Story/Game idea: “Mother Hood”

After the critically acclaimed flop of a game “Coconut Queen”, I wanted to continue to explore combining resource management, city-building, and a fun story about another Girl Who Kicks Ass. One of the ideas that iWin generously hired a development team to let me prototype was for putting a twist on the familiar legends of Robin Hood.

There are practically no female characters in the original legends. Maid Marian, while not a completely helpless character, didn’t really move any stories forward in the way befitting a protagonist. After poring over multiple versions of the legends (did you know that Robin Hood took place in two different forests, Sherwood and Barnsdale Forest?) I found room in the legend for a new story based on the following:

  • Robin Hood almost never won in a fair fight, in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Robin Hood was a master of disguise, impossible for anyone to find when he was in town.
  • Robin Hood and Maid Marian always met in private. Nobody saw the two of them together until their eventual wedding.
  • Only Robin Hood’s most trusted companions were with him at his deathbed, and the grave of such a famous individual was suspiciously absent.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? Robin Hood is a persona that Marian created on her own.

Marian came across the Merry Men living in the forest, and saw the miserable conditions of their existence. They were cold, hungry, filthy, squabbling among themselves and completely disorganized and unprepared to handle the Sheriff of Nottingham. What they needed, she realized, was a Mom. So Marian became both Leader and Mother to the Merry Men (and women) of Sherwood. She got them to bathe, train, build homes among the trees, and become a big family in the forest. To improve their living conditions, she enlisted the help of a gifted bachelor inventor, Friar Tuck, whose constant tinkering and knowledge of mechanical devices in his home within a hollowed tree led to it being dubbed “The Tuck Knowledge-y Tree”.

But for morale, one of her greatest creations was a Legend. She couldn’t always be there for the Merry Men, and any real leader ran the risk of being captured and executed by the Sheriff of Nottingham. The men needed a leader that could never be caught, never be beaten, and whom all of the Men could love. So she hatched a secret with them, fashioned a signature look that she or any other number of outlaws could don as needed, and gave birth to a legend.

This was the framework for a game about building a new civilization from scratch in the middle of a forest, with plenty of room for humor and inside jokes. Joan of Arc and Mulan provided some useful wayposts for fleshing out the story of a woman living secretly as a man, including the complications of the men falling in love with Marian, who in turn fell in love with someone else.

If I can get an artist to help with the character design, this story could still kick ass. I know what the cliff-hanger ending would be, even.


Story/Game Idea: The Wrong Kiss

This story has been in my slush pile for quite a while. Originally, in 2008 or thereabouts, I was designing a click-management game in the style of Diner Dash and Cake Mania. I had a very specific experiment in mind, to explore a modification to the traditional mechanics of that genre.  The question was: can a click-management game, which is about controlling a single character that must run around and keep a business flowing, work across multiple rooms/screens? I had started to explore it with the design for a game called Spy Pup, which I will most likely talk about later, and came back to the question while working on a project for zSpace, where we were experimenting with what the experience would be like to control a character walking around a virtual holographic environment. The setting we chose was a 3D castle, and I developed the framework of a story in order to guide the creation of assets and supplemental mechanics.

Since the prototype featured a protagonist wandering through a largely uninhabited environment, a room at a time, that was the biggest constraint. In order for the environment to have at least a little bit of life, we added a second character that followed the player-controlled character around and did a bit of wandering while always staying close by. This was the springboard for The Wrong Kiss.

The story opens with Princess Aurora, Sleeping Beauty, under the full effect of her curse. She is asleep in her bed. All of the inhabitants of the castle have been turned into trees and plants that somehow reflect their roles in their everyday lives. The cooks had become a vegetable garden, the King and Queen two majestic trees flowing around the throne room, offering protection from the environment to the courtiers, who had all become beautiful, but sometimes deadly, flowers around them.

But Aurora had a puppy, named Prince,  who had been outside of the castle, chasing a cat when the curse occurred. Upon his return, everyone is gone, except Aurora, who is asleep. The Puppy attempts to wake Aurora by licking her nose.

How does the magic interpret something that can be interpreted as a kiss, and which comes from Puppy Love?

Maybe I’ll tell you.

Story Idea: How To Train Your Human

My wife and son were reading Dragonology the other night, and that got me thinking, in turn, about “How To Train Your Dragon”, which while largely about a peaceful coexistence between humans and dragons, still cast the majority of dragons in a subservient role to humans: doing agriculture, carrying people and so on. With the exception of the main characters of Hiccup and Toothless, who each had a disability forcing them to rely upon one another, it’s an unequal relationship.

