Lisa Brunette is an award-winning novelist, journalist, game designer, and longtime blogger. Originally from the Midwest, she spent 20 years in "outer space," otherwise known as Miami and the Pacific Northwest, but now she's returned to her roots... to dig in the soil and define good living for herself.
Last year was an epic one for me personally, with the launch and steady ramp up for Brunette Games. I like judicious, nimble startups, testing and tweaking as I go, which is why I didn't opt to spend a lot of resources on flashy things like a new web site and branding last year. Since I found myself knee-deep in inquiries without those things, I thought it best to focus on what makes a business successful: its people. And I'm glad I did. I'm smack dab in the Midwest quietly building the best narrative team in the casual game business ;).
But now we're at that flex point where the original blog, Cat in the Flock, can no longer contain Brunette Games. So it's time to split the sites.
As you can see from last week's countdown of the top 10 blog posts of 2018, our game content is popular--but so are our lifestyle stories, such as the ongoing saga of Dragon Flower Farm. We can see the quirky connections between these two topic areas, as I tried to articulate last week:
...the real-world design play we engage in with the farm mirrors the virtual farms and gardens of the games we love to play and design, such as Gardenscapes, Matchington Mansion, My Beauty Spa, FarmVille 2, and more. One inspires the other.
This cross-inspiration is really me. I'm a total generalist with a lot of varying interests and an abiding curiosity about SO MANY THINGS. I tend to resist compartmentalizations.
HOWEVER, we admit it's a bit of a leap to put the two disparate worlds of gaming and lifestyle together (unless you've practiced D&D-themed yoga?). Some readers might just want advice on how to craft better game storylines, without the updates on how the farm is doing. Other readers have been with me since the Dreamslippers days and are only mildly curious about my game work--bless you for your loyalty and ongoing support--but I don't want to inflict you with a lot of game industry stuff if that's not really your jam.
So... On to the nitty-gritty.
We have a new site for Brunette Games. It's a work-in-progress for now, but the aim is to showcase the studio's activity as a whole and give insight into the team's background, projects, obsessions... anything that has to do with our game writing and design. A new company logo is in the works, designed by Monika Younger, the same brilliant artist who created the covers for every book in the Dreamslippers Series. (Speaking of that book series, it may reappear on Brunette Games if we adapt it to the interactive novel format.)
Supporting the site are a new Instagram account (@brunettegames) and Facebook page. We will also send out an email digest for readers who prefer to get their blog content in one monthly wrap-up. Here's the really important part:
We will migrate all Brunette Games clients past and present to this list, along with anyone else who looks to us like obvi gamer types. If you don't think you fall into those categories and would like to sign up for the Brunette Games list anyway, please do so here.
So, what happens to Cat in the Flock? I'm rebranding her as the lifestyle blog she always dreamed of being. If you click back through the content, you'll see lifestyle has been a constant theme throughout, whether that's pointing out the virtues of native plants or giving wellness advice based on a longtime yoga practice. The seeds of this go back REALLY far, as I once handled all the lifestyle content for the Northwest news site Crosscut, and I have always really loved gardening, yoga, and interior design. "Cat in the Flock: Lifestyle with Teeth" will cover these topics, with a few other lifestyle themes woven in as well. My author Insta account will continue to serve Cat in the Flock, as will the Facebook page. The newsletter will continue to go out as it has, minus the game content. So if you're on the list and want to stay on the list, don't do a thing! We'll take care of you.
OK, to recap! If you want to keep reading about games, sign up for the Brunette Games email list here. That's it!
Thanks for sticking with us through this exciting time of growth and change for me personally and for Brunette Games. We can't wait to share more!
Last week I wrote about my dramatic transition from professor to CEO over the course of 2018, so by now you've got a sense of how epic the year was. But in addition to working on nine different games for six different clients, the Brunette Games team also managed to bang out a blog post each week. You might be surprised which ones rose to the top. We were! I'm particularly excited to see one of my team members' game reviews rise to the #3 spot, as it shows there's readerly interest in the full range of voices that make up Brunette Games. I look forward to bringing many more posts from Dexter, Elisa, and Tamsen to you in 2019. Now on to the list.
...Drumroll, please... These are the top ten, in reverse order. You know, like a countdown.
This one surprised me, as it seemed hyperlocal on two levels, first because PixelPop is a relatively small (but growing!) game con, and second because of my indulgence in alma mater nostalgia with the SLU bit. But it was gratifying to showcase some up-and-coming developers here, and the popularity of this post is testament to their growing platforms.
