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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?

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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.

Now in Soft Launch: Kuuhubb's 'Tiles & Tales'

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We're really excited to see the soft launch of a project we've been working on for the past year with Helsinki-based studio Kuuhubb, as it continues our march at the forefront of the visual novel genre. This will be our studio's fifth visual - or "interactive" - novel and the third mobile novel app project we've helped bring to market. 

Here's the official press release:

TORONTO, March 19, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Kuuhubb Inc. (“Kuuhubb” or the “Company”) (TSX- V: KUU), a mobile game development and publishing company targeting the female audience with bespoke mobile experiences, is pleased to announce the successful soft launch of its newest game, “Tiles & Tales”. The new mobile game app will be a unique combination of two very popular genres within the female gaming community; match-3 and visual novels.

Jouni Keränen, CEO of Kuuhubb commented, "Tiles and Tales is our flagship second-generation game and Kuuhubb’s key focus in calendar year 2020. I am extremely proud of our talented development team for all the dedication, hard work and love they have poured into the game. I am confident that this is the beginning of a new long-term franchise and a important growth driver for Kuuhubb in the future”.

A photo accompanying this announcement is available athttps://www.globenewswire.com/NewsRoom/AttachmentNg/2740ee3d-946b-4384-828b-b0ab168a7475

Match-3, or tile-matching games are a multi-billion-dollar market and are the most popular genre with female gamers by a significant margin, with some titles generating USD 25-50M in monthly revenue. According to HubSpot, 69% of match-3 players are women. The growing match-3 market is estimated to generate over USD 5B annually and of 20 games that have lifetime revenues exceeding USD 1B, five are match-3’s (Disney Tsum Tsum, Candy Crush Saga, Puzzle & Dragons, Gardenscapes and Homescapes) (Source: Sensor Tower). Recent consolidation within the match-3 segment has seen Playtika and Zynga acquire the Helsinki-based Seriously Digital Entertainment Oy and Small Giant Games Oy for ~USD 275M and ~USD 650M, respectively.

Where puzzles and stories meet - a unique combination

Tiles & Tales is the first game in the market to merge match-3 games and interactive visual novels. While the audiences of these two genres have traditionally been considered separate, market research conducted for Kuuhubb  showed considerable overlap among players, making this game ideal for specifically catering to both groups in addition to holding significant cross-over appeal.  The unique match-3 and visual novels combination has the potential to enhance the respective audience sizes and enables fans of one type of gaming to broaden their horizons by introducing them to another popular genre.

Unique gameplay - wide audience appeal

In addition to the unique genre mash-up, Tiles & Tales introduces new game mechanics that set it apart from other match-3 games: throwing pieces to make matches, rather than simply tapping them, shakes up the traditional gameplay in a way that will get even the most experienced puzzle enthusiasts excited.

From solving a murder to enjoying a romantic vacation, a wide variety of genres and art styles ensures that there is something that will appeal to every player. The well-stocked library has plenty more stories and adventures to come. One of the stories available was written by award-winning author Lisa Brunette, who has contributed to other major story-based games such as Choices and Matchington Mansion, among many others. Brunette is also the founder of a leading narrative design studio, Brunette Games.

Tiles & Tales is the latest example of Finland’s game industry innovation and is the first game developed entirely in Kuuhubb’s Helsinki Game Studio using an in-house developed match-3 engine. The Company is focused on the expansion and diversification of its product portfolio through the creation of its second-generation games, and anticipates that the Kuuhubb game engine will significantly reduce the resources and time required to bring new titles to market.

Availability

Tiles & Tales is currently in soft launch and available for both iOS and Android devices in the following countries: Finland, Croatia, the Netherlands, Philippines and Australia. Global commercial launch is anticipated for H2 2020.

Download Tiles & Tales:  https://linktr.ee/tilesandtales
Tiles and Tales on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/tilesntales/
Tiles and Tales on Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/tilesandtales/

About Kuuhubb
Kuuhubb is a publicly listed mobile game development and publishing company, targeting the female audience with bespoke mobile experiences. Our Mission is to become a top player in the female mobile game space. We believe in empowering women by creating games and apps that will have our female audience relax, express and entertain themselves every day. Through our games and partnerships with select developers, we explore new lifestyle trends that can be converted into games and apps which will bring value to our users, employees, and shareholders. Headquartered in Helsinki, Finland, Kuuhubb has a global presence with a strong focus on U.S. and Asian markets.

