A Formula for Romance

In 2010, and I founded Silicon Sisters Interactive with the aim of developing games for girls and women. For decades, the videogame industry has focused on the hardcore male player, and over the past 30+ years, we’ve gotten really good at making high-quality, immersive, and potent gaming entertainment for that audience. Now, with the advent of new platforms, which in turn brought new casual gaming audiences, Silicon Sisters believes it’s our turn to take the same quality standards applied to AAA titles and create games for women like ourselves.

At Silicon Sisters, we’re all considered vets, with over a decade of experience each and plenty of shipped titles. As such, we have an idea of the best practices and common development pitfalls. Yet with casual/mobile games, we were stepping into a new world – new hardware platforms, a self-publishing model, new forms of monetizing games, and the biggest constraint of all, limited funding.

We’ve been fortunate to receive dollars from the Canada Media Fund twice. The first time we made , a game for tween girls set in high school. But from the minute we opened our doors, one of the most oft requested genres was romance, so when we were funded again, we embarked on Everlove: Rose, an interactive romance for adult women. We started development in March 2012 and Everlove shipped for iOS and Android in the summer of 2013 (PC and Mac versions are forthcoming).

Choosing Romance

Romance has come to gaming in some interesting guises – from the Japanese dating sim genre, to an app called , to an interesting indie game called . We analyzed all our options and chose to make a casual narrative game that puts players at the helm of an individualized romance novel. The protagonist, Rose, is a 21st century woman who turns to therapy to work out issues in her personal life. Through past-life regression, she’s transported to Heart’s Home, a medieval village where she can pursue a romance with any of four different men. Conversations between Rose and other characters give players an opportunity to choose her responses, define her personality, and ultimately decide which romantic path to pursue. There’s also a mystery to solve regarding the death of Rose’s father, and some light HOG sequences and adventure game-like puzzles. After completing the game, you can replay to experience different story branches and alternate endings.

According to the, more than 74 million people read romance novels each year, with women accounting for 91 percent of this massive audience (Silicon Sisters’ founders included!). We’ve always thought of curling up with a good romance as a treat – like chocolate and a crackling fire on a cold day. And we wanted to make that experience interactive – to give the reader choices about who they would pursue and how they would go about doing that.

Uncovering Our Audience

One might think that because we’re women making games for women, we can somehow channel the preferences and desires of women and therefore don’t have to work so hard to figure out what appeals to them. Because we had always been making games for people other than ourselves, we knew not to make that assumption, and instead to research the heck out of a given player profile.

We amassed an enormous amount of research – both on gender play patterns and on romance structure specifically. We used observational and experiential studies of play patterns, abstracts on romance structure, tropes and standards, and arcane topics like social and evolutionary anthropology. The study of all these topics provided inspiration and allowed us to filter information through the lens of game mechanics. (We’re well aware that gender is a contentious line to divide people on. We see a continuum of play preferences, from butch on one end to femme on the other end. Silicon Sisters is making games near the femme end of the spectrum, so know that when I use the moniker “female” or “male,” I’m really referring to humans on either end of that spectrum, regardless of actual gender.)

From the get-go, we had the concept of making this game for a narrow, vertical market slice. We knew that we didn’t know what those people wanted, but that we could find out, and translate it into a game experience.

Deconstructing Romance

Once we felt like we understood who we were making Everlove for, we sat down as a team to deconstruct what’s tantalizing about a romance story and to incorporate the audience expectations for romance (such as a happy ending, a relatable protagonist, a great storyline). We quickly came to the mantra ‘unresolved sexual tension’ – from a narrative perspective, this provides the anticipation and the building of desire critical to the ‘chocolateness’ of the story. We turned that into the acronym UST and referred to it constantly while making choices in art and dialogue for the game.

We also wanted a strong female protagonist: someone who would not be chosen, but would do the choosing; someone who would not be rescued, but who would do the rescuing; someone who would express the contradictions and ambiguities of femininity and navigate those waters in an empowered and independent way. Which meant that in the end, Rose had to have the option to go solo, to put her career first if desired, or to opt for a lesbian relationship. As much as we could, we tried to stick to those options, which made for branching dialogue trees that could have been mind-bending for us to script, if not for a nice little piece of software named . (If you’re looking for a way to manage your dialogue, characters, and attributes, check it out.)

The 50 Shades of Grey Effect

When we started working on Everlove, one thing we had on our side (which I’ll put down to good instincts <buffs nails>) is that our timing was excellent. There has long been a segment of the game development community advocating erotica and Adults Only rated games. The problem has always been that big retailers like Walmart won’t sell AO games. Though Everlove was not conceived as erotica, the fact that digital distribution had removed the need for packaged goods and that self-publishing has simpler ratings standards makes now a better time to attempt this game than ever before.

And then came 50 Shades of Grey. Just as our funding was coming through, 50 Shades brought erotic romance to the mainstream and legitimized it. Once a book like that, which is fairly daring on the surface, reaches the level of normal cocktail conversation, you know it has set a new standard. I remember watching an interview with a British gent, he must have been pushing 70, who said of course he had a copy of 50 Shades of Grey on his bedside table; he had to know what all the chatter was about. That’s mainstream. And having something like 50 Shades on everyone’s lips was further validation that the public was ready.

50 Shades also helped us by answering our questions about language, because one person’s sexy is another person’s off-putting. Where is the line to be drawn, so that you create longing and anticipation without getting awkward and clinical? 50 Shades gave us some answers. E.L. James had set a new high water mark for ‘sexy talk’, (a much higher water mark than we intended to meet, mind you) and she did it by being incredibly descriptive while taking out all the scary words. Euphemism is our friend. And developers that we are, we actually created a spreadsheet of words and their synonyms, because we didn’t want to match 50 Shades for explicit language, but we wanted to be steamy, while at the same time sticking to our rule to ‘Keep it Classy’. So we nerded out by quantifying it and in the end, I think the romances in Everlove are exactly the right temperature.

