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Brunette Games Celebrates Five Years in Business

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It's been a wild, wicked, and sometimes, a bit of a wacky road, but this spring, we hit the five-year mark at Brunette Games. Here's a look back at our rise to become the industry's leading casual game storytelling studio.

2021

Brunette Games celebrates its fifth anniversary now as a team of 11, with six full-time employees and five voice actors on contract. We have written and designed 21 released titles for our clients to date, including top-performing games Sweet Escapes (Redemption Games), Lily's Garden (Tactile), and Matchington Mansion (Magic Tavern), with many more unannounced titles currently in development. Our latest release title credit is Uken Games' Ava's Manor: A Solitaire Story.

This year we've also created new content for the Fox IP Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff and Family Guy: Another Freakin' Mobile Game (both Jam City), as well as the high-profile Disney Frozen Adventures (also Jam City). Included in the list is work on Homicide Squad: New York Stories and Crime Mysteries: Find Objects for G5 Entertainment, our oldest client.

And we added Writer|Designers Sara Hardin and Jenna Faulkner to our team in 2021, too. Sara's our latest hire, joining us just this week and bringing five years' experience in publishing and journalism to bear on our clients' projects. Jenna joined us at the first of the year and has already put her MFA in Creative Writing to good use on several unannounced projects. 

Ava's Manor

2020

Just as we began making plans to attend the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, COVID-19 hit our shores, putting a halt to all in-personal knowledge sharing. But along with the rest of the resilient casual games industry, we persevered, growing at a healthy rate despite all the difficulties. We even managed to squeak in a local rendition of our GDC talk before the lockdowns went into force. 

In 2020 we created new content for a few of our clients' ongoing games, such as Sweet Escapes, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff, Homicide Squad: New York Stories, and Disney Frozen Adventures. We also saw the release of new titles Jane Austen Solitaire (Super Gaming), Solitaire Tripeaks: Farm & Family (Tuyoo), and Crime Mysteries: Find Objects. And we added Writer|Editor Amanda VanNierop to our team very early in the year. As our only part-time employee, Amanda regularly amazes us all by committing her considerable brain power to our projects half-time while attending university full-time. During the summer, she gives us her full-time attention, too!

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Notably in 2020, company founder Lisa Brunette was named a 'game industry influencer' by UserWise, and she also co-authored a piece with industry analyst Om Tandon that generated a lot of buzz, "The power of storytelling in blockbuster casual games."

Last but not least in 2020's epic growth: We added three more voice actors to round out our roster of offerings: Ernest White II, star of his own PBS travel docu-series, Marqui Maresca, AKA the voice of Silver in Angry Birds Evolution, and popular Chicago actress/comedian Nicole Perez.

2019

Over a period of two years, we had the CEOs and creative heads of several mobile game publishers flying in to St. Louis to court our interest, and the last of those happened in the summer of 2019. The upshot for us was a few experiments that didn't work out but many that did, and our company grew a lot as a result. 

This year saw the shift from contract status to full-time for both Anthony Valterra, serving in capacity as both business director and lead writer|designer, and Dexter Woltman, writer|designer and employee No. 3. Dexter had joined the team while still a student and was more than ready to step into a tailor-made writing job after earning his BA in Scriptwriting from Webster University, where he met Lisa when attending her classes in Narrative Design. Dexter brought us a signature sense of humor and uncanny ability to channel his mom and sisters when writing for the female audience. Anthony, who's also Lisa's husband in real life, brought 30 years' experience to the table, including brand management for high-profile IP such as Dungeons & Dragons and Avalon Hill.

After fielding numerous client requests for voice-over services, we added two contract actors to our roster: Long-time game industry voice artist Andy Mack and the multi-talented actor, singer, and voice artist Cammie Middleton. Andy and Cammie can both be heard in Wild Things: Animal Adventures, Andy gives voice to dog Marlowe in Ava's Manor, and Cammie recorded the opening sequence for Jane Austen Solitaire.

In spring 2019, Lisa and Anthony flew to Helsinki, Finland, to work onsite with Kuuhubb on an interactive novel project, and in late fall that year, the two flew to L.A. to meet with Jam City's teams on various projects.

