Character Design Feed

The Top 5 Games on Our Roster - and the Stories They Tell

6a01b7c6dfbed3970b022ad38a2a33200c

By Lisa Brunette

In our work with casual mobile game developers, we like to talk about three main aspects of storytelling: conflict, mystery, and connection. Through these three narrative elements, we've worked to push the genre forward, and that's evident in the top five games on our roster. I'll break each one down for you.

1. Matchington Mansion, Firecraft

When a developer in stealth mode reached out to me in early 2017 to help design a match-3 game, I had no idea what an impact it would have on my career. But today Matchington Mansion is still the top-performing game we've had the privilege to work on.

We pushed innovation on this title in several ways. First, we introduced conflict - something many casual mobile games at that point tended to avoid - by adding to the cast list a conniving casino developer named Rex Houston. Upping the ante is the fact that as a blood relative of the mansion's deceased owner, he arguably has more claim to its inheritance than you do.

There's also a mystery. You're given the mansion by a bestselling author whose books you helped popularize (you're a New York editor). You uncover the author's long-ago forbidden romance as you set to the task of renovating the old, crumbling mansion.

The connection comes in with the character relationships - you meet neighbors, a contractor, a gardener, the delivery boy - and rather than merely introducing new features, these characters engage you with their foibles. They're part of the story. Connection's also there as a visual tie between the match-3 gameplay and the story. The tile icons in the match-3 thematically link to the story, such as pillow tiles while Tiffany is fluffing pillows in the living room. This sounds obvious now, as so many games link them, but it was an innovation at the time.

Fun Fact: 'Matchington Mansion' was originally just a placeholder, internal name for the game, but I argued it would make the perfect game name. Don't you agree?

6a01b7c6dfbed3970b022ad3e49a54200b-800wi

2. Lily's Garden, Tactile Entertainment

In early 2018, I flew to Copenhagen to work onsite with the Tactile Entertainment team. I was a huge fan of their Bee Brilliant collapse mechanic games, so the opportunity to work on a narrative sequel was exciting.

With Lily's Garden, the important innovation was to step a bit beyond the "bad guy" antagonist trope and instead focus on a love triangle, with a romantic sit-com storyline. As far as conflict goes, we still offer many:

  • The antagonizing force of the time-limited contract Lily must fulfill in order to inherit her great aunt's home and garden
  • Lily's cousin Larry, who has his grimy mitts all over the place her great aunt wanted her to have
  • The setup of Lily's bad luck streak, which instantly makes her a relatable character

The mysteries aren't trapped in the past, but rather set in the present. Will Lily fall for scrappy neighbor Luke, or come under the sway of her ex? Will she keep Larry out of her inheritance? Will she be able to fix up the garden in time to fulfill her great-aunt's dying wish? Who was this Great-Aunt Mary, anyway?

The connection is first and foremost to the woman whose gift sets the stage for everything else, Lily's great-aunt. Her quirky, warm spirit comes through as Lily restores the home and garden to its former glory. After that, it's friends and love interests... when family doesn't get in the way. Another innovation? The diverse cast, which includes characters of color and a wider array of sexual orientation than you normally see in casual games, especially if you include the viral ads.

Fun Fact: Very little of the content in the famously viral Lily's Garden ads actually appears in the game.

6a01b7c6dfbed3970b022ad39825fd200b

3. Choices: Stories You Play, Pixelberry Studios

Interactive novels can make a tough go of it, and we've been involved in more than one project that's never quite gained traction. But Pixelberry's Choices is an exception, here at No. 3 on our list for performance.

Veil of Secrets was a huge innovation for Choices as its first book in the mystery genre. So for both conflict and mystery, it pushed the boundaries even within a format that had already proved its success. What I tried to do with this title as remote scriptwriter was deepen the villains, giving them a bit of nuance... if not outright sympathy, then at least an awareness of what shaped them. That was a tough call for WASP-y New England characters, a world I have very little first-hand knowledge of, but luckily, my experience as a lover of the mystery genre came in handy.

All of the Choices books excel at connection, with a wide variety of dating and intimacy moments available to players. It was gratifying to write in that space, for a team that values diversity.