During the spring and summer, I created two presentation workshops and presented at four different events. One of the workshops was on the why and how of game storytelling, and I broke that into two posts for the blog, which came in here at #9 as well as #6. I was really glad to find both of these in the top ten, seeing as how designing game storylines is why we even exist.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the top ten list is that two of the posts here are about my side project, Dragon Flower Farm. I had no idea whether or not anyone would want to read about this quarter-acre urban farm experiment. But our struggles with privacy fencing and eradicating invasive plants really resonated with readers. To me, the real-world design play we engage in with the farm mirrors the virtual farms and gardens of the games we love to play and design, such as Gardenscapes, Matchington Mansion, My Beauty Spa, FarmVille 2, and more. One inspires the other.
Speaking of which, this post about our deep eradication of a massive overgrowth of honeysuckle vine is actually one of my favorites. I kind of let myself loose on this one, and I think it shows. It was also great to spread the love to both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Horstmann Brothers Landscaping, which helped us so much in planning and pruning.
We're back to my two-part series on game storytelling, with this one on "why" doing a couple of notches better than than the other one on "how." That's interesting, since you'd think the question of why story matters in games would be put to rest by now, BUT APPARENTLY NOT.
One of my favorite classroom activities was inspired by a romance story I wrote for a bingo game. Yep. I believe the quirky fun of this one drew readers in, especially since it's a bit outside genre for me, after focusing for years on mystery games and books (although the Dreamslippers enjoy their share of romance).
In a year of exciting announcements, this one was really up there. While it's fun to hear about a solo creative act, following a TEAM of creative acts is even more fun. I'm glad you agree.
In the intro above, I mentioned that one of the top 3 posts of the year was written by someone else on the team, and that's Dexter Woltman, whose brilliant review of Lifeline: Crisis Line proves that high-quality content will find an audience. I also think that the intersection of mystery novel and game here naturally appeals to an audience many of whom have been with me through the Dreamslippers days. I love Dexter's thoughtful voice, which is part of why I hired him, and I can't wait to see what else he can do.
The first post of 2018 occupies the number two spot on the list, and that surprised me, too. Maybe y'all just like a year-end recap, or maybe the dramatic 'end of the dream' headline made you click. Either way, it's always hard for me to write these more personal reflections on my work life, and I had to fight cringing when I saw this one's ranking. It is really something to read it in light of last week's post on my transition from professor to CEO, though. As a writer, I've weathered some shifting winds, that's for sure.
And NOW... for the top of the top blog post in 2018...
...wait for it...
Yay! I was so psyched to see this get the top spot, as it's pretty much the most exciting collaboration of my game design career. This mystery-themed, interactive, story-driven series takes all of the elements of narrative and game and combines them into one super project. I can't wait to share more.
So... we'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Did anything on this list surprise you? What were your favorites? What would you like to see in 2019?
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in an office at the back of a bank in Kirkwood, Missouri, talking to a mentor assigned to me by the organization SCORE. Funded in part by the Small Business Administration, SCORE provides free guidance to small business owners. My mentor, Ray Edwards, is an executive consultant in addition to serving as a SCORE volunteer, and his resume includes a list of impressive ownership and leadership positions at various corporations. When I told Ray that I gave up a tenure-track position at a well-regarded university to pursue running my own company, he smiled at me and said, "You're a born entrepreneur."
I hadn't really thought of myself that way before, though I admit it does seem pretty obvious, when viewed from Ray's perspective. Not many people would give up the chance for a college teaching post, especially after moving clear across the country to take the job. When my husband and I pulled up stakes in Washington state in 2017 and set down roots in Missouri, it was with the full intention that I would stay on with Webster University after the one-year "visiting" post ended. However, the fit just was not there. It's tempting to grieve the change in plans, but that's what a visiting professorship is designed to do: both parties assess fit, and if it's not there, no harm done. I formally withdrew my candidacy for the tenure-track position in March. It was an agonizing decision, and I know so many wanted me to stay, but I also know this was the right move. At the same time that I came to the realization about the lack of fit at the university, I had some major successes in the game space that garnered an avalanche of attention, pulling me in another direction entirely.
The first was Sender Unknown: The Woods, a game I wrote and designed from scratch in collaboration with my longtime friend and colleague Marianna Shilina Vallejo, who heads Daily Magic. The game was groundbreaking in the area of interactive fiction, and it received awesome critical attention. It was nominated for an International Gaming Award, and GameZebo called it "the next leap forward in mobile." For me, it proved I could write and design a new game style myself, drawing on all the experience I'd gained before that, which included: working on Wii and DS games, consulting on PC games in the HOPA genre, self-publishing three novels in two years, and spending a year researching and experimenting with the interactive novel format.