This year saw the release of Sweet Escapes, which we helped launch for our client Redemption Games, and we consulted on Jam City's released title Vineyard Valley. We continued to create new content for ongoing games Survivors: The Quest and Homicide Squad: New York Stories (both G5 Entertainment). But the biggest title credit for us this year was for the work Lisa did on a game called Lily's Garden

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2018

Tactile flew Lisa out to Copenhagen in spring 2018, and she continued to consult on the project until opportunity took her into building out the Brunette Games team over the option of remaining exclusively tied to one studio. The Tactile trip happened during Lisa's spring break from Webster University; she served as a visiting professor in Game Design from the fall of 2017 until spring 2018. She had every intention of staying on with the university, and they invited her to do so, but due to the commercial success of a number of games she'd had a hand in bringing to market, and the opportunity that presented, she made the choice to give up teaching to focus on building Brunette Games instead.

My Spa Resort

This year our client Cherrypick Games released My Spa Resort, Dexter's first title for us (see what we mean about channeling his mom and sisters?), and Anthony and Lisa continued to create content for G5's Survivors: The Quest and Homicide Squad: New York Stories.

While Lisa had previously done business as Sky Harbor LLC, a company she and Anthony formed together back in 2014, the name was already taken in Missouri, which prohibits two companies with the same name. After casting around for a moniker, she settled on Brunette Games, for the double entendre (and the inherent girl-power it invokes!). This time, she formed the company as its single owner.

2017

For whatever deep-seated, fantastical reasons, games seem to continuously find Lisa, as happened in early 2017, with three projects that would forge a huge new path in her career. G5 Entertainment reached out with a request to write and design for their long-running, successful title Survivors: The Quest. Marianna Shilina-Vallejo, the head of Daily Magic, a former colleague of Lisa's through their Big Fish association, invited her to collaborate on a chat fiction app. And most notably, Lisa was approached by a game designer in stealth mode to help design and write a new little title that became... Matchington Mansion

Matchington Mansion

Lisa's work on Matchington Mansion was pivotal to its success. Like a lot of the developers she'd encountered previously, the team's first inclinations toward character art and stories that would appeal to the female 35+ audience was pretty far off the mark. But together, they created a strong cast of characters and a good story that is well-integrated with the puzzle and play. She also helped them establish a number of match-3/narrative hybrid techniques that have since been endlessly copied across the breadth of casual games on the market today. And the name "Matchington Mansion"? It was a placeholder for the team, but Lisa convinced them it should be the game's actual title.

Another writing assignment Lisa secured that year was to write Pixelberry's first mystery novel for the Choices app. This became Veil of Secrets, which is widely regarded as a fan favorite.

Veil of Secrets

At this point, Lisa had an invitation to take a one-year visiting professorship in Game Design at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, her hometown. She accepted it, and she and Anthony moved their home and business to the Midwest. 

2016

In early 2016, Lisa left Big Fish Games, where she'd developed and led a team of narrative designers. Her aim was to pursue independent projects, and at first she focused on a series of mystery novels that she and Anthony had begun to publish back in late 2014 under the Sky Harbor Press imprint they created as co-owners of Sky Harbor LLC. She also authored the piece "Evolving Storytelling in Hidden-Object Games" for the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games (SPAG) magazine, worked on a game for WG Cells, and made independent study of interactive fiction, which prepared her very well for all that would come next.

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It's worth noting that back in 2013 or so, Lisa was sitting at a bar with a bunch of her Big Fish colleagues, and a writer from another company asked her if she'd ever thought about striking out on her own with a boutique game-writing studio. "I'd work for you in a heartbeat," the writer said. The idea stuck!

Thanks to all our clients for your continued faith in our ability to tell your game's stories, and to all the players out there who appreciate every word we write. You're sitting on our shoulders all the time, telling us what you want to hear.


Meet the Team, Part 1: Our 5 Voice Actors

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Cammie Middleton is an accomplished stage and screen actor, voice-over artist, jazz and blues vocalist, and stand-up comedian. She's worked with Brunette Games for more than a year, with credits in both Jam City's Wild Things: Animal Adventures and Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen Solitaire by Super Gaming. She's actually an old friend of Brunette Games founder Lisa Brunette; the two go waaaay back.

