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

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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

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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.

Our newest member, Anthony Valterra, is a game-industry vet with 30 years' professional experience. He steered high-profile game brands such as Dungeons & Dragons and Avalon Hill, leveraging his master's degree in religion on titles with heavy mythological content. His former company published the classic D20 player guide, Book of Erotic Fantasy. Since joining Brunette Games, he's designed and written locations for G5's game Survivors: The Quest and works on several unannounced projects as writer, editor, and reviewer.

Dexter Woltman has worked with Brunette Games for more than a year. He possesses a BA in Scriptwriting and has already designed and written an interactive novel and the launch content for an unannounced narrative puzzle game. He's also lead writer/designer on Sweet Escapes, and you can see his impact on this game in the rave reviews players give the character Scoops. Dexter also edits the games Homicide Squad: New York Stories and Jewels of Rome for our client G5 Entertainment.

Most clients and followers know my background by now, so I'll just say this. When I entered the game industry more than a decade ago, I brought an editorial acumen honed as a journalist, published fiction writer, and professor of writing to all the games I've touched. But I also approached every game as a player first, crafting my stories in service to the game. I believe this is why I've had so many successful games to my credit, and that same spirit is why my team continues to rack up successes.


St. Louis Ranks No. 1 for Female Entrepreneurship

My longtime friend and fellow Saint Louis University grad, Lubna Somjee, posted the above recently on LinkedIn. We're honored to be thought of here at Brunette Games, and I'm personally grateful for the recognition. I hadn't realized what a small cohort I'm part of as a female entrepreneur. As the Forbes article Lubna links to says, only 24.5% of U.S. startups in their first two years are owned by women. You can read the full story here, which provides a list of the top 20 cities for female entrepreneurship; St. Louis is no. 1. There's also an interesting discussion of what challenges and factors go into making a city a supportive place for women to start successful businesses.

When I relocated my business to St. Louis from the Pacific Northwest in 2017, I was a solo act. Two years later, we're a team of three full-timers and two contract voice-over actors. We love our Midwestern headquarters. It's been a privilege to hire Dexter Woltman right out of my game design classes at Webster University, and we're active members of our local St. Louis Game Developers Co-Op. I've always said that St. Louis is vastly underrated as a city in a "flyover state." The degree of cultural and natural world offerings at your doorstep compared to the low cost of living makes it, in my opinion, a much better option than cities I've lived in on the East and West Coasts. Of course, my family is here, too, so that helps tip the scales.

Congratulations to St. Louis for this distinction. We're thrilled to be part of the entrepreneurial spirit here in the river city!


Brunette Games Now Offers Voice-Over Services

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Brunette Games is pleased to announce a new offering in our suite of services: voice-over talent! As storytelling becomes more and more of a focus in mobile games, we see greater need for professional voice-actor recordings to help enhance and heighten narrative. As narrative designers and game writers, it's a natural fit for us to work directly with voice-over talent. We write the scripts they'll be reading, after all, and can provide the right direction and feedback for voicing dialogue that best works for the game and characters. It's a great benefit to clients, who can regain valuable studio time by offloading management of this task. We've already inaugurated this new service with one regular client who will have not one but three distinct voices adding texture and polish to one of their games. 

Two voice-over actors have joined our team to support the new offering: Cammie Middleton and Andy Mack.

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I've known Cammie Middleton for many years and have been only too excited to see her acting career soar. A native St. Louisan, she now works out of her L.A. studio. Game industry peeps might recognize Cammie as a series regular in "Dire Multiverse," directed by longtime narrative designer Angel McCoy. Cammie has also played the lead in several films: "Glass Half Empty," "Eastern Standard," and "Caseworx." A multitalented artist, she sings Jazz and Blues, is an accomplished stand-up comedian, has appeared in theater productions across the U.S., and can even make her ears wiggle. Read more about Cammie on her team page, where you can also listen to her reel.

Andy Headshot

Unbeknownst to either of us, Andy Mack and I worked on the same games for the same Eastern European studio for years. That was Serbia-based Eipix, a longtime Big Fish partner and developer of flagship game series such as Mystery Case Files, Hidden Expedition, Phantasmat, Myths of the World, and many others. So literally, Andy has been voicing my scripts for a long time already. Now we can do so directly!

Besides the VO work he's done on Eipix titles, Andy has contributed to Dying Light 2, Whispers of a Machine, Grim Dawn: Forgotten Gods, and many other games. Andy toils daily at the metaphorical anvil of voice-overs, honing his craft and donning the 'chain mail' of vocal awesomeness. He'll proudly shout from his Hobbit hole that doing character work is his specialty, but many bards have sung and several lengthy tomes have been written about his audiobook, commercial, and e-learning skills as well. Give his reel a listen and find out more at his team page.

Please join us in welcoming Andy and Cammie to the BG team. And feel free to reach out to us to discuss how VO might enhance your game. We're happy to do a test sample anytime.

