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Announcement: Industry Vet Elisa Mader Joins Brunette Games

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Elisa will design, write, and edit from her home base in Seattle.

I realize it's been the season of announcements here at Brunette Games, but I've got another one for ya, and it's a really good one.

Let it be known that Elisa Mader has joined the team as a writer/designer. I first met this talented woman when I worked with her significant other at Cat Daddy Games nearly a decade ago. Back then, Elisa was beloved by her coworkers in the banking industry, but she was looking for ways to defect to games. Since I'd taken a turn as an editor with a financial services firm in the past, I got where she was coming from. And I also understood how exacting financial services can be. I knew she'd be a crackerjack editor, so when I was in a position to hire freelancers at Big Fish, I brought her into the fold. 

I've been her unofficial mentor ever since, and it's been awesome getting to see Elisa rack up experience points across her five years in games. She recently finished a stint at AAA studio Bungie, working on Destiny 2. Which is way more impressive to my brothers and most other hardcore gamers than anything in my strictly-casual background, so there you go.

Among other projects, Elisa will be pitching in on Survivors: The Quest, ensuring that we don't go stale on a title I've been designing and writing for two years and seven locations, including an alien crash-landing, jungle insurgents, a case of parallel dimension twins, and a volcanic vortex. I can't wait to see where she goes from there!

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By the way, if you think her blue streak looks great, wait till you see her current 'Blue Level: High' 'do.

You can read Elisa's bio on our LLC page, but here are some questions I asked her to answer for you, by way of introduction.

How would you describe your writing voice--in games and elsewhere?

It's always slightly ironic, and I sometimes manage to keep the alliteration and wordplay in check (but not always).

I love banter between characters. I start by imagining my characters as real people, even creating character sheets with little details about their back stories (nanny turned cyberpunk hero!) and oddball obsessions (robots! an irrational hatred for chocolate!) that may never see the light of day. Then, with these personalities clear in my mind, I let them play off one another in situations ranging from the banal (where shall we put this lamp?) to the outlandish (why is my poetry bot trying to take over the world?). The quirkier, the better!

I also like parentheses.

What's your favorite game story, and why?

Must I choose just one? I played the heck out of Diablo II back in the day, and it remains a model of an epic linear story that built and built and built in excitement. Its fantasy setting felt large, wondrous, and worthy of exploration. My interactions with Deckard Cain convinced me I was unraveling a great mystery, yet smaller quests for ordinary people reminded me what I was fighting for. The saving-the-world scenario can be overdone, but this was the first time I saved the world!

To turn that question on its head, though, I have a special love for games that let me imagine my own story as I go: the Civilization games, Stardew Valley, Subnautica.

But if we're talking about a game story I wish I'd written, there's Until Dawn. So. Many. Choices.

What drew you to game writing?

It was a slippery slope from editing! And it was more or less a precipice after my first experience writing for a game, crafting some branching dialogues and Shadowland BBS posts for Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

My job was to flesh out an already robust and fascinating world in a futuristic, cyberpunk Hong Kong, and I set about asking myself, "What ground isn't being covered by the main campaign and missions? Let me tell those stories."

So I wrote long, meandering dialogues inspired by real life sources: Filipinos I'd seen in Hong Kong (I'm half Filipina, holla), Craig's List, poetry slams.

Then the developers at Harebrained told me, "Yeah, you've got to make all of that much shorter."

But that's where the collaborative magic happened: when we cut up my ideas, they became more playable. Punchier. Richer with Shadowrun lore and Easter eggs that others added. Game writing isn't a solitary endeavor, but I feel like my best work is both very much mine and the product of interactions that I can only call galvanizing.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the industry?

Do the thing. Apply for the gig. Write for yourself when you don't get the gig. Talk to people and convince them that you can do a gig when they hadn't planned for one. Seriously.

There's no reason I should have found a niche in gaming. I'm an introverted woman of color with a background as an academic (French medievalist! Holla?) and a paper-shuffling real estate analyst. But the video game industry embraces all kinds of backgrounds. You can become a huge success without formal education, if you can prove you can do the job. I worked hard and I played well with others, though I failed plenty lots. But I believed that my weirdo background and my chops could make games better, so I kept doing the thing.

