By Lisa Brunette
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!
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