Writing Feed

From Professor to CEO in One Year

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Most of my writing and designing energy in 2018 went into this game.

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. 

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The groundbreaking text puzzler I wrote and designed with Daily Magic.

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. 

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The genre-dominating narrative Match-3 that taught casual game skeptics that story matters.

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. 

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The App Store icon, featuring player character Lucio.

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.

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Romance, bingo-style.

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.

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I wrote the script for the Choices book, Veil of Secrets.

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.

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In-development game art from the Crime Stories series.

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. 

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The whole team pitched in on this chart-topping game, and Dexter Woltman polished the text.
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Tamsen Reed has edited, written, and designed cases for this hit title.

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.

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Would you 'play' this series as an interactive mobile game?

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:

Survivors: The Quest - On the App Store - On Google Play 

Homicide Squad: Hidden Crimes - On the App Store - On Google Play

Sender Unknown: The Woods - On the App Store - On Google Play

Matchington Mansion - On the App Store - On Google Play

Bingo Bash - On the App Store - On Google Play

Choices: Veil of Secrets - On the App Store - On Google Play

My Beauty Spa: Stars & Stories - On the App Store - On Google Play

You Might Also Like:

Brunette Games Teams Up with Cherrypick on Interactive Novel Series

From Mystery Novels... to Interactive Mysteries

The Rock, Paper, Scissors Phenomenon

 


A Christmas Gift to My Fellow Missourians

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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!

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Over the Wing and Into Your Heart

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Leaving St. Louis in the rain.

I love a good over-the-wing shot, and this one in particular makes me proud. I snapped it just before we taxied away from the terminal here in St. Louis this summer.

Shots like this capture the drama of travel, the wistfulness of leaving one place, and in this next photo, the excitement of arriving somewhere else, where mountains suddenly appear on the horizon.

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Heading westward, toward Washington state.

I thought "over the wing" shots were more of a thing, but a Google search reveals that "over the wing" means birds more than airplane wings. And I'm OK with that.

The reason wing shots work, at least for me, is because they provide a context for the aerial view. They orient the gaze to the perspective of the airplane passenger, nestled safely in her cabin, able to lean in and enjoy a view only brought to her by the miracle of flight, something called "lift." (We don't even know why lift works, but it does, reliably.) 

Years of studying visual narrative tells me these shots are also rich in story progression, giving us the beginning of the travel tale, the start of the journey. There's forward movement in the shot, too; even with a static image, we can feel the hum of the engines, the rush through clouds and air... All this begs the question, What happens next?

We can look at wing shots in terms of camera technique as well. The perspective in my St. Louis terminal shot above works, with both the ground striping and the wing taking your eye to the terminal, aglow in the early morning storm. The out-of-focus drops cast a watery mood. I had to work really hard with my little iPhone camera (new, still getting used to the updates) to get it not to focus on those window drops.

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Art from the sky.

In my Google search, I did find one blogger addressing "How to take a photograph out of a plane window," so apparently wing shots are kind of a thing, even if SEO isn't recognizing the phrase. Without thinking about it too much, I followed Darren Rowse's point #5, "look for points of interest." In the above shot, taken during liftoff over Missouri, the meandering rivers are the stars. 

Sometimes, you see something you don't entirely understand--and won't forget. This, over Salt Lake City.

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What's happening here, exactly?

If you know something about these colorful, divided lakes, tell me in the comments below.

 


From Mystery Novels... to Interactive Mysteries

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Books, games... they're all on devices now anyway!

I recently renewed my membership in the venerable organization Mystery Writers of America, and for the first time, I qualified for active-status membership. MWA is "the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre." To qualify for active status as a fiction writer, you have to be a professional author, and the criteria for that is listed here, but essentially that means you need to have earned more than the threshold in one calendar year on "mystery works."

Note that the MWA motto is 'crime doesn't pay... enough,' and that's for a reason. The threshold is not what would constitute a full-time livable wage. This might be surprising to anyone who thinks that authors these days earn gobs of money the minute they put their works out into the world. But, heh, heh, no. See this post for more on that. But anyway, back to the active status. What pushed me over the hump in 2017 was my writing for games, not books.

Last year, I wrote and designed four game titles that involved a mystery of some kind. Two were squarely in the mystery camp, and narrative driven, so I based my active status application on those.

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Images courtesy Pixelberry Studios

The first is my latest release, a choice-based narrative for Pixelberry Studios, just out in June. Pixelberry is a market-leader in this space, and it was an honor to get to work with the creative, smart team, especially my editor, Andrew Shvarts, who also writes both books and games. In Veil of Secrets, what should be a lovely wedding in charming Birchport, Massachussetts, goes horribly awry when the bride, your bestie from college, turns up missing. As a journalist, you're naturally hot on the trail and uncover a strange mystery--not to mention dead bodies. The choice is yours in this interactive romantic suspense story. Which of Birchport's hotties gets your attention is up to you, as well as who lives or dies.

