We look at the benefits and challenges of making a mobile game about high school students.
The latest issue of Teen Vogue arrives at an office in Northern California. On the cover is pop sensation and former Hannah Montana actress Miley Cyrus. Taglines promise the best eco-friendly beauty buys and tips on looking "fierce" and "chic."
The magazine makes the rounds through the office. By the end of the day everyone will have read it. Ultimately, it will join the company's growing piles of teen magazines.
Somewhere between flicking through its pages and learning that young Miley has fallen in love with Aussie heartthrob Liam Hemsworth, there will be a mandatory screening of Fox's hit TV series, Glee. A week later, when the latest Twilight film releases to millions of adoring teenage fans, the office will drop everything to go on an excursion to see it — and will be first in line.
This isn't the office for a fashion and beauty marketing machine. This is a video game studio. Owned by one of the biggest game publishers in the world, Electronic Arts, this is the team behind one of the most popular text-based games on phones: Surviving High School.
Birth before iPhone
In a market saturated with platformers, puzzlers and bite-sized action games, one would think that a game that hangs its hat on writing about teenagers at a high school would find it hard to succeed. Surviving High School has no bells or whistles, no novel mechanic and its art is far from groundbreaking. But Surviving High School has been succeeding for years.
"When people remember [high school], they remember it with a sense of nostalgia."
The choose-your-own-adventure game launched on feature phones in 2004 — long before the words "iPhone" and "Android" meant anything to anyone — with a text-heavy story about students at Centerscore High. The game's creators at Centerscore Games had to focus on the writing because the graphical capabilities of phones meant there was little else they could focus on.
Games were delivered through phone carriers rather than app marketplaces, graphic performance was about as good as a slow-running Game Boy Color and the developers wanted players to have a greater investment than they would in something like Snake or Connect Four.
Surviving High School in its current iOS form
They created a standalone story that followed the students at Centerscore High, allowing the player to choose the characters' paths and determine their fate in the harsh world that is high school. Shortly after the game launched more than eight years ago, it cracked the top 20 list of most-purchased games on feature phones. A few weeks later it made the top 10. A couple of months after that, it was ranked third. The team began producing regular downloadable follow-up episodes that players could subscribe to. When iPhone joined the common vernacular, the team began developing it for smart phones.
Eight years and more than 300 episodes later, Surviving High School is now owned by Electronic Arts, has cracked the millions in downloads and birthed a loyal community that excitedly waits for a new episode every week. Fans have devoted Tumblrs to the game's characters; they write fan fiction; they speculate over which characters will get together and which characters will break up. Max Doty, a writer who's been with the game since the very beginning, is about to release his second Surviving High School novel.
High school, it seems, is a pretty big deal.
Everyone's been to high school
"High school is a universal experience," says Max Doty, one of the first writers to work on Surviving High School. "So many people have experienced high school and it was a time when you interacted with people across more walks of life than at any other time in your life.
"When you're in high school you're kind of thrown together; you're experiencing all these different things for the first time and learning who you are as a person. Everything is really fresh and new and when people remember it, they remember it with a sense of nostalgia."
Doty believes it's this universal experience that has contributed to the success of Surviving High School. For years high school has been the setting for some of the most popular movies, television shows and novels — there's Glee, High School Musical, the earlier seasons of Gossip Girl, Mean Girls, Ten Things I Hate About You and Dawson's Creek. Venturing even further back, shows like Saved by the Bell and the original Beverly Hills 90210 made high school the star of the show.
Doty says that in many ways these shows weren't so much about the individual characters as much as they were about the high school environment and the characters' interactions within it. He notes that in shows like Dawson's Creek and Beverly Hills 90210, when the characters went to college the spirit of the shows changed.
"When the milieu changes it can have a devastating effect on the universe," he says.