And now I get to share my stories with the world.

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Elisa's motto is, "Go blue, or go home."

Join me in welcoming Elisa to the team with some supportive words below, especially if it's not about her hair. 

 


What Would You Like to Read on the Blog?

 

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

It's been a while--since January, actually--since I've posted on the blog, and for that I apologize.

Long story short, I've struggled with what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past year, since I took that visiting professorship at Webster University, AND AT THE SAME TIME, MY INDIE GAME STUDIO BLEW UP. Don't get me wrong; this is a good problem to have these days. But when your priority list exceeds the number of hours in a given week, some things need to drop off, and sadly, this blog was one of them. 

But I've missed it. And you--its reason for being. As I look ahead to hopefully a more life-balanced rest of the year, I'm mulling over what this blog should and shouldn't be, and I'd love to get your opinion. So I created a survey.

It's short. Survey Monkey tells me you can take it in two minutes. If you've got two minutes to spare, please weigh in on the types of topics and guests you'd like to see on the blog.

The survey is completely anonymous. I'm not collecting any data on who fills it out or when or why or what your first-born child's name is, I promise. I will analyze the results in the aggregate and pay attention to any "other" comments you've written, no names or strings attached.

And if you'd rather share your opinion in the comment section below this post, feel free. The survey asks general questions about reading and gaming habits and interests, and then basically asks what you'd like to see here on the blog in the future. I'm all ears. Thank you!

In case you missed that survey link above, here's a button! Go ahead and push it! Or click on it! Just go there!

 

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A Love Story in 27 Characters or Less

 

My latest game project was more like writing poetry than anything else. GSN Games asked me to create a love story for their popular game series, Bingo Bash. Here's the catch: The entire story had to fit into the tiny space inside a bingo room, and that meant each line had to be only 27 characters or less.

The room is called "Dear Diary," and it tracks the ups and downs of Linda, a floral shop owner. She's the type of woman who vows to do something nice for someone else every day... like paying for a stranger's Chinese takeout. Linda doesn't expect anything in return and leaves the scene before the recipient of her gift realizes it. But fate puts them at the same bingo night soon after... will romance bloom? Or will Linda's on-again, off-again boyfriend get in the way? Find out by unlocking the room and reading Linda's diary each time you level up!

It was a challenge to write a micro-plot, especially since I had to work with pre-existing art assets, and timing only allowed for small tweaks. I handled it by asking the awesome GSN team to add conflict elements to the diary images, which to me is the core of any story. I also sketched out the story beats first and then wrote Linda's diary entries from that, cutting back on some details to fit the smaller space.

I've written within a set character count many times in my decade in the game industry, but this was the tiniest. Composing within a strict limitation like that teaches you to, as the venerable writer's guide Strunk & White proclaims, "omit needless words." It's a great exercise in economy.

Which is why I chose to start my first-ever "Narrative Design and Game Writing" course this semester by asking my students to do the same. I made it a bit easier by leaving the theme and accompanying artwork open-ended. I couldn't share any of the details of my GSN Games project with them anyway, so I simply asked them to write a love story within the same space restrictions. They embraced the project and delivered on a wide range of stories, from two involving rocks (!) to a play on the idea of lovebirds to more serious fare, such as domestic abuse. Many described the project as presenting an opportunity for great creativity within the limitation. Some said it took them into more poetic language and compared it to haiku.

"Dear Diary" is available as part of the Bingo Bash app for iOS and Android and is free to play, with in-app purchasing. I'd love to hear what you think of the story; please comment below.

Dear Diary

 

 


The End of the Dream(slippers): Year in Review

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

When I set out to write the Dreamslippers series back in 2012, the self-publishing business was still bright, shiny, and promising.