Fun Fact: In the premium scene in Chapter 1, your bestie Kate explains that she and Tanner met when he took cover from the rain in her bakery one night. They spent all night flirting... and eating cupcakes. Serious girl fantasy, right? Or maybe that's just me.

6a01b7c6dfbed3970b026bde8db2a4200c-300wi

4. Bingo Bash, GSN

Early in the evolution of casual games, we used to encounter a lot of resistance from designers who feared that more story in a game would mean too many words. Our next top-performer proves that narrative needs scant wordage to steal the show.

In late 2017, we were tasked with the seemingly impossible: Write a love story in 27 characters or less per chapter. The tiny tale would appear in a new room within the Bingo Bash app, just in time for Valentine's Day. 'Dear Diary' was, I think, the first of its kind, another innovation in the casual mobile game space. While for a long time narratives were paired only with match-3 decorating games, Bingo Bash: Dear Diary showed story could be hybridized with other types of gameplay. These days, we're seeing narrative meshed with solitaire and other genres as well.

The 'Dear Diary' bingo room had conflict in the form of the obstacles the would-be couple encounters, mystery in the question of whether they'd ever work things out, and connection when they end up together - and married, before you can say, "Bingo!" 

Fun Fact: I turned this '27 characters or less' restriction into a classroom assignment when I taught narrative design at a local university. Dexter Woltman, now Brunette Games writer/designer but then my student, wrote a micro romance story... about a rock. You can see why we hired him.

6a01b7c6dfbed3970b0240a4c071ea200b-800wi

5. Sweet Escapes, Redemption Games

Speaking of Dexter's quirky sense of humor, the game in the No. 5 spot on our roster really takes the cake in that regard, and all credit to him for the achievement. Sweet Escapes definitely pushes innovation in the area of casual mobile game comedy. Between the Redemption Games team's hilarious animations and Dexter's laugh-out-loud dialogue, the title has gained a huge fan following. It's even spawned fan fiction.

Sweet Escapes has connection in spades. The game also traffics in interesting conflict, with an inspector who seems to be thwarting our heroes' attempts to win the highly prized Sweetstakes trophy... or is he (mystery)? It's been a year and some months since the game's initial release, and the mystery has only deepened. It now involves a crusty ol' pirate named Snackbeard.

Fun Facts: Yes, Scoops really has held all of those jobs. And no, he doesn't wear the same scarf every day.

What's Ahead?

With all of this past innovation behind us, what do we see in the future? It's a question we don't take lightly here at Brunette Games.

Capsule_616x353
One of the best HOPAs ever created, by Artogon and Big Fish.

Personally, I have yet to see the dark, edgy content in casual mobile games that was a regular feature of the hundreds of hidden-object puzzle adventure games I worked on at Big Fish back in 2011-2016. Those games had me on the edge of my seat, and the jump scares at least in one case actually made me jump - in the middle of a cubicle pod at work. While those games were at times dark enough to require a warning label even though they were still casual fare, most of what passes for story on mobile today falls squarely in the cheery camp. When there are mysteries, they tend to be a bit 'Scooby Doo' in tone. A notable exception are two titles we consult on for G5 Entertainment - Homicide Squad and the just-released Crime Mysteries. But the rest have all been light and bright.

Does it matter that we're playing on the phone now instead of PC download? I don't think so. While designers often come to us because they want to compete with the top-performing games above, we think the real competition lies elsewhere - on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO... We'd like to work with you to tell stories no one can put down, or scroll past. Ready?

YOU SHOULD ALSO CHECK OUT

Redemption Games' Scoops: From Fan Favorite to Fan Fiction

Narrative Design 101: Do We Need Stories? How Do We Make Them Work in Games?

Brunette Games GDC Talk on 'Conflict, Mystery, and Connection' Now Available on YouTube

 


With the Juneteenth Holiday, a Pledge: We Can Do Better

WOB_Alex
A character we created for the in-development interactive novel app Crime Stories, a project where we had a great deal of control over the character cast. It's also one of our most diverse.