The second success was Matchington Mansion. For this game, I designed the narrative, consulted on character design, and wrote all of the text for the launch build. Matchington blew the doors off mobile and continues to dominate App Store and Google Play charts worldwide. It has also created a larger recognition of the role of narrative in mobile casual games, which is something I'm very glad to see--finally.
What's funny about all the attention that Matchington Mansion has received is that by the time the studio doing business as "Firecraft" approached me to consult with them on the narrative for that game, I'd been working for months on a narrative Match-3 that had already released. Survivors: The Quest had gained enough traction to warrant getting a dedicated game writer on the project, and G5 found me.
G5 was the first studio to snag my services when my one-year no compete with Big Fish expired, so I'm coming up on my two-year anniversary working with that company's awesome creative team in Kaliningrad. I'll write more in the coming weeks specifically about this project. For now I'll just point out that it has all the things I look for in a casual game: a diverse cast of characters; story at its core; fun, engaging gameplay that is well-integrated with the story. It's been a terrific opportunity and challenge to write the stories and design the locations and quests, and I'm grateful for G5 giving me the responsibility.
It's a lot of work to take over the writing and design of a big, endless free-to-play game like Survivors, and as I mentioned previously, I was getting a ton of attention due to the success of the other two games. While on winter break from teaching, I wrote a love story for a bingo room as well.
After that game released in February, the floodgates opened further, and my head began to spin with the opportunities. A Danish game studio flew me to Copenhagen for a weeklong brainstorming session. An exec from a prominent West Coast company flew here to St. Louis to take me to dinner. A handful of other small game studios and large corporations kicked up a bidding war for my services. This all happened while I was still teaching full-time.
Saying no to a lot of cool projects, I fulfilled my commitment to the university, finishing the semester in May, and then jumped feet-first into the fray. "Brunette Games" was official.
In June, a game I'd written the script for in 2017 had its worldwide release on the highly popular Choices app. Veil of Secrets was my second interactive novel, and my first foray into writing specifically for women under 35. It was a huge adjustment in tone and intention for me, but a great experience, overall. I have tremendous respect for Pixelberry Studios.
I began working for a large, very successful company around that time--the one that won the bidding war. We danced together all summer, and I'm proud of my contribution to a high-profile licensed title I can never name. But ultimately, it wasn't the right fit, either. By fall I decided to focus on three things: my work for G5, a new collaboration with Cherrypick Games, and growing my team.
The collaboration with Cherrypick Games is one of the things that excites me most about owning my own studio. Over the summer, CEO Martin Kwasnica approached me about designing an interactive novel series themed specifically on the mystery genre. It's called Crime Stories. I am consulting on the general series design, and I've just finished a draft of one of the books as well. Woman on the Bridge will be my sixth book-length work of fiction and my third interactive novel. I can't wait to see Crime Stories release.
In light of the opportunities on the ground, I decided to bring two former students into the Brunette Games fold. The seed for this had actually been planted in the classroom, where I felt a craving to give students real-world experience on game projects. Two students in particular stood out to me as capable of handling both game design and writing--a tricky pairing of two skills not commonly found in one person. Dexter Woltman and Tamsen Reed REALLY impressed me. I can't even tell you how AWESOMELY SATISFYING it is to give these Midwesterners writing, designing, and editing credits on some really top games in the casual space, something they can't easily get as students anywhere, let alone here in St. Louis. They've worked on Homicide Squad: Hidden Crimes and Jewels of Rome for G5 and My Beauty Spa: Stars & Stories for Cherrypick, as well as pitched in on an unannounced gamification concept project.
One of the game projects I couldn't take on when I was flying solo was one for Mitosis Games: Millionaire Mansion. They came to me because of my work on Matchington Mansion, but I knew just the person to recommend: Elisa Mader. I had hired this talented game writer/editor as a freelancer when I managed the narrative team at Big Fish, and I'd hired her again to edit my own Dreamslippers novel series. Luckily for Mitosis, she was available when they called. She's still working on Millionaire as an independent, but in late November of this year, I brought her on to join Brunette Games as well. She's our Seattle-based contractor, and more importantly, she's taking over design and writing of Survivors: The Quest in addition to editing Jewels of Rome and pitching in on other projects.
