You wouldn’t think of it to look at it, but JoJo’s Fashion Show, the unusual dress-up casual game, got its start as a different animal entirely.

“Like many casual game characters, Jojo was originally a store owner. She had a little boutique where she sold clothes that she designed,” said Gregory Trefry, senior game designer at Gamelab. “We were thinking of it as Diner Dash with an actual menu – not everyone just got a grilled cheese. It was pretty fun, but [iWin VP] Jim [Stern] and the guys at iWin very astutely observed a real glut of spinning plates hitting the market.”

Luckily for JoJo and fans of her game, a change of clothes was about to take her from “also-ran” to runway diva.

The heart of fashion

More than the fact that the genre was becoming crowded, the team noticed another hard truth about their game: While running around serving customers my work for a diner setting, it just doesn’t fly for the world of high fashion.

“Here was a game that was ostensibly about you picking out cool clothes and style, but your main activity in the game was just serving customers,” Trefry said. “You could always choose to give the customer a different item if you wanted, but no one did. We found that if you told the player what the customer wanted, the player felt trapped if they couldn’t give them that exact item. It felt more like working at the Gap than being a fashion maven.”

The solution, the result of an extensive brainstorming session between the two companies, was to let the challenge be in the service of style and fashion, rather than customers, and idea that evolved from a small sliver of the original plate-spinning concept.

“In an effort to add a little bit of glam to the game, we had conceived bonus levels to be played between the standard retail levels,” said Catherine Herdlick, director of production at Gamelab. “These bonus levels would take place on the catwalk and were, narratively, the climax of Jojo’s labor at the store: her time in the spotlight at Fashion Week. The current version of JoJo’s Fashion Show in large part evolved from these bonus levels.”

The team was faced with a problem, though: How does one go about judging aesthetics and style, which, in the fashion industry, seem to shift with each passing day?

“In thinking through this we hit on the idea of using the attributes of the clothing. We figured that there are these general styles out there and that the attributes of clothing role up to these styles,” Trefry said. “So we created a taxonomy of styles and attributes that provided the basis for the game scoring engine. The more clothing attributes that match the style, the higher the score.”

Make it work

Those who’ve played the game and who’ve also spent a few Wednesday nights watching the Bravo network, may have noticed some aesthetic similarities between the game and that station’s hit show “Project Runway.” There’s good reason: Though some members of the team weren’t familiar with the show, others saw it as an inspiration, both for a look and for a purpose.

“When we started in the game I was ripping through Season 2 on DVD, so it was undoubtedly a bit of a subconscious influence on the game,” Trefry said. “The great thing about that show is that it makes fashion so accessible. Too often people are a bit scared off by haute couture clothes. But Project Runway or even magazines like InStyle show that fashion can very accessible and that it’s a combination of personal expression and seeing what goes well together. This is something we tried to emulate in Jojo’s Fashion Show.”

The temptation may have been there to try to integrate the show or some of the names or fashions of the designers that appear on it. But, Herdlick said, it was decided that wasn’t the right way to go.

“The inclination to integrate licenses into a fashion game is obvious, and it definitely came up. We decided not to pursue them, though, because we didn’t want to have to deal with additional interests that might conflict with our creative direction for the gameplay,” she said.

Creating a look

Because the team wasn’t licensing real clothes for their game, they had to sort of play the role of fashion designers themselves, finding a look both for the game’s garments as well as it’s setting and characters.

Senior Artist Carolina Moya said she got most of her inspiration outside her office on the streets of New York.

“We had a lot of fun researching for JoJo’s Fashion Show. We visited trendy stores and designer show rooms around the neighborhood (Soho, NYC) for some ideas. We took pictures of those aesthetics as inspiration for the visuals in the game. For instance, the way the store keeper displays brooches could be a nifty idea for displaying an option screen. Seeing how trendy stores, or designer show rooms handled their interior design was really inspiring, and the more ideas we got, the better.”

The team also had to decide how they’d handle judging the quality of each look, a decision that could be viewed as completely subjective. The solution, surprisingly, came not from images but from words.

“We developed this elaborate taxonomy for the clothes and styles. It was very much inspired by sites like Flickr where users give photos keywords to describe them,” he said. “But unlike Flickr we didn’t have the benefit of tapping the wisdom of the crowds to figure out what the proper keywords were for each clothing item. So it basically required me looking each item and exhaustively listing every aspect of the clothing, from the sleeve type to the cut to the color.”

Ready-to-wear

Once all the digital clothes had been designed and Gamelab had figured out how to teach a computer to tell a clunker of an outfit from a trendy little number, it was time to send JoJo down the runway. According to the company, the harshest critics are all applause and adulation.

“We launched the game on iWin.com and Gamelab.com on Friday, December 7, 2007,” said Herdlick. “So far, it’s the best selling game ever on both sites! Players are leaving lots of very positive comments about the game, and that is definitely great to see, especially since we did no pre-publicity for the game.”

In short, Herdlick thinks the secret of JoJo’s success lies in the fact that she’s able to find something that makes any customer feel like a million bucks.

“In general, it seems like all kinds of people like the game – kids, casual gamers, and even tough ‘manly’ gamers seem to find themselves begrudgingly admitting that the gameplay has something to it,” she said. “We’re very pleased with and proud of the response – the team has been passing around comments and blog entries about the game. One of my favorite comments that I hear a lot goes something like ‘Finally! A game about fashion! I played this game and now I want to be a fashion designer!'”