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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

 


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

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By Lisa Brunette

As you might remember, I was scheduled to speak at GDC 2020, but then the conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I had committed to a local version of the talk here in St. Louis just prior to GDC. This was designed as a way to share knowledge with our developer community, as well as serve as a "live" practice for GDC. At the time that GDC was cancelled, the lockdowns were still limited to the West Coast. So here in the Midwest, the show went on as planned...

Except for one important change. I invited my Brunette Games team members to join me at the podium. I think the show turned out better than it would have been if I'd flown solo! Thanks to the St. Louis Game Development Co-op, which both sponsored the presentation and arranged for a video capture and livestream, I was able to submit the talk to the GDC Vault. And now GDC has also made it available on YouTube. Here it is, called "Conflict, Mystery, and Connection in Casual, Free-to-Play Puzzle Games." Games discussed: Matchington Mansion, Lily's Garden, Sweet Escapes, RollerCoaster Tycoon Story, and Wild Things: Animal Adventures (not Vineyard Valley, so I'm not sure why GDC used it for the video default image.)

It's a pleasure to be a part of GDC even remotely, and we hope to see you all next year!


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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.
 
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We collaborated with fellow St. Louis-based Graphite Lab to create quirky engineer character Maggie, the genius behind the rides in RollerCoaster Tycoon Story.
 
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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.

Seeking a Publisher: Jane Austen Solitaire

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By Lisa Brunette

Last fall, I ditched all social media except for essential Brunette Games activity. With some of the hours recovered from not checking my feeds - you'd be surprised by how much time those 'short' check-ins actually suck up - I personally committed to reading all of the novels written by the early 19th century British author Jane Austen. I followed up each novel with a viewing of the best film and TV adaptations of the work as well. By the time I'd made it through the first four - Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma - out of the blue, Brunette Games received a query about working on a mobile game themed on Jane Austen's work.

How's that for serendipity?

Suffice to say, when Pavel Agoshkov of Israel-based Supergaming reached out to us about adapting Austen's work to the solitaire game format, we were excited to say yes. Pavel and his team smartly wanted to base the launch game on Pride and Prejudice, easily Austen's most recognized and cherished work.

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It's been a pleasure to work with Supergaming from the concept stage, providing full design feedback, narrative design services, writing, and voiceovers. Because of my recent Austen fandom, I took the lead, with Anthony Valterra and Dexter Woltman as support, and both Cammie Middleton and Andy Mack providing voiceovers.

It was my first adaptation in game format, which was quite the challenge. I used the film adaptations as guides in some ways, but they were pretty limited since they have full cinematic worlds to draw upon. I really had to think about the essence of Pride and Prejudice and mesh that with what I know casual game audiences want and need. I believe the result is a lovely take on Austen's world that stays true to her work but is fun and accessible for the casual gamer.

Austen fans will surely appreciate how well the solitaire card game format suits the storyline, as conversations over card games comprise many a scene in the novels. 

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Besides feeling captured right away by what a great idea this project was, one of the reasons we wanted to work on it is the unique art style. Just look at the below interpretation of Pride and Prejudice's main character, Elizabeth Bennet. When Supergaming first shared it with us, it took our breath away. It's not often we see this painterly, realistic art treatment in casual mobile games.

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One of the game's cool features is an interactive collection room framed as a Jane Austen Museum. Players can add to the museum with articles plucked from the pages of Austen's life and work as they progress through the game, and they also function as game powerups.

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We look forward to seeing this game picked up by a publisher. It was designed with the idea that it could be expanded beyond Pride and Prejudice to include adaptations of Austen's other novels as well. It's our hope to continue working on it!

As for my own reading, I've added Northanger Abbey to the 'done' list, and next up is Persuasion. Of course, there's also her posthumously published work, Lady Susan, an unfinished novel called Sanditon that the BBC has adapted to TV, and her juvenilia and other unpublished writings. Come to think of it, Brunette Games could be working on Jane Austen adaptations for quite some time!

For information about Jane Austen Solitaire and Supergaming, please contact Pavel Agoshkov.