Fun Fact: They once caravanned from the Midwest to the Florida Keys with a crew of friends and two VWs... the Bug broke down on the way there, necessitating a trip to an Atlanta junkyard, and the Bus stalled out on the way back. It was resurrected with the help of a Greek fisherman, who painted the hub caps gold!

What Cammie Loves About Voice Acting

I love that I get to create a whole world of characters from my very own soul. Characters that are vibrant and polarizing. I get to go work in a special playground, my imaginative heart.

Read Cammie Middleton's bio.

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A highly experienced game industry voice actor, Andy Mack's worked with Brunette Games for more than a year as well, with voice-over credits in three different games: Uken's newly released Ava's Manor: A Solitaire Story, Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen Solitaire by Super Gaming, and Wild Things: Animal Adventures, a Jam City title. Players love Andy's utterances for the dog character in Ava's Manor, Marlowe, so much that they rank the dog as their top favorite, just under main character Ava!

Fun Fact: Andy and Lisa have credits in many of the same hidden-object puzzle adventure games published through Big Fish.

What Andy Loves About Voice Acting

I love VO because it’s a cathartic form of playtime and allows players to connect more with a game and its world. It gives me the opportunity to be other people, creatures, monsters, and everything else I got in trouble for in school.

Read Andy Mack's bio.

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New to the Brunette Games team, Ernest White II writes, produces, and stars in Fly Brother, a debut travel docu-series airing on PBS in the United States and CreateTV worldwide.

Fun Fact: Ernest is also an old friend of Lisa Brunette; the two met around the, um... turn of the millennia when attending grad school for creative writing at University of Miami. They've been writing buddies ever since. "I've enjoyed watching Ernest's written storytelling branch into multimedia projects," says Lisa, "and we're thrilled to get his silky voice into our clients' games." 

What Ernest Loves About Voice Acting

I love connecting with people through my voice. I love engaging the listener, surprising the listener, seducing the listener, pleasing the listener. I get joy out of knowing that people enjoy my voice. That's what makes it fun.

Read Ernest White's bio.

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Also new to the team, Nicole Perez comes from the interesting world of Chicago comedy theater, voice over, and teaching and has made a career by striking a balance in all of them. Her improv theater background guides her voice over sessions to be experimental and open to discovering something unique in projects. She's a fan of learning and narrating complicated medical jargon.
 
Fun fact: Nicole's first live-announcing job was for an awards ceremony for a multi-networking marketing company. She remained behind the curtain for most of it unless she poured tea. It had that "great-and-powerful Oz" feeling, but was really just 5-foot, 3-inch-tall Nicole standing in a corner.

What Nicole Loves About Voice Acting

I love voiceover because no matter the script, you can find a story and a character in anything. If it isn't stated in the script, I get to cook up the world inside my mind and let the mic do the rest. I love exploring characters on mic because I can be inside their mind, as their consciousness. The joy of this even comes to having this moment in commercial copy. It may be an ad about toothpaste, but really... like a good drama... it's always more than just about the toothpaste. 

Read Nicole Perez's bio.

Marqui VO

Also new to the team but certainly not new to game VO, Marqui Maresca is a pro at bringing characters to life that you’ll really care for. You’ll find her voice in the smash hit game franchise Angry Birds, cawing and screaming as the character Silver in the game release Angry Birds Evolution. If you fancy yourself a bit more of the mid-evil game play, you’ll run into her again, as the voice for Sultana from the game that was awarded “Best Family MMO of the Decade” by Massively, Wizard 101.

Fun Fact: Some of Marqui’s favorite performance moments include flying through the air as a stunt swing dancer for the Trace Adkins music video Honky Tonk Badonkadonk and rapping on the MTV sketch comedy Scratch and Burn.

What Marqui Loves About Voice Acting

I love the process of developing a character’s voice. By the time a voice-over artist comes in to work, the writers and graphic designers have already put so much time and consideration into carefully crafting these complex characters. It’s such an honor to be trusted with one of the final phases of the character creation process. There’s nothing like voicing a character for the first time in a room with the creative team and the moment everyone smiles and say…. yep that’s it!

Read Marqui Maresca's bio.


