pretty big. If they got excited, they could easily run away with the entire computer."