Kara Loo and Jennifer Young are both writers on Surviving High School. The two friends — both self-proclaimed nerds — met at high school at an academic banquet, and were it not for their official job titles at EA's mobile studio they could be mistaken for young women who only recently finished high school. The two are youthful and giggly, full of enthusiasm and incredibly articulate. They're fans of almost everything teenagers like, and as people who have been to high school and then studied it daily through their work, they believe that high school never gets old — even when it's been rehashed again and again through films and TV shows — because it's a place filled with constant drama.
"In high school you're forced to mix with people from every different kind of background and every different kind of philosophy on life," Loo says.
"Everyone is forced to go to P.E. class together and do a school project together, so the cheerleader could be next to the nerdy kid, and I don't think that really happens as much outside high school.
"It's a place where you'll break up with someone and have to see them every day at school and see their new girlfriend. I don't think you're thrown together that way at any other time in your life, and I think it makes high school very memorable."
Tapping into your inner teen
The writers of Surviving High School believe that there is something inherently interesting about high school, but to make a game about it that speaks to teenagers, the writers have to ensure that the high school they present in the game is authentic. High school is only interesting if you get it right.
Doty says it would be incredibly easy for the development team to fall back on stereotypes and clichés, but if it did this it would no longer be speaking the same language as its audience and its players would inevitably lose interest. The challenge then is for a team of writers in their 20s and 30s to think like teenagers, to understand teenagers, to put themselves in the shoes of people in high school even though many of them graduated more than a decade ago.
"Part of that is constantly absorbing media," Doty says.
The team has subscriptions to almost every teen magazine on the market. It watches the Disney Channel and MTV religiously, watches as many teen movies as it can, and if teenagers like it, it'll look into it.
"Gossip Girl, Teen Mom, MTV ... I watch a lot of MTV," Loo says. "We watch a lot of Glee. We'll make everyone on the team watch Glee. It's mandatory. We watch a lot of teen movies. Every time a new Twilight movie comes out we get our whole team to see it. There are some guys on the team who are like, 'I don't want to see Twilight,' and we're like 'We're going to be first in line to see this movie!"
This past summer the team also had a high school intern, who further reminded the writers of the audience they were writing about and taught them a thing or two — namely the popularity of dubstep.
Doty says having a high school intern was incredibly edifying for the team, but it also informed them that they were on the right track.
"We read Teen Vogue and watch the Disney Channel, but I think we also aspire to have our characters be a little better rounded and less stereotypical than what you'd see in those media sources," Doty says. "Just having our intern reminded us that high schoolers are about as smart as we are — they just haven't experience as much in life.
"It was a reminder that we're writing about people who happen to be in high school. We're not writing down for a high school audience. Basically this is a game about adult characters who happen to be younger and have less experience in life."
Not writing down to teens
There's a lot of brainstorming that happens at Surviving High School HQ. A new episode releases every week on a Thursday. Each episode takes approximately 22 minutes to play through. While players have choices in the decisions they make, there is ultimately one main storyline that weaves through every episode. Making the right choices rewards players with an extra bit of story. Making poor choices leads to an abysmal ending that requires players to go back and try again.
The game's engineers have built tools so that the writers can assemble the episodes themselves. Everyone works together to ensure that there is a consistent story arc.
"Our team is very writer-intensive, so in order to make the dialogue sound authentic and the situation seem real, all of us edit each other's work and we do a lot of run-throughs," says Jennifer Young. "Everyone on the team has a tell. One of our writers will always put in 50s slang on accident and make the characters say things like 'That's the cat's pajamas!' and we're like 'No! People don't say that any more!'"
Doty says the team is lucky to have writers like Loo and Young on board, two writers he describes as having stopped aging when they hit 15. "We always know if we're doing something wrong if those two are like, 'Ew! No! You can't do that; it's creepy!'"
The team also has to be mindful of the stories it tells and the way it shapes the game's characters. Doty admits that not writing down to teenagers can be a challenge, but it's important that Surviving High School doesn't do that. No teenager wants to engage with a story that accuses them of being whiny and shallow and no one wants to be told that their problems don't matter.