One of the services we offer at Brunette Games is character design. What this means is that in the process of designing narratives, we also conceive of a game's cast of characters. While we do not create the actual artwork for these characters, and our clients hold final approval on a character's overall design, we play an important role in either proposing the character at the outset or redesigning existing characters.

WOB_Geoff
Geoff, a gay person of color, is your office bestie in 'Woman on the Bridge,' an interactive novel in the Crime Stories app. He is one of the chiropractors in the office where the player character works.

Designing a game character is a powerful act, one we don't take lightly. Characters can connect and resonate with players - and even influence or shape their conception of the world. 

Five members of our team of seven come from ethnic and cultural backgrounds that have been underrepresented in the game industry, and we design games for audiences that have traditionally been ignored. Diversity and inclusion is not only important to us from an artistic standpoint - it forms the very basis of our business.

WOB_Sung
The detective investigating the murder of your coworker in 'Woman on the Bridge.' He also becomes a possible love interest in this choice-based, branching narrative.

We're proud of the work we've done on this front with our clients and want to take Juneteenth as an opportunity to honor the characters we've created together. We support the campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and it is already a recognized day of observance in our headquarters state of Missouri. We've decided to join with other companies in declaring it a day off. However, we also want to stand in solidarity with all those in the game industry who recognize that the work must continue.

WOB_Nora2
A rarity in games even in the over-40 female player market: a character actually depicted as a 40+ woman.

At Brunette Games, we know we personally can do better - and we know the industry as a whole must do better as well. We pledge to push further in this important work. Won't you join us?

MM_Antonio
When Firecraft came to us with their deliveryman character, we chose to model his dialogue after intellectuals we admire in the African-American community, such as President Barack Obama and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Antonio is known for his factoids on cats and other topics.
 
RCT_Maggie
We collaborated with fellow St. Louis-based Graphite Lab to create quirky engineer character Maggie, the genius behind the rides in RollerCoaster Tycoon Story.
 
T&T_Essie & Belinda
While older women are usually depicted in games stereotypically, in some cases literally like "old ladies in rocking chairs," we worked with Kuuhubb to create a realistic character in Esther, whose murder you must solve in the interactive novel app Tiles & Tales.

Redemption Games’ Scoops: From Fan Favorite to Fan Fiction

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 3.13.55 PM
Official Google Play Store art.

By Dexter Woltman

What’s not to love about an adorable penguin who makes ice cream? When Redemption Games’ phenomenal Sweet Escapes first launched, the story centered on a bunny, Joy, doing her best to fix up some sweet shops that have hit hard times. Joy quickly met various friends to help her on her journey, one of whom is Scoops, a sweets-loving penguin.

IMG_0338

Nearly a year of content later, Joy’s world is brimming with colorful characters and a plethora of delicious sweets. Along the way, Scoops grew from a humorous companion character to a sensational fan favorite. He’s played an active part in almost every storyline, and audiences just can’t get enough. Some fans have even gone the extra mile and written fan fiction about him. But what was it that made our lovable penguin friend so popular? Surely, it’s not just his fancy scarf?

33e2b5cc-685b-400d-8c0e-4ffd8a6536de

Ae259458-c029-4c98-99ef-76d43550b8b6

From the very start, Scoops was always a scene-stealer. His obsession with sweets and humorous antics stole the hearts of many. Add Redemption Games’ adorable character design and goofy animations, and the game became an instant fan favorite. But along the way, Scoops’ character started to show a lot of promise beyond cracking jokes. By the time I was involved in writing content for the game, I recognized a lot of potential in our goofy penguin. I didn’t just see him as the comedic relief who likes to make jokes about all the sweets he can eat. I saw him as the heart and soul of Sweet Escapes, and I capitalized on it.

While most characters in Sweet Escapes appear every few regions of content or so, Scoops has had the privilege of maintaining a consistent presence in the game. He’s been there from the start, and, well, he’s still there. So, when it came time for me to write for him, I knew there was more we could do with him. I took a look at his quirks, his many jobs and love of sweets, and I expanded on them. In my eyes, his very specific tastes didn’t just have to translate to sweets. They could apply to all sorts of things. Scarves, occupations, proper lighting—Scoops is ahead of it all. For me, it wasn’t just about dialing up the jokes. It was about making the world his joke. And from that, Scoops' role in the story grew. He's there to contribute conflict, growth, and mystery.