 


St. Louis' PixelPop Festival Is This Weekend!

 

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Developer Philip Hayes, of Bravendary, demo-ing Super Bobbert at PixelPop 2018.

This weekend St. Louis hosts PixelPop Festival, a conference featuring independent tabletop, digital, and experimental games produced by local and international game creators. Here's an official description of the event:

Two full days of diverse conference sessions from industry professionals are curated to equip you with creative tools and resources to make remarkable work that makes a difference. Plus, our official after-parties are designed to help you unwind after the conference and see more of what St. Louis has to offer.

This year Dexter Woltman will represent Brunette Games at PixelPop, so if you're planning to go, please get in touch with him to connect. To support the festival, I offer the below recap of the 2018 event to give you a sneak peek at what might be in store for you this weekend.

From the 2018 blog archives:

As mentioned previously, I gave a presentation this weekend at PixelPop Festival. (If you missed it and wish you hadn't, there's also coverage on the blog with the post "Narrative Design 101: Do We Need Stories? How Do We Make Them Work in Games?" because apparently I'm obsessed with questions-as-headlines.)

Organizers Carol Mertz and Mary McKenzie Kelly and their super-cool army of volunteers did a fantastic job of creating and running a high-quality, highly-inclusive game con. More than one person I met commented on the open, friendly, encouraging atmosphere and the extremely helpful takeaways.

Here are some pics!

The expo hall was overwhelmingly dominated by console games, but I stumbled upon an awesome mobile game by developer Bravendary (photo at top), and since I was tasked with judging games for the Select Award, I gave it my vote. Super Bobbert and the Infinity Tree is a "risk/reward collection game." You play by dragging your finger on the screen or tilting your device to move a pair of telescoping hands up a tree, rescuing kites, balls, and yes, cats–and avoiding collision with tree branches. I gave them some feedback about making the game more accessible to casual players, but I think it's super cute and has great potential. I'm excited to see two developers of color bringing something new to the table.

One of the most interesting talks I attended was the fireside chat between Leah "Gllty" Hayes, a Street Fighter e-sports champion and Jason Li, a longtime fan and competitor in fighting games. Hayes first learned to play in the arcades of her youth here in St. Louis and is from nearby St. Charles. I knew nothing about fighting game culture and found her insights into the differences between U.S. and Japanese subcultures fascinating. For example, in Japan, gamers might be somewhat hostile to those outside the homogenous Japanese culture, but they are very supportive of women learning to game.

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Here's a demo of a game in development called Stepsisters. It's based on the darker, Grimm's fairy tale version of Cinderella, so the object is to, um, get your toes cut off in order to fit your foot into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and win the game. I feel kind of conflicted about it, but I was schooled on feminist references to classic fairytales in the style of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. What do you think?

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Created by students from Bradley University. Pictured here: Warren Guiles, who's in St. Louis this summer interning with Graphite Labs, and Jake Velicer.
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Creepy, or cool? You tell me.

In the category of "That talk you wish you hadn't been late for" is Kevin Snow's presentation on accessibility in games, but I made up for it with a one-on-one afterward, and I managed to snap a pic of this super-helpful collection of resource links.

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Next is a couple of guys down from Chicago, reps from a student-run studio at DePaul University. I was drawn to their table because they had a bunch of books on display, and book/game crossovers are something I would like to see much more of at game cons. They used fish for controllers, so even though I'm not into fighting games, I had to play this one.

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Josh Delson of JDE, for Junior Development Experience.
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The game is called Sashimi Slammers.

One of the cool things about attending a game con in your own town is running into former students--which happened a lot! It was great to see so many game design majors from Webster University representing. Here's Sarah Brill, showing off a game she helped create through her summer internship with local developer Graphite Labs.

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Sarah created art for Compost Conundrum, an educational game about the value of garden composting.

Another Webster face in the crowd was my friend and former colleague Rob Santos, there showing off a unique game interface. You communicate with a spirit through a Quija Board to uncover a mystery in the game Good Luck. The planchette lights up over letters on the board, allowing the spirit to relate the tale.

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The creativity on display here is why students rave about Rob as a teacher.

I think I might have been the oldest presenter at this youthful con, but it's OK. I just told everyone the reason my hair is this color is because I'm a Targaryen.

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I chose "she" as my pronoun sticker only because "She Who Must Be Obeyed" wasn't an option.

Now attending this con was for me personally a surrealist series of flashbacks. Some of you know last summer I moved back to the Midwest after nearly 20 years away. This con was at my alma mater.

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My dorm from 1989-90. Back then it wasn't emblazoned with the school's name.
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I staffed this cashier booth when the garage first opened. It's now undergoing renovation, and maybe I am, too.

To conclude this pic-laden recap, I've presented at and/or attended big cons like GDC, Casual Connect, AWP, and PNWA. But this is one of my favorites for the inclusivity, friendliness, and hometown vibe.