"I think sometimes when adults write about children, it's almost like these moralistic fables where, say in a movie like Freaky Friday, the angle is: 'Oh if only they knew how hard it is to be an adult they wouldn't whine so much.' We try to avoid preaching. We try to have characters that are really dealing with problems and are good people and aren't just looking to serve their own needs."
Where adults are often quick to dismiss the problems of teens as being petty and easy to solve, Doty questions whether or not this is true. He says that many teenage problems can be solved with adult resources like money, having your own place and having a car — all things that most teenagers don't have. "If you put yourself in the mindset of lacking those resources, you're basically reduced to a teenager," he says.
Admittedly, the characters from Surviving High School have been known to do stupid things like date manipulative people and make petty choices, but Doty believes this is a trap that anyone can fall into. "As adults we think we've come so far from high school, but if we actually had to relive high school all over again I'm not sure we'd make choices that are any different."
An exercise in empathy
Surviving High School has a core team of five writers whose work centers around what it's like to be a teenager. Part of their job is to understand what motivates teenagers, what influences their behavior and how these nuances between individuals can be translated into a game. Through the course of their research, they've come to understand why certain teens like what they like, even when those things are considered frivolous by adults. And the answer, according to Doty, is not that teenagers have frivolous interests.
"I think a lot of it depends on your approach to life," Doty says. "Sometimes you want to read or experience something that reminds you of your own life. Sometimes you want to read or experience something that lets you get away from it, so a lot of it is about your approach to art and literature: if you're trying to escape, games make a lot of sense. If you're trying to see something that reminds you of your own existence then maybe a book like Twilight resonates with you."
For a lot of teenagers, he says, escape isn't necessarily what they're looking for.
"I think Twilight is, in a way, the opposite of gaming," Doty says. "In gaming, say in a first-person shooter, you take over an avatar; you're very in control of your environment, then you go forth and basically bend your environment to your will.
"Whereas in Twilight, it's almost the opposite."
Doty says that in a novel like Twilight the main character, Bella, is bent to the will of the universe around her. She's like a leaf in the breeze who just blows to the whim of the two boys in her life and the social forces around her. Doty believes younger audiences are much more forgiving of a passive protagonist because they understand what it means to live a life they have little control over, which is part of the reason why he thinks Twilight is so successful. And in the case of Twilight, Doty says few girls actually like Bella very much. Everyone likes the guys who are the active characters in the series. Within the Twilight community there's a big deal about whether someone is on "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob" because they are the ones who change the life of the passive protagonist.
"You can see how Twilight is a book that is almost built to be everything that gamers are against," Doty says. "They're so used to taking over a world, doing everything themselves, and to be put in a position of a powerless teenage girl ... it has got to be extremely frustrating for any gamer."
Surviving High School is designed to be somewhere between the two. The game presents characters that players can relate to, but it doesn't merely mirror the player's world — it shows life from the perspective of the nerdy kid, the cheerleaders and the jocks, the misfits and all those in between. There's a passiveness to the game inasmuch that the overall story is predetermined, but it is still the player's choices that drive the story itself. It's an interactive soap opera, a game that invites its players to experience an alternate high school.
Max Doty has worked on Surviving High School for more than six years. During this time he's written screenplays and developed other EA mobile games, but Surviving High School has remained a constant in his life. This September Little Brown published his first Surviving High School novel, a book that expands on the storyline of the game. Doty is writing a second Surviving High School book which will release in May 2013. While all these years writing about high school haven't made Doty behave like he's still a teenager, he believes that the experience has left a significant impact.
"I do think writing for Surviving High School is a pretty profound exercise in empathy," he says. "We write from so many different perspectives, for everyone in the high school, even those are who perceived as villains.
"I think it's made me a more empathetic person just to inhabit so many perspectives and to think of the world from so many different points of view."
Surviving High School is currently available on iOS and Android devices. It is free-to-play with additional episodes available for purchase. New episodes release every Thursday Pacific Time.