A good tool to bring attention to inequalities that often go unnoticed is to reverse the roles and see what jumps out at you. This in turn sparked thoughts about what the world would look like if dragons were the benevolent owners of human pets. In Robin Hobb’s excellent stories in the Six Duchies, dragons often treat humans as playthings or accessories, but this was a little different. Think about your relationship to your pets. Now think about a world–a present-day world–in which dragons treat you that way. Take, as an example, the world of Charlotte’s Web.

  • Your pets are members of your family, with thoughts, feelings, personalities. But humans always come first.
  • Your pet may have started out as food (a pig, a chicken, a dog), but someone noticed a glimmer of a personality, of a soul, and so instead took that beast as a companion. This doesn’t mean that other beasts lack these qualities, just that this one beast had a stay of execution because of dumb luck.
  • Your pets don’t necessarily distinguish you, as a human, as different from themselves.
  • In any contest of wills, the human masters always win and get to decide the fate of the pets.
  • Humans can transfer ownership of pets for any number of reasons, with little to no paperwork or legal involvement.
  • The humans decide what activities the pets engage in, and what their rewards are.
  • The humans can decide between life and death for a pet.
  • Pets have only the lightest of supervision for how they interact with other pets of the same species. It is only when a pet interacts aggressively with a human–especially a human that is not their master–that their behavior is scrutinized, judged, and the pet is punished.

Taken as a set of criteria, this makes a compelling case for dragons living among us. They’re not hidden; humans just try to use the wrong criteria–physical appearance–when trying to identify something that they patently believe does not exist.

What a nice idea for a story that I will most likely never write. I wouldn’t want the dragons to know that I’m on to them.

On making a Coconut Queen-like game

Hi, just some minor updates.

I came up with a more entertaining storyline.

I’ve been investigating costs and logistics for developing for tablets instead of desktops.

I’ve been looking at development platforms, and programmers. Sadly, I cannot hire anyone out of pocket.

I know someone who can help establish a Kickstarter campaign, but the numbers don’t look good. Celebrities and high-profile properties can break the $10,000 barrier, but Coconut Queen (and Andy Megowan, for that matter) are neither.

So I’m sorry, but it’s not currently looking good.

Free Advertising for RadioLab

Two weeks ago, Alice and I gave birth to our first son, Tumnus Fisher Megowan. We did something that, even a year ago, would have been unthinkable to us: we had a home birth. Tumnus was born in a special birthing tub that we rented from our midwife, and which I groggily inflated in the middle of the night when Alice’s labor contractions began.

Thirteen hours later, with a couple of close friends and a birthing team, our midwife instructed me to reach into the water below my wife, and my hand rested on the emerging head of our baby. Seconds later, Tumnus slid into my hands and I lifted him out of the pool where the experts could unwrap the umbilical cord and make sure that his throat and sinuses were clear, and then set him on my beautiful, exhausted wife’s chest.

I could go on (and I probably will later) about the powerful emotions and memories from that day, but I thought I would pass on an image to any fans of the syndicated show, RadioLab. It just happened that I was wearing a RadioLab t-shirt that day. I wanted to share the image with folks who work on RadioLab as a little “Thank You!” for the shows that have shed a little more light in our lives.

How Coconut Queen 2 Will Be Made

The majority of the admittedly light traffic to this site is from people looking for a sequel to Coconut Queen. Search Engines send them here, to an explanation for why Coconut Queen 2 was never made. Basically, the publisher never recouped their investment. There are a few reasons why:

  • Coconut Queen was an entry in the category of Building games, an established genre with a clear leader: Build-A-Lot.
  • When it was released, it was a brand new franchise. That always takes more work to get noticed than a sequel. Like, say, Build-A-Lot 3.
  • iWin releases a game a day. The budget for marketing any one title is minimal, unless strong early sales indicate that a marketing push will  earn back the money right away. Coconut Queen didn’t generate strong early sales.
  • The wrong marketing art went out to everyone. We had rough images of our title screen that somehow went into circulation instead of this:

they sent out this:

  • The highly anticipated Build-A-Lot 3 came out the week before Coconut Queen. This was iWin’s choice, to release at that time. That made it difficult to ask people for more money for a similar game a week after they spent money on a known, low-risk sequel.
  • iWin also decided to release Coconut Queen at a premium price of $20. Build-A-Lot 3 was a third of that cost, at $7.
  • iWin insisted on an exclusive to their site for the first month, limiting visibility in the hopes of driving up sales at the highest profit margin.
  • When Coconut Queen was made available, iWin attempted to recoup their costs by insisting that all partners carry Coconut Queen at the higher price.
  • The name didn’t resonate with male customers.
It was an experimental business model that had proven successful and profitable for iWin on their established franchises such as Jewel Quest, Mah Jong Quest, and Jojo’s Fashion Show. It didn’t work. iWin attempted to find other projects to use my game development talent for a few months. I pitched several ideas, but the market was in flux as mobile games and social games were dramatically transforming the playing field and business models. After a few months without any projects being approved, I was let go.
iWin owns the rights to Coconut Queen, and iWin will not make Coconut Queen 2. End of story.
…or is it?
The business models that drive game development have changed a lot in the past few years, and very dramatically in just the past few months.
  • While there are tens of thousands of game developers, the world knows the names of half a dozen. Doublefine Entertainment’s Tim Schafer is one of those names, and when he solicited game development funds via Kickstarter, the product was crowd-funded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. That kind of investment is a no-brainer for game fans.
  • The Indie Fund covered the development of the game Q.U.B.E., and made back their investment in four days.
  • Even more amazingly, the Indie Fund recouped their $55,000 investment in Dear Esther–which is not only not even a game, but is also a remake of a free productin under six hours.
The major event here that allowed these amazing success stories is just that: the story. The same held true for the remarkable indie game MineCraft. The world paid attention to the stories of the creation of these games, and so people became engaged–and subsequently invested–in the stories that compelled them. People around the world saw opportunities to, for a few dollars, become part of the solution.
So the story of the game being born matters to people now. That’s great. Customer and Creator can connect to each other like never before. What else? There’s plenty more.
Free-to-play games and microtransactions are two business ideas that have made a huge impact. The investment risk has been eliminated for customers, and that raises the comfort level with spending a little money on entertainment. Customers can now even decide what aspects of a game to spend their money on, and while not everyone pays to play, the percentage of people who do are paying more than an estimated retail price, and doing so more comfortably.
Online updates have changed things, too. Packaging costs have gone out the window. The cost to update, at least on more modern delivery sites like the App Store, Android Market and Steam, is negligible. It used to be that patching a game was as pleasant as standing in the RETURNS line at a department store. Basically, you were there because a product was defective, and you had to go through the hassle just to have what you already paid for. What a pain!
That has changed.  It’s not just bug fixes. It’s easy to update your games and apps, and developers can continue to enhance, improve and extend the game at no extra cost to you.  It’s more like someone stopped by, cooked you a nice meal in your own kitchen, and did the dishes before they left!
“Wow! Andy, does this mean you’re going to make Coconut Queen 2 now?”
Yes, and no.
Here’s the no. iWin still owns Coconut Queen. They own the product, the license, the art, and the programming code. I will not make another game in that universe. That particular story, incomplete as it is, is finished. I can’t afford to fund development of such a big game. I have a day job that involves 40-60 hours a week of Not Making Coconut Queen. And my wife and I are expecting our first child in a matter of weeks.
Here’s the yes. I can’t make a sequel, and I won’t make a knockoff of my own darn game design (Cumquat King, anyone?) but I can make a spiritual successor. It will have a new world, new characters, and a new plot. But it will feel familiar. When you play at nurturing this world, you will know that it was created by the same folks.
This time around, the development cost can be dramatically reduced, as I can release the game a piece at a time. The distribution can be broader than ever before, as I’m not tied to iWin for marketing and game exposure, and I can target Macs and PCs and phones and tablets all at the same time instead of just going for Windows.
But I can’t do it alone. I need a team, and I need the time to do it. I can get both of those things with money. There are dozens of fans. With hundreds, I can begin production!
Oh, and I have to decide: will this next version start on another tropical island, deep in a forest, or at a desert oasis?

The Daddening

Three weeks ago, while on vacation at Disneyland, Alice and I learned that she was pregnant. It did a lot to explain why her tummy had suddenly become so finicky, and why the mere thought of pickles would make her drool.

The baby has been the subject of nearly every conversation since then, and planning for the future is always on my mind. Looking back over the past few weeks, I can’t even conceive of what would be occupying our attention right now if there had been no news of a pregnancy. But for a while, it remained somewhat abstract of a prospect. There were very few immediate or drastic changes to our lives, as we had been discussing the prospect of starting a family for years. So it just got a little more urgent, so what?

Two days ago, we had our first ultrasound appointment. The moment the image on the screen, being taken from Alice’s belly and projected on a screen, showed a tiny figure, that’s the moment I will remember, second only to the announcement of the pregnancy. It was the moment that we first saw our child. It was the moment that there were clearly now three of us.

Ironically, this means we are going to stop going to Disneyland for a while.