Cautionary Note Concerning Forward-Looking Information

This press release contains forward-looking information. All statements, other than statements of historical fact, that address activities, events or developments that the Company believes, expects or anticipates will or may occur in the future (including, without limitation, statements relating to future revenue and development, growth of the Company’s business and the closing of the Proposed Financing) are forward-looking information. This forward-looking information reflects the current expectations or beliefs of the Company based on information currently available to the Company. Forward-looking information is subject to a number of risks and uncertainties that may cause the actual results of the Company to differ materially from those discussed in the forward-looking information, and even if such actual results are realized or substantially realized, there can be no assurance that they will have the expected consequences to, or effects on the Company. Factors that could cause actual results or events to differ materially from current expectations include, among other things, risks related to the growth strategy of the Company, the possibility that results from the Company’s growth plans will not be consistent with the Company's expectations, failure to execute the definitive documentation in respect of, or complete, the Proposed Financing, the need to satisfy conditions precedent with respect to the Proposed Financing, the possibility that the completion of the Proposed Financing may be delayed or that the terms of the Proposed Financing may change, the early stage of the Company's development, competition from companies in a number of industries, the ability of the Company to manage expansion and integrate acquisitions into its business, future business development of the Company and the other risks disclosed under the heading "Risk Factors" in the Company's annual information form dated November 7, 2018 filed on SEDAR at www.sedar.com. Forward-looking information speaks only as of the date on which it is provided and, except as may be required by applicable securities laws, the Company disclaims any intent or obligation to update any forward-looking information, whether as a result of new information, future events or results or otherwise. Although the Company believes that the assumptions inherent in the forward-looking information are reasonable, forward- looking information is not a guarantee of future performance and accordingly undue reliance should not be put on such information due to the inherent uncertainty therein.

Neither TSX Venture Exchange nor its Regulation Services Provider (as that term is defined in the policies of the TSX Venture Exchange) accepts responsibility for the adequacy or accuracy of this release.

For further information, please contact:

Kuuhubb Inc.
Jouni Keränen - CEO
jouni@kuuhubb.com
Office: +358 40 590 0919

Bill Mitoulas
Investor Relations
bill@kuuhubb.com
Office:  +1 (416) 479-9547


Narrative, from the Beginning

By Anthony Valterra

The question of whether to design a game and then fit a narrative into it, or to have a narrative and design the game to fit is probably as old as chess. There are numerous examples of success in both categories. And there are plenty of successful games with little or no narrative. I guess a narrative with no game would be a story, but  that is another blog post entirely.

But in the current genre of casual iOS games, the value of narrative is beginning to be understood. The huge success of Matchington Mansion and Lily’s Garden, in particular, has caught the attention of many a developer.

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But there is a secret to both of these games: The narrative design was brought in early. No, it wasn’t the case that the narrative designers were brought in first. But in both cases, they were brought in early enough that art assets and game play could be adjusted to the narrative. Those cute little pillows in the Match-3 of Matchington Mansion? They were suggested by the narrative design. Lily’s tragic story in the first narrative cut scene? Created by the narrative designer.

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A lot of terrific synergies can occur if narrative is brought in as early as possible. Narrative can be incorporated into tutorials and game mechanics. Game art assets can reflect or support the narrative. Tying the narrative closely to the game makes the user experience seamless and encourages engagement. This has been shown again and again in A:B testing and in focus groups.

The worst situation in game development is taking a nearly complete game out to A:B testing and hearing from representative consumers that the story is not engaging, or that they find the story boring, or even worse: offensive or problematic. Then narrative expert or consultants are called in to salvage a game. But in these cases it is almost always true that the budget has been spent and there is no money to revise, alter or add assets, change code or alter UI. In the very worst cases some narrative or text is part of the graphic art and cannot be altered, either. Now the narrative designers must try to revise and improve the story by only changing the text. This is an extremely difficult proposition.

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If you bring in expert narrative early, you might avoid becoming the next Internet meme!

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The Brunette Games Writers' Room