Still, I wasn't sure if I'd go that route. I had to be convinced, and I was, in the end--by research that showed you had a better chance of making a living as a fiction writer if you went indie. Around a very demanding day job, it took me two years to write the first book. During that time, I shopped it around to agents and editors in traditional publishing, and I had an incredible amount of interest--just no follow-through. I worked on the book, getting a ton of feedback from alpha and beta readers--as well as some of those agents--and revising over and over. It wasn't my first book; I'd had an agent back in 2005 who shopped a short-story collection around. I'd honed my skill since then and felt confident about the manuscript. I talked to a lot of people, authors and agents and marketers and others. It seemed to make the most sense to take a leap into self-publishing.

Cat in the Flock performed well, enough to warrant further attention. A celebrity Hollywood director reached out to me about rights, I was interviewed by the Seattle Weekly, and I won my first indieBRAG medallion. This despite a homemade book cover and struggles with Amazon's category algorithms, which plunked the book in "pet noir" because of the title. 'Cat' referred to the protagonist's nickname, a shortening of her full name, Cathedral. There are no felines in the book.

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The original cover for Cat in the Flock.

Perhaps most important to me, the book was reviewed well by people whose opinions I trusted. The writers Jon Talton, Mary Daheim, and Corrina Wycoff all contributed praiseful blurbs. None other than the venerable Kirkus Reviews called it "a mystery with an unusual twist and quirky settings; an enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre."

According to some successful indie authors I've talked to, what I should have done right then was release two more books that year and keep going as fast as I could.

But I didn't. Writing and releasing Cat around the day job (and my own wedding, by the way) had been exhausting. So instead, I took a poetry manuscript out of a drawer and published that, too. Half the poems in Broom of Anger had already appeared in literary journals, and for some of them, I'd won awards. I was curious to see how it would do.

Broom of anger

It probably won't surprise you to learn that sales were pretty much non-existent. Poetry is a tough enough sell for traditionals, and self-published poetry, no matter the quality of the work nor the stature of the authors contributing blurbs, is a non-starter.

But I persevered. My husband and I had a change in our living situation when he was offered an opportunity to steer a grant at a small college in a small town... And the semi-rural life held appeal for us both. I stepped down from my management position at the day job and dropped to four days per week, which I would work remotely, from the small town. I hoped this would provide more time for the novel series.

I'd published Cat in late July of 2014 and followed it with Framed and Burning in the fall of 2015. From first draft to release, it took me nine months.

There's a lot that goes into self-publishing that takes up time. You could think of an iceberg, how you see only 1/3rd of it, the part above the water. The other 2/3rds of being an indie is everything ranging from reviewing voice actor demos for your audiobook to formatting the actual manuscript to writing a marketing plan. Most of it has nothing to do with the actual writing.

Framed and Burning garnered a good deal of critical success, most notably as a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. A huge fan of the celebrity librarian, I was awash with honor over that nomination. But the top prize went to a traditional author who already had a long list of such awards. I won a second indieBRAG and was nominated for a RONE Award, but sales were just okay.

FRAMED AND BURNING IndieBRAG 2

I'd worked diligently to professionalize my novel-writing business, forming an LLC and hiring professional editors, a book cover artist, marketing consultants, and so on. I researched social media, tried to get good at it, and bootstrapped as much as I could, making lovely connections in my small town, where people still treat writers as if we're at least minor celebrities.

Meanwhile, I'd made the decision to exit from the day job. It had been a heady, exhilarating, and at times, challenging, five years. I'd created a narrative design team, basically a group of game storytelling experts, and together we raised the bar on storytelling in the company's collector's edition games. Passionate about game storytelling, I wanted to continue to write and design games, but a no-compete clause in my contract kept me from any work that could be construed as "materially similar" for a blackout period of one year. So I tried my hand at some new genres, such as Smash Squad for WG Cells, and I wrote about games for several publications and my own blog.

And I continued to write novels. I released the third book in the series the week of the presidential election in 2016. 

The country was in upheaval with Trump's victory, and no one paid any attention to Bound to the Truth. I won a third indieBRAG for it, though. The medallion represents the top 10 percent in independent publishing, so it's a strong achievement, especially considering the volume of self-published works. I still think it's the best book in the series, but it launched to dismal sales and never recovered.