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This title is what you might call a 'visual novel,' as the text is accompanied by character and environmental art, sort of like a comic book. One of the design aspects I enjoy about this work is the chance to weigh in on those art decisions.

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Images courtesy Daily Magic Productions

The second mystery title qualifying me for active status in MWA is the text adventure Sender Unknown: The Woods, published by Daily Magic Productions and released in fall 2017. I've written about this project previously on the blog (here, here, and here). It was featured in the App Store on release and was nominated for an International Mobile Gaming Award. GameZebo called it "the next leap forward in mobile."

Here's the description: Through a text message, fate connects you with a total stranger. Now you are Morgan's only hope to survive. Will you serve as a lifeline, or return to your own life and let a stranger's fate go unknown?

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I think the reason it's received so much attention is that it represents an innovation in the 'chat fiction' genre. The studio owner and I took the text-adventure model exemplified by leading games in the genre and added an element that she and I know well from our work together through Big Fish: hidden-object scenes and puzzles. So while the bulk of the game looks like text messages, the fictional app you and your 'sender unknown' are using also has the capability of sharing images, which allows you to help this stranger solve some odd traps.

Working on games like Veil of Secrets and Sender Unknown holds enormous appeal for me because of the mashup of left- and right-brain activity. My techie side gets to play with my imaginative side, and the two sort of roll around in the paint together. Yeah, and sometimes that gets sexy. ;)

If you're a budding writer out there who thinks writing your novel as a game is your ticket out of a day job, you might want to do some more thinking on this. First, you really have to have a passion for the game. Full disclosure: I was a total nerd as a kid, and that was back in the 80s, when you got beat up for it. I secretly played games like Stellar Lifeline on my dad's "trash 80" Radio Shack computer, and that's also when I encountered my first text adventure, Haunted House. I also read every one of these I could get my hands on.

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Image source NeoGAF

It's not that you have to have played games as a kid to do this work, but thinking you can take your novel and publish it as a game is a sure sign that you're doing this for the wrong reasons--and that it won't work. Both of the games above were conceived of as games--not novels first. After more than a decade as a game writer and designer, I can tell you this is a medium of its own, with its own history, best practices, and techniques. Too much for this post, but feel free to join me July 29 at Pixelpop, when I lead a workshop on this very topic! 

If you're a regular reader of mystery books but have never given games a chance, I recommend diving in. Try one of the above, and let me know what you think. And stay tuned for more coming out in the next year!

For those of you who've played these games or other story-rich games, what do you love about them? What do you think we could do better? Tell us in the comments below.

 


What If No One in Your Family Had Ever Gone to College?

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All images courtesy of College Bound.

I'm the only person in my immediate family to obtain a college degree--neither of my parents has a degree, and none of my three siblings chose the four-year degree route in their careers.

HOWEVER, my mother attended university for a time, with an eye toward earning a bachelor's in Education. A year away from graduating, she chose to marry my father and commit herself to stay-at-home motherhood instead of finishing. You could make that choice back in the early 70s, even on enlisted military pay.

But that college experience stayed with my mother, and I sensed early on that she regretted not snagging the BA. She talked about life at the university often, and she instilled in me the desire to go to college myself. To earn that degree.

Not everyone has the privilege of a mother's influence toward college. While some families take a university education as a given, for many, it's a foreign concept, and especially with the astronomical cost of tuition these days, it can seem as remote as a distant planet.

It's that distance that the organization College Bound works to bridge.

"Just one adult with a college degree can change the cycle of poverty in a family forever," say the folks at CB. They function as coaches, guides, and tutors in the effort to help students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds achieve bachelor's degrees and fulfilling careers.

I know a lot about the organization because my husband, a former-game-industry-brand-manager-turned-grant-manager, works there. And because he does, they found out about me and my work as a visiting professor of game design at Webster University. They invited me to speak to students on a panel for Career Night. Here I am, talking with my hands, as usual.

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The students asked fantastic questions, and we had a lively discussion that got real, if you know what I mean. There were two CB alums on the panel with me, and they were a study in contrasts. One chose to become an accountant, and while he doesn't "love" his job, he loves being able to live comfortably and even travel. His counterpoint was a young woman who took a job teaching at a school in a disadvantaged neighborhood where some of her students struggle with simply getting enough to eat. She loves what she does.

It wasn't planned this way, but it turned out that every single person on the panel was the first one in our families to get a bachelor's degree. Fortunately, two of them had College Bound.

The students apparently thought I was a riot, or so says my husband, Anthony, who was the only guy in the room wearing a tie.

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If you're local and looking to get involved with College Bound, check out their Trivia Night fundraiser on August 25. Of course, you can support them even if you don't live in the Lou. 

So what's your education story? Did you go to college? Skip it and climb to wild success by other means? And who helped you along the way? Tell me in the comments below. Stories are my religion.

And have a Happy 4th of July!