F6965d55-748e-45ef-9e1b-ffc36e87ae7f

So now, more than a year later, Scoops is still a highlight of the game. He gets personal story arcs as he searches to find his role in the group. He doesn’t just make jokes. He’s a real character with flaws and skills. Sure, he has a great eye for decor, but he’s also going to make a fit when that painting is two inches too far to the left. And yes, he’s a penguin who holds a great love for the sea, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to swim with it. That alone leaves his various pirating exploits land-locked for the time being. Scoops is remarkably complex, yet very simple all the same. He just wants to be happy. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want?

Over the last year since the game's release, Scoops has grown from comedic relief to comedic sensation. Audiences love him, and so do we here at Brunette Games. It’s been a long journey, but luckily for fans, that journey is far from complete. So, if you haven’t gotten the chance to see our lovable penguin in action, it’s never too late! Download Sweet Escapes on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store now!

Apple-Black

Google-Black

For more information on Redemption Games' Sweet Escapes, visit the official website here!


We Grew Three Sizes This Year! A Brunette Games 2019 Recap

Bru_Crew
The Brunette Games crew, from L to R: Anthony Valterra, Lisa Brunette, and Dexter Woltman.

At this time last year, I'd taken my first steps toward going beyond the solo act by engaging with a few project-based contractors, but I soon discovered that wasn't enough. There was opportunity to build Brunette Games into the dream team I'd always envisioned: A collaborative cabal of casual game scribes delivering the best narrative in the business.

Brunette Games has now tripled in size, with three full-time staff members:

  • Anthony Valterra, an industry vet who steered flagship brands such as Dungeons & Dragons and Avalon Hill for Wizards of the Coast. His publishing company also released the only roleplaying game guide governing the romantic lives of D&D characters, The Book of Erotic Fantasy. His thirty-year career in brand and grant management makes him ideal in his role as business director, and we've been grateful to get his seasoned perspective and writing chops on unannounced projects for Jam City, Daily Magic Productions, G5 Entertainment, Tuyoo, and Super Gaming. He's also contributed to our work on a new game app set to release in 2020, Tiles & Tales for Helsinki-based Kuuhubb, and Jam City's 2019 game Vineyard Valley. Some of you already know he's my husband in real life, too, making Brunette Games truly a family business.
  • Dexter Woltman, who, though new to the industry, is cut from the same cloth as the rest of us. As one of my original contractors, he's now put in a year with Brunette Games, and sometimes we think he gets us better than we get ourselves. Dexter is lead writer/designer on the top-performing Redemption Games title Sweet Escapes, and in his spare time, he's also written his first interactive novel for an unannounced new mobile app and designed and written for a new franchise title to release in 2020. A superb team player, he's also contributed to our work on numerous games for clients Kuuhubb, Jam City, G5 Entertainment, Tuyoo, Super Gaming, Storm8, Belka Games, and Cherrypick Games, just to name a few!
  • Lisa Brunette, intrepid owner and leader of Brunette Games. My focus this past year has been on taking the skills I honed on industry-dominating titles Matchington Mansion, Lily's Garden, and Choices, plus the five years I spent at the narrative helm at Big Fish, and transferring them to my team so that we have a group expertise not dependent on any one of us. Our collaborative process ensures clients an above-average narrative product, and I'm confident we'll see many more hit games in the coming year as a result.

In addition to the core three, we've got two others on the Bru Crew, both voice-over actors. Cammie Middleton records voiceover work for TV, film, and games out of her L.A. studio, while also playing lead roles in both film and stage productions, including appearances in the Golden Key award-winning "Rochester 1996," to rave reviews. Andy Mack is a longtime video-game voice actor whose work has been showcased at E3, Gamescon, GameInformer, and elsewhere and includes 2019's The Amazing Fantastics and Postal 4. They've both recorded for an unannounced Jam City title to release in 2020.

