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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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