So, there’s a possibility you’ve heard me gush before about a few certain phone apps, namely High School Story, Hollywood U, and Choices (which has three “books,” each of which is its own kind of sub-game), because they’re frankly fantastic writing and ridiculously for the YA/NA crowd. Well, it turns out that one of the crew responsible for these games, all made by Pixelberry, is Andrew Shvartz, the Swanky 17 author of the awesome-sounding Royal Bastards. Shvartz is Pixelberry’s lead designer, and he, COO Kara Loo, and Choices head writer Max Doty were kind enough to answer some mildly obsessive questions for me about the games, the process of writing, and more!
I don’t want to spoil anything about any games but first of all, I have to ask: How dare you?
Kara: Well, despite Andrew’s first reaction, we’re not actually evil. But we are always trying to tell the best story, even if that means breaking some hearts along the way!
Let’s start with the basics: how did Pixelberry start, and where did the concepts for HS Story, Hollywood U, and Choices come from?
Andrew: Pixelberry was founded in 2008 by a small group of friends who’d been working together for a while, first at a mobile games company called Centerscore and then later at Electronic Arts. Our biggest game before Pixelberry was called Surviving High School, and it was an episodic interactive story for the YA audience, all about teen romance, friendships, drama, etc. It was actually really big for its time, one of the biggest original hits of the pre-smartphone era, and it ended up running for hundreds of episodes. It even had a crime-based spinoff, Cause of Death.
After we left EA and started Pixelberry, Surviving High School was kind of our guiding light. It showed us that there was a really big market that wasn’t being served, of mobile users who wanted story-based games, and in particular, stories that deviated from those represented in traditional gaming: stories about romance, focused on character, and frequently about women. At the time, sim games were really popular, so we decided to combine our existing experience making narrative games with a simulation design, which is how High School Story was born. Hollywood U was the logical extension of that, taking a lot of what we’d learned and applying it to a slightly older setting.
We considered a lot of different options for our next game, but Choices stood out right away. It was a way for us to get back to our roots in a lot of ways, to go back to episodic interactive narrative, and to really let our writing team, which I think is the best in the business, shine.
How did the writers for the games come on board?
Kara: Mostly people want to come work at Pixelberry because they’re passionate about stories and games. We have a really intense application process and interview system that I can’t talk too much about or it would ruin some of the things we do. We’re actually right now looking for awesome writers… if anyone’s interested in applying, there’s a link on our Careers page: http://www.pixelberrystudios.com/careers/
Bless you guys for the lack of heteronormativity in your games, especially in “The Freshman” in Choices, which really well balances inclusion without the pretense that everyone in the world views queer relationships exactly like straight ones. Please tell me we can expect this to keep up with future installments and games! And in general, how much is diversity a priority in the game creation?
Max: Representation and inclusivity are really important to us. In crafting “The Freshman,” we knew right away that we wanted players to at least have the option to date a woman, and we’re certainly interested in exploring that relationship further in sequel books.
To some extent the way our values inform our writing might lead to experimentation book to book. For example, in an upcoming story, we may let you switch POVs, inhabiting some characters that are straight, others that are gay, and others with a more fluid sexuality. Above all, it’s about staying true to the characters while striking the right balance in terms of giving players the freedom to roleplay and choose who they love.
Are any of the storylines, characters, or dialogue based on real people, other than the ones that are openly celeb-inspired?
Andrew: Sometimes we might take inspiration from current events, like when we had a storyline in HSS about the harassment of girl gamers. But we usually try to keep things original, and definitely try to present them in our way. It’s definitely something to be careful about; one time, I named a serial killer character after a friend of mine, and it still comes up as the top result when you search his name!
High School Story has so many different categories of kid, from the basic “jock” or “nerd” to the more specific “foodie” or “mountain climber.” How do the Pixelberry crew generally identify their own high school “types”?
Max: As you’d expect at a gaming company, we’re almost uniformly jocks…
…just kidding! Actually, there’s an incredible variety of “types” represented in our office, from pure nerds, to anime fans, school presidents, student journalists, artists, and more… and actually, yes, a couple of athletes too.
How do you prioritize future updates, and how much does reviewer feedback feed into them?
Andrew: This is a long and complicated process, because there are a million-and-one ideas on how to improve a game and only so much that can be done. We have a lot of meetings to figure this out, and we try to get feedback and ideas from everyone. Player feedback definitely plays a huge role in our decision-making process; we try to read all the reviews, and we regularly compile lists of the most commonly requested features, improvements, etc. One of our big goals is that every update has at least one thing that will make our players really happy, and their feedback is our best way to figure out what that will be.
Obviously, as a YA/NA author, I love that most of these games are all geared toward that same audience. What have been some things that are really important to you to include as part of writing for teens?
Max: I feel like there’s a bit of an attitude that writing “for teens” requires you to understand this alien species, the Post Millennial. Honestly, I don’t see teens as very different from adults, except they lack two resources fundamental to adulthood: life experience and freedom.
The former means that each experience is new and fresh. First love has no context. By the time you’re onto Tenth Love, you know the drill a bit better and you can look out for certain pitfalls and red flags, but you’re also a bit more jaded, more guarded. I think The Freshman draws on the rawness of a young love story, with lots of unintentional drama and heightened emotion.
A lack of freedom (most teens are dependent on their parents for food and shelter and therefore must play by their parents’ rules) means that stories about oppressive power structures tend to resonate more with a teenage audience. I think that partly informs The Crown and the Flame—a teenager is more likely to respond to a story whose protagonist wants to destroy the existing power structure and reshape the world as she sees fit.
Choices has three games/books right now, one “contemp,” one “fantasy,” and one “thriller.” I know there are some novel-writers on the Pixelberry staff – does what you write for Choices correspond to what you write elsewhere, or is it a dip into something different for you?
Andrew: I personally write YA fantasy, which is funny because the Book I worked on in Choices is the crime thriller. Our writing team is really varied in terms of what they’ve worked on elsewhere.
Kara: I love writing fantasy, so it was really great to work on The Crown & The Flame, but I also love when what I’m working on for Choices pushes me in a direction that I wouldn’t normally go. Sometimes it’s really exhilarating to try a new genre or take a story in a direction you wouldn’t normally go and realize that you actually have a lot of fun writing it!
My favorite character in any of the games, which would surprise no one who’s read my first NA, is Professor Hunt of Hollywood U. Who are the faves among the Pixelberry crew?
Andrew: Heh! Hunt’s a big favorite all around. I’ve got a big soft spot for Nishan and Sakura in HSS, and I had a blast writing Dave Reyes in Choices.
Max: I love Bianca’s entourage in HWU. Shae and Lance are awesome, especially as you get to know them better and dig into the complexities of their backstories. In HSS, I love Kara, especially once you get into her relationship with Mia. I respond to characters that switch sides, I guess—either villains who become heroes or vice-versa. Those kinds of turns always interest me and make for complex characters.
Kara: I love writing Val Greaves in The Crown & The Flame. I love writing for characters that are a little meaner and will really just say what they’re thinking, even if it isn’t exactly tactful.
And, sorry, but I must ask: when can we expect to see more???
Andrew: All the time! We’ve got plans to add new chapters every week, and you might even see some brand new Books soon…
Kara: We know people are excited for more, so we’re writing as fast as we can! In fact, we better get back to that right now!
*looks up from where she’s obsessively refreshing Choices on her phone right now* Uhhh I mean thanks so much for letting me pick your glorious brains, and please keep up the awesome work!!