I'm really proud of the team and can't wait to see what we can all accomplish together in 2019. Judging by how this past year went, the sky's the limit! Here's Brunette Games in 2018, by the numbers:
- We designed 275 quests across 6 locations and one event
- We developed five game narrative concepts
- My team members edited more than 100,000 words of game text
- We worked with six clients on nine different games
At times I miss the classroom, but one thing I've learned over my 25-year career is that the world always needs teachers. If you have the skill and interest, there are innumerable opportunities to exercise it. Since leaving my teaching post in May, I've spoken to audiences at the St. Louis County Library, the St. Louis Game Developer Co-Op, College Bound, and PixelPop.
Longtime readers of the blog might be wondering if there's anything in the works when it comes to books. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of Cat in the Flock, the first novel in the Dreamslippers Series. There will be some buzz around that anniversary later in the year. I've also been in talks with potential partners about adapting the series to the interactive, choice-based, digital format. It's an important IP for me personally, and I want to do it right. So we shall see.
Other book possibilities include adapting Woman on the Bridge to a linear, book format and finishing a work-in-progress I stopped writing when I left Chehalis in the summer of last year. That's where the book is based, but its people and landscape continue to live in my memories.
Where does Brunette Games go from here? We'll continue to serve our existing clients to the high level of quality they have come to depend upon. We're looking at new collaborations with past clients, and there are a good number of new, potential partners we've been talking with over the past few months. We've clearly established an expertise in 1) interactive game novels and 2) narrative puzzle and builder games, and I suspect demand for our services will continue in the new year.
We'd love to hear from players of our games and readers of our words. What's your favorite Brunette Games title? What brings you back to the blog? What would you like to see us do in the future?
Happy New Year!
Where You Can Find Our Latest Games:
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I'm pleased to announce that all three books in the Dreamslippers Series have been inducted into the Indie Missouri program, a collection of books from local indie authors available exclusively on the BiblioBoard Library mobile and web platform. This collection is available to patrons of participating libraries across the state.
It's an honor to be included in such a great program. I'm all in favor of any effort to broaden the offerings beyond what is controlled by the New York-focused traditional publishing establishment. What's found to be exciting and important to those of us in this "flyover" state might not always match what plays in New York.
Speaking of which, the first book in the series, Cat in the Flock, takes place in the bi-state area of Missouri and Illinois around St. Louis, where I lived from about junior high to early adulthood, the place I've returned to live now.
Tap or click the book covers below to find each book in the Indie Missouri list. Merry Christmas, and happy reading!
First, I want to say thanks for your interest in our little farm project. I wasn't sure if this content would gain an audience, so when my last post on the Dragon Flower Farm basically BROKE THE BLOG, I was pretty pleased. Because that means I have a reason to keep writing about it!
In case you're all like "What is this business about a farm?," feel free to catch up by reading about our visit from the St. Louis Audubon Society, the aforementioned fence saga, or this inaugural post, just for funsies.
So last time we walked you through stage one, which was to remove an eyesore of a zig-zag fence, as well as some truly noxious weeds. I mean, invasive plants. That winter creeper was on the list of "thug plants" identified by the St. Louis Audubon during their site assessment this summer, and we don't miss it. I wish I could say that was the last of the invasives, but no...
Wait. Maybe I should back up and explain what I mean by "invasives" and why we would label some plants "thugs," as if they're getting all tatted up (not that tattoos are naturally a sign of thug life) and hiding unregistered firearms under their mattresses (if you're doing this, I have no defense for you). There is literally a whole class of plants that don't play by the rules at all. They don't take turns, they don't share space, and they hoard all the food, light, air, and water for themselves. On top of that, they spread through any means necessary, proliferating more like a virus or a parasite than a plant.
I know this is going to sound bad in a really un-PC way, but this invasion thing happens most often with exotic ornamental plants that aren't from here. Because they've been uprooted and set down in a foreign environment, they are no longer subject to their natural predators or other growth-stabilizing factors, such as climate. And they go insane, crowding out native plants, taking over whole forests, and becoming a general nuisance.
Yes, even the pretty ones.
Perhaps you were drawn in by the delicate, orchid-like petals of the flower in the photo at the top of this post: Japanese honeysuckle, AKA Lonicera japonica. It's quite lovely, this plant. In its native environment, I'm sure it makes for a wonderful garden vine. Its dark green, ovate leaves foreground the vanilla cream-to-pale yellow flowers that appear in May. The scent they give off is intoxicating, a heady, thick sweetness you can practically taste. In fact, you can taste it; pull the pistil out and touch its end to your tongue, and it's like a dab of sugar. In fall, the flowers give way to bright red berries.