Punchline: How to Use Humor to Bridge Player Connection

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Sam always has something to say in RollerCoaster Tycoon Story

By Dexter Woltman

Who doesn’t love a good joke? Here at Brunette Games, we’ve always believed in three pillars of game storytelling: conflict, mystery, and connection. While there are various forms of connection, one of its cores is the emotional investment players form with the characters and story in a game. One way to bridge this connection is through the use of humor. 

In the casual mobile game market, humor is essential to storytelling. It sparks an authentic connection between the medium of entertainment and the audience. Earlier this year, I wrote about Scoops, the comedic sensation in Redemption Games’ hit title, Sweet Escapes. While Scoops has been a long-time fan-favorite, the key for me is pushing Scoops beyond the traditional comedic relief role by using his humor to bring conflict, mystery, and connection to the narrative.

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Scoops is the comedic sensation of Sweet Escapes

Comedic characters aren’t just there to make audiences laugh. They can cater to the storyline and world of a game, as well as the goals of the developer. When done right, humor lassos in a player’s retention just as Scoops does in Sweet Escapes. Since mobile games are often played in short bursts, a good joke is key to making that time memorable. However, writing effective humor is no easy task. Not only does a writer have to continuously produce high-quality punchlines that are certain to land, but the execution has to be flawless, or else the scene will flop.

So how do you write a good joke? Prepare to open Pandora’s Box. The first step is to establish what genre of comedy caters to your target demographic. Brunette Games has worked across a variety of titles, each with their own unique brand of humor. In Matchington Mansion and Sweet Escapes, characters’ lighthearted quirks are on full display. Solitaire: Farm & Family finds its jokes grounded in more down-to-earth storylines, and RollerCoaster Tycoon Story puts eccentrics on center stage. Vineyard Valley is more raunchy and in-line with shows like Friends, and Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff capitalizes on abrupt antics. Each of these titles has its own audience, making it important to realize what kind of people play your game.

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Working Squirrel has an idea for Lois in Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff

The next step is execution. It’s not enough to have an idea. As John Cleese says, “It’s not that an idea is funny. It is that an idea done exactly right is funny.” If a joke feels forced, audiences may simply roll their eyes or ignore it. To form a true connection between players and a game, the humor has to flow naturally.

And what if the jokes just aren’t coming to you? There are two ways to assist with writer’s block. The first is character compatibility. If two or more characters are in a scene and the humor isn’t coming through, you may be using the wrong characters. The best jokes blossom through genuine chemistry, whether it’s positive or negative. If two characters aren’t compatible, you may consider opting for a stronger pairing. This is especially true in titles like Sweet Escapes or Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff, where there’s a whole town of differing personalities. Some match-ups work perfectly, and others simply don’t. There’s a reason the hit show How I Met Your Mother produced a full episode on why main characters Robin and Marshall don’t pair together.

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Joy and Duncan have great chemistry in Sweet Escapes

The other way to help is by finding inspiration through real references. By comparing your character to a comedic source you’re familiar with, you’re laying out your own groundwork. For example, actress Betty White has such a strong personality. We used her antics as inspiration for the scene-stealing grandmother in Solitaire: Farm & Family. This isn't copying or stealing a character, but rather using them as inspiration for your own unique vision. Then, once you’ve had experience establishing engaging characters, you can work to create your own brand of humor with someone new, much as we did with Aggy in Sweet Escapes.

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Aggy is the new character introduced in the second season of Sweet Escapes

The key to a good joke is the element of surprise. Humor isn’t just about finding a punchline, it’s doing the unexpected. Audiences laugh because the joke doesn’t fit the norm of the conversation. With Scoops or Aggy, it’s nearly impossible to predict what either of them will say next, and that’s what makes them so funny. So, when you’re brainstorming ways to punch-up your joke, consider how you can make it even more unexpected.

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Meemee says the unexpected in Wild Things

When it comes to connecting players through humor, it’s not just about making the right joke. It’s about building a world that caters to its comedy. Even when writing for already-established IPs and worlds—as we do for Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff—you can still find a way to make their established humor your own by expanding your creativity to new audiences. Once the humor flows naturally, so will audiences’ connection.