Though we had experience, solid research, and timing in our favor, creatively, making an interactive romance was not as easy as it may sound. Truthfully, making games in general is not easy. There’s a tendency to get mired in complexity, there’s a tendency to prototype insufficiently, then throw everything in to snazz it up, and there’s certainly a tendency to second guess yourself to such an extent that you are late to market and over budget. And I for one, as a veteran developer, believe I committed the sin of assuming that making an interactive romance was going to be pretty straightforward. Wrong indeed.

Third Time’s the Charm

Everlove’s narrative requirements led to the crucial decision of who would be the ideal writer. We chose a published author in the romance genre who didn’t necessarily know interactive constraints and development. Because our writer needed a recipe for each section of dialogue, our game designer had to spec that out in detail. The designer had to take into account what level each of the player characters’ attributes ere, whether the player had solved a particular puzzle, whether she had collected this or that, and if so, then here were the three dialogue choices she could make, but if not, then…you get the picture. The design specs took more time to write than the subsequent ‘fill in the blank’ word-smithing, and the process became untenable.

The good news was that we all knew the story so well that we could do that. The bad news was that there was no unified voice and, well, we weren’t pros. It was serviceable, but not shippable as a final game.

At that point, we were approaching the deadline to deliver a build that was going out to a large group of playtesters. This would ostensibly provide a huge amount of feedback that we were keen to get, so we all frantically sat down to write the game ourselves. Brenda, myself, our lead designer , art director , and artist all took a character or two and wrote them from beginning to end. The good news was that we all knew the story so well that we could do that. The bad news was that there was no unified voice and, well, we weren’t pros. It was serviceable, but not shippable as a final game.

We finally found , a game developer who had cut her teeth on the Dragon Age series, well understood the female audience, and is a top-notch writer. Tonia rewrote our entire game in some scant number of weeks (that I hesitate to actually quantify for fear someone else will ask her to do this kind of herculean task again) and delivered an enormous amount of dialogue at high quality. I think every review I’ve read of the game has given kudos to the writing. Give it up for Tonia, people.

Square Peg in Round Hole

Our studio gambit from the beginning has been to invent game mechanics that are specific to a female audience and to stockpile those mechanics and iterate on them over time. The main mechanic in School 26 is a Parrapa the Rappa style call-and-response mechanic based on empathy (called “emote” internally). An NPC delivers dialogue and you respond by selecting a facial expression that engenders empathy between the two of you. The player selects from a piano-key layout of emoticons along the bottom of the screen and is rewarded in varying amounts, the net result being that as you select appropriate expressions, you’re levelling up the other characters by solving their problems, rather than levelling up yourself. Anecdotal feedback we got was that girls loved it and intuitively grasped the concept, fathers had no idea what was going on, and the 17-year male crowd used the game as a way to rehearse not-putting-their-feet-in-their-mouths during the types of emotional conversations our high-schoolers were having. It is a great success with one million downloads across 32 countries, and 30,000 girls following us on Facebook.

Another mechanic we constructed and nurtured in the sequel of School 26, , was the idea of information as currency. Information could take the form of secrets or gossip, with the goal being to use that information strategically in the game, to reveal it, or cleverly not reveal it – playing Video Poker using secrets, as it were. In designing Everlove, we used both of these initially, and fell into the trap of over-designing. The Emote mechanic became much too complex and lost its fun. We felt then, and I still feel now, that there is another level this mechanic will reach one day, because the subtleties of facial expressions and body postures are extremely potent communicators in the real world, but we couldn’t devise a scheme that worked in the amount of time we had, without getting overly complex with sliders and facial morphing on not-so-fun interfaces.

The secrets mechanic could have suffered the same fate, but it was rescued beautifully by our designer Kim Hansen. At this point in production, we were being courted by a major publisher of casual games for women, and they asked us to make some pretty large-scale shifts in the game based on the results of the focus test I mentioned above. Our vision was clear and we bucked against most of the changes but one – the addition of a new puzzle element – dovetailed nicely with our plans for collecting and disseminating secrets, so we were able to take that to its next iterative level.

The Next Big Thing?

Although these types of hurdles come in different forms on almost every project, with Everlove, our decisions were especially tough to make because we’ve seen much evidence that it’s an uphill battle, and sometimes a fatal one, to try to convert a non-gamer to become a gamer. The big question that haunted us from the beginning of development was how gamey to really be. Romance readers number in the hundreds of millions, but would they convert from the written page to an interactive experience? Gamers number in the tens of millions, but would they likewise convert from playing to reading? The line down the middle of that, or better, the Venn diagram center of that, was where we lived the entire time.

So it was with palpable relief that the reviews of Everlove have been positive. In fact, ‘girl gamers’ have been surprised by how much they liked it. Which is a very good thing to hear from a very discerning audience. We’ve been lauded for taking a solid iterative step in interactive romance, which leaves us plenty of room to continue making strides in this arena.

But perhaps the most gratifying feedback we received came two months before Everlove even released, when George Lucas was asked during a panel what he thought the next big trend would be in gaming. He responded, “The big game of the next five years will be a game where you empathize very strongly with the characters and it’s aimed at women and girls. They like empathetic games. That will be a huge hit, and as a result, that will be the game industry, where suddenly you’ve done an actual love story or something and everybody will be like ‘where did that come from?’”

Seriously. We could hardly help but check over our shoulders.