But here in the Midwest, its beauty is a betrayal. It takes up valuable real estate, covering whole forests in dense vine, while offering very little to native butterflies and other pollinators in return.
In our back forty, or, um, quarter acre, it covered most of the remaining chain link fence, which means it spanned about 2/3rds of the property line. That's a lot of vine, and it ALL HAD TO GO.
I'd had my suspicions about honeysuckle--but they were accompanied by fond memories of sipping that dab of sugar from the pulled pistils. I had associated honeysuckle WITH the Midwest. Yeah, that's how invasive it is. So when the reps from the Audubon Society recommended removing it, that was a lot to absorb.
Initially, we tabled its removal. But then we found out that the best time to rid yourself of honeysuckle is in the fall, once the native plants around it have gone dormant.
Still. That's a LOT of vine to remove. We'd go out there and stare at it, scratching our heads...
...and come up with no gumption whatsoever. And if there's one thing I've learned over four separate bouts of home ownership, it's that one must have gumption for this kind of task.
Lacking it ourselves, we decided to call in reinforcements.
Horstmann Brothers came to the rescue, with plenty of gumption to spare. I realize we're lucky not to have to deal with the dreaded vine ourselves and that not everyone can hire help like this. For us, it was worth it, as we didn't have any of the tools they had, and while we could have rented them, we believe there's a time and place to let an expert in to do the job better than you can, and this was definitely one of those times, and one of the most obvious places.
That vine WAS A MO. And I'm not talking about Missouri here. It had apparently been planted back when Lonicera japonica had first been introduced to the Midwest in 1806 and had been given free rein to spread itself, unimpeded, ever since.
But it was no match for the awesome two-man crew from Horstmann. These guys had the tools, and they had the talent (yes, that was totally a Ghostbusters ref). I can't say enough good things about them, and I'm getting nothing in exchange for this praise. We'd tried out a different company (that will go nameless) prior to this one and WERE NOT IMPRESSED. These guys did twice the amount of work with half the staff. Seriously.
Horstmann removed the vine entirely, along with a lot of other sad-face-making plant situations, such as a diseased, dysfunctional willow tree that had been poorly placed directly under a power line and then aggressively cut back every year (please, for the love of God, site your plants appropriately, people). We treated the honeysuckle roots/stumps ourselves (i.e., my husband did it) with glyphosate, as recommended by everyone and their cousin in the plant business. My personal feeling, especially as someone who struggles with allergy/autoimmune issues, is that there are already more than enough chemicals in the world, but since we couldn't very well conduct a controlled burn here in the suburbs, where they won't even let us build a fence over 6 feet tall, we had to settle for chemical means. Even though Horstmann cut the vine down to the roots, it will of course spring back with vengeance if it's not killed. We will probably be fighting this foe the rest of our farming lives, even with the chemical intervention.
While we had Horstmann on hand, we also asked them to create a drainage swale to move water from between our house and a neighboring building and out into the farmyard, where we'll plant a rain garden. This should hopefully solve a leaky basement problem. I like this approach, solving drainage issues using ecological solutions that are also cost-effective, as we didn't have to spring for an expensive sump-pump or basement remediation.
Here's where the water now drains, into a cache of rocks. My niece, who's on the spectrum and has a delightfully unique way of viewing most things, sees this as a "rock nest." Last time she was over, she laid out a perfect pattern of twigs along the perimeter. Now I can't not think of this as a rock nest.
We found Horstmann on a list of landscapers recommended by the St. Louis Audubon Society. I know I keep mentioning this group, but they've really been helpful in getting the right plan in place for the DRAGON FLOWER FARM; I'm really impressed with their Bring Conservation Home program and want to shout it to the rooftops until every MO citizen participates. I feel frustrated much of the time about the loss of ecosystem and bird habitat and not just out of a love for birds, though how could you not love birds, but because we NEED birds and other pollinators to ensure our own food supply. I often feel powerless over climate change and environmental degradation, but here is something I can do in my own backyard. It's that simple.
I realize I've been busy showing you nothing but REMEDIATION and INFRASTRUCTURE, and that you might be wondering when I'm going to get to the fun part, where we plant things. That's exactly what I've been wondering, too. But don't worry... fall's actually a good time to plant, so I'll have deets about that soon(ish). Thanks again for your interest in our farm!
By the way, you might notice I dropped "mini" from the name DRAGON FLOWER FARM. It was too cumbersome, and who's to say what's mini, anyway? This is our mighty farm!