It's been a whirlwind year of success, but not without its struggle. As a small business owner, I can tell you that running a business from scratch is one of the hardest things I've ever done... from providing employee benefits such as health care to grappling with decisions like liability insurance to handling the complexity of a remote client network spanning the globe. Whether it's working over the July 4th holiday on a rush job (which we did) or getting up for 6 am calls with clients in an opposite time zone (which we do regularly), you have to be willing to go the extra mile. I'm proud to say everyone on this team is, and we have the game credits to prove it. That makes the struggle so worth it!

In 2019, Brunette Games worked with a total of 12 different clients to release three new games and produce new content for three existing games. We've also been working on 10 other games still in development. 

Here's a list of our 2019 new releases:

  • Lily's Garden, for Tactile Entertainment - narrative design, concept origination and character consulting, intro storyboard
  • Sweet Escapes, for Redemption Games - intro storyboard, narrative design, scriptwriting
  • Vineyard Valley, for Jam City - general consulting

We delivered new content for the following games:

  • Survivors: The Quest, for G5 Entertainment - narrative design, scriptwriting
  • Homicide Squad: Hidden Crimes, also for G5 Entertainment - narrative design, scriptwriting, editing
  • Sweet Escapes - narrative design, scriptwriting

And finally, we're working with the following clients on unannounced projects in various stages of development:

  • Graphite Lab
  • Daily Magic Productions
  • Storm8
  • Belka Games
  • Jam City
  • Tuyoo
  • Super Gaming
  • G5 Entertainment
  • Kuuhubb
  • Cherrypick Games

Looking ahead, we're excited about the opportunities for us in 2020 both close to home and far away. Our projects gel best when we can kick off the teamwork in person, which we were able to do this year right here in St. Louis with Graphite Lab, in Helsinki with Kuuhubb, and in L.A. with Jam City. Not every client has the budget for an onsite, but we look forward to seeing you at the Game Developers Conference in March and perhaps at other venues later on.

We wish you a prosperous 2020 filled with creativity, imagination, and great game stories!


The Brunette Games Writers' Room

New-york-times-newspaper-1159719_1920

One of the distinguishing features of working with Brunette Games is that you're not trusting your precious game story to some isolated, solitary freelancer but rather a team of highly trained professionals who work together to deliver narrative design and writing that consistently out-performs other games on the market.

Two of us on the team came to game design from backgrounds in traditional publishing. The convention in book publishing and journalism is for all writing to go through a series of checks and balances before it's ever put out to the public for consumption. The process looks like this:

  1. The writer, sometimes working in a team with other writers and editors, outlines the concept for the work.
  2. A developmental editor provides feedback to the writer on the overall theme, setting, story arc, characters, and the structure of the work.
  3. The writer goes through the draft stage, writing and then revising, with the feedback of the developmental editor.
  4. Once the writing content is pretty well locked down, it still gets two more passes. The first is from a copyeditor, who tinkers with sentence structure and might punch up lines for more humor or drama or both.
  5. Finally, the work gets a final proofreading pass to clear away any typos or errors in grammar and style.

Game writing has not traditionally received anywhere near this much scrutiny, and that's part of why the writing in games has often had a bad rap. The other reason is that game text has often been written by game designers, artists, programmers, and others who usually have zero training as writers.

At Brunette Games, we apply the standards of traditional publishing to our game projects. Whether one of us writes a scene or we draft the scene as co-writers, the text also receives several rounds of feedback and review. What goes to the client is a highly polished product. No one's text gets to the client without review.

Borrowing heavily from TV and film, we work as a "writers' room." We discuss and try out characterizations, scenarios, and dialogue, tapping the team brain. We conduct what's known in Hollywood as a "table read," each of us taking a character and reading out the script aloud to listen, critique, make adjustments, and finely hone the text.

We're also experienced specialists in both writing as a professional skill and specifically game writing and design as that unique practice combining the right-brain creativity of fictional world creation and the left-brain activity of integrating that world with the primary mission of gameplay.

When Lisa Brunette entered the game industry more than a decade ago, she brought an editorial acumen honed as a journalist, published fiction writer, and professor of writing to all the games she's touched. But she also approached every game as a player first, crafting her stories in service to the game. She believes this is why she's had so many successful games to her credit, and that same spirit is why the Brunette Games team continues to rack up successes.