Brokenhearted, I had long conversations with two successful authors--one indie and the other a hybrid of traditional and indie--who both proclaimed the self-publishing bubble had burst. The hybrid author has gone back to 100 percent traditional. The indie is aggressively pursuing a career in scriptwriting, which she believes is the next big opportunity.

I pulled back on investment in the Dreamslippers series and made due with one final pro cover, for the boxed set. After a year, it's still sitting on Amazon without a single review, and sales have been poor. It's tough, because I know some indies who are still making an all right living. But they tend to serve niches (such as a Christian apocalyptic writer) that are ignored by New York publishing. They also usually have military pensions or are kept financially afloat by their spouses' incomes. 

Boxed set

But frankly, it would have surprised me if I'd been able to make a living on indie books alone. I'd already survived the collapse of the journalism industry, and I understand that we are in the throes of a digital revolution that places primacy on the visual. I approached the entire enterprise with the idea that it was a huge experiment, and a gamble. While there are many things I might have done differently, on the whole, I learned a lot, acquired new skills and further honed old ones, and grew as a writer. The result is an award-winning novel series to my credit and scores of articles written by and about me and my work.

On balance, I'm glad I tried to become a full-time novelist, though commercial success proved to be an elusive beast. 

What continues to do extremely well for me is my work in games.

The one-year blockout from my no-compete clause ended in February 2017, and it was as if the floodgates opened. Without having to actually look for any work, it has consistently found me. By spring, I was already at full-time capacity, writing and designing games for Daily Magic, an old partner of mine from the day job, as well as a few studios new to me that were trying innovative game formats. 

I wrote and co-designed what could be considered a "game novel" or "interactive novel" called Sender Unknown: The Woods. It released in the "New Games We Love" section of the App Store and has been a top 10 in several categories. Gamezebo calls it "the next leap forward in mobile." Another writing/co-designing title for me, Matchington Mansion, has pretty much blown the doors off mobile with its popularity. I'm just now finishing up a "visual novel" for Pixelberry Studios, and it will release in March of this year. Additionally, I'm at work on a project for GSN Games, releasing in early 2018, and in talks with Jam City, a studio I've admired for some time. I'm also designing and writing levels for G5's hit game, Survivors: The Quest.

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It was into this exciting vortex that Webster University entered last summer, and with it, an opportunity to return to my roots--in two ways. One, as a professor of games and game design, as visiting faculty for the 2017-18 school year. Two, in St. Louis, where I'm, as we say, "from."

Some of you know I used to teach English at Pierce College, back in the early 2000s. I had tenure but left to pursue a writing career on my agent's recommendation and because I struggled to pay off my student loans on that faculty income. But I feel the classroom never really left me; I was destined to return and had already as a guest-lecturer at University of Florida and Seattle University.

My family is here in the area, on both sides of the river. I earned my bachelor's degree at Saint Louis University, and I cut teeth early in my career as a writer for the St. Louis Science Center and various city publications. I wasn't born here, having grown up a child of the Air Force with its mandate of frequent moves, but I attended part of junior high and all of high school in Illinois and still think of the Lou as "home." 

Honestly, I wasn't sure I could take on full-time faculty duties with the game work ramping up so quickly. But I hit it off with the faculty there, and it became an opportunity not to pass up. I knew of Webster University's strong reputation, and since the program is new and in need of leadership, there's a chance to put my stamp on something that could be key to the success of not just the school but the whole St. Louis region. What impresses me most is the seed of entrepreneurship being sown here by a small but quickly growing local game industry.

I've had to say no to some work, which is regrettable, but I feel reborn in the classroom. Teaching game design is in many ways a dream-come-true, and a fitting transition from all that dreamslipping.

Game-design

Image courtesy of Webster Today.

So here I am at year end, a novelist, game designer, and teacher. All the best to you in the New Year, and I'd love to hear from you by email or in the comments below.


Breaking News: 'Sender Unknown: The Woods' Featured on App Store!

Today we released the 'game novel' I wrote and designed with Daily Magic, and the game is now featured on the App Store! Here we are in the top running under 'New Games We Love' ~

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