Mousechief’s Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!, a role-playing board game set in the 1920s featuring "naughty" mini-games, literary satire and some pretty cutting social commentary, is truly the little indie game that could. It has received accolades from all over the place, and most recently was nominated for Best Writing in a Videogame by the prestigious Writer’s Guild of America.
Not bad for the product of a one-person company plus a few part-time contractors.
Gamezebo sat down with Mousechief founder Keith Nemitz to learn more about his studio and the inspiration behind DHSGiT!
First, please tell us a little bit about yourself and Mousechief.
Mousechief Co. was formally signed into existence in 2003. It really started at the end of 2001, the day 3DO laid-off most of it staff a couple months before it went ker-plop. Until then I had been working in the core industry for about 12 years as a software engineer. The economy was depressed. I’d ridden-out the collapse of a smaller company five years prior. So I knew what to expect: personal depression followed by a sense of unlimited opportunity. No one was hiring. I attended the Game Developer’s conference in 2002 and learned that downloadable games were taking off.
In 1999, I had created a game that was a selected as a finalist in the very first Independent Games Festival. That was all I needed to consider going independent as a business. Or so I thought. I didn’t know the customers. I didn’t know the casual game industry. I didn’t know the players. I didn’t know what it took to make and ship that kind of game or even how to get it into the sales channels. I did have an idea of how to create an adventure game that anybody could pick up and play.
While developers who knew the biz were cranking out evolved match-3 clones every six months, I spent three years making a really amazing adventure game, The Witch’s Yarn. It didn’t sell. People certainly could pick it up and play it, easily as expected, but the story was all text and illustrations. Casual gamers don’t want to read. An adventure game was quite foreign to them. They loved the illustrations and music, but not enough to buy the game. Fortunately, the Independent Games Festival selected The Witch’s Yarn as a finalist in 2006. That garnered enough attention to break into the casual industry network. I met people. I learned a lot. I was ready to prove myself.
What was the inspiration behind Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!?
During a regular gaming session with friends, we tried out Steve Jackson’s SPANC. It’s a simple card game were each player has a handful of character cards. Players roll dice to see if their group succeeds at a series of quests. You might lose a quest, but only lose one character. When your turn comes back around you can try again. The first player to win all the quests wins the game. That really struck me as a way to bring what I loved about computer RPGs into a much simpler package: A party of adventurers go out to face challenges in the world, building up strength to overcome tougher challenges over a long period of time invested in the game world and the characters. It’s an epic experience. Could it be made as an accessible one?
Why did you choose to set the game in the 1920s?
Having decided to make a casual RPG, I considered my audience. What might be an enjoyable world for older women to play in? (Although as many men play casual games, significantly more women pay for them.) At that time, there weren’t any teen based games, but teen comedy romances cross age boundaries.
Getting noticed in the casual game industry is the hardest thing. I strive to make games that really stand out. No one had mined teen comedies yet. I thought that would make the game stand out. No one was telling really good stories in casual games. I promised myself to try and write a story so good it would compare favorably to contemporary literature. That was probably aiming too high, but the game industry has only a handful of great stories after nearly forty years. The games I was forced to make, as an industry drone, had terrible stories! I overreacted.
Okay, I still haven’t answered the question, but I’m getting there.
Pass ‘teen comedy’ through a literary quality filter and you get cultural satire. At least, that’s what I got. Most teen stories are about rites of passage. To differentiate my story, it would be about young women who had earned their power. But an epic quest requires conflict. What could challenge their power?
I grew up during the modern women’s movement. They made great strides, but failed to win all they deserve. The reasons are manifold, and I thought ripe for satire. But the modern women’s movement is too close to home, and satire is a curious form of insult. It’s hard to succeed at business by insulting your customers. Instead, I looked at the historical precedent. Suffrage in the 1920s won a great victory but also, ultimately failed to win women equality, in my opinion for the same reasons they stalled after the 70s. Otherwise the 1920s were a really exciting period! Bingo.
There are plenty of eccentric characters in Brigiton, USA. Were they based on anyone in particular?
Not really, but one or two have attributes of people I know.
Gene Poladian, the produce push-cart man in the market circle, is based on my wife’s great grandfather. Her grandma told me about how he used to sell booze from a jug. And when the police wandered by, he would hide the jug under his eight-year-old daughter Dorothy’s skirt. It was too cool of a story not to put into the game.
Half of the backstories were written by Adrianne Ambrose. I can’t say about her characters. She also wrote a few of the taunts and retorts for the game.
What came first was the town. I wanted a town that had places associated with drama. We have a barbershop, but not a bakery. In barbershops people gossip. At least that’s it’s mystique. A hotel, a nightclub, City Hall, the library, places that suggested drama were decided. Then we started to imagine what kind of characters worked and lived in them.
The girls were invented as a group of archetypes as they might have been in the 20s. We have the party girl, the popular girl, the career oriented girl, the political girl, the smoker/rebel, the princess, all sorts of girls. It’s really fascinating to watch players pick their queen girl! Women tend to pick themselves. They don’t choose by race. They choose by symbols (clothes, accessories) and the short flavor text. Men pick either a smart girl or a sexy one. They don’t pick the class clown. They don’t pick the less beautiful girls. Sorry, I’m rambling.
Conflict in DHSGiT is all verbal, i.e. taunting and fibbing. Why did you go this route instead of following the typical role-playing game format of using weapons and spells to defeat opponents?
How do teenagers resolve confrontations that aren’t life or death? Shooting and stabbing is not the norm. Sorcery is kept to the occasional curse. Insults, and wheedling for secrets, and lying, and flirting, and taking risks (gambit) are the methods people use well into their adult lives. These are not nice behaviors, but they are eternal. It would be nice if the Parley game someday depreciated the others.
Originally, I had planned for the gambit game to resolve all conflicts. But that would have been terribly repetitive for such a long story. I briefly toyed with the idea that each of the girls would have their own personal game to resolve conflicts. That would have been awesome! It also would have been a nightmare to invent 20 games.
Five were almost too many! I settled for games based on each of the girl’s four talents, plus the flirting game which uses all of them equally. The taunting game was a natural for the popularity talent. I loved playing Monkey Island! Insult sword fighting was a pinnacle of game design! We hope that our theft of it was merited by the quality of the taunts and retorts we wrote/selected. Over three years, we created about 200. Only 36 made it into the game.
How has DHSGiT been received by gamers?
Mixed. It hasn’t been core/casual crossover I had imagined. I had also hoped it would appeal to men as well as to women since it had strong women protagonists in many sexually suggestive situations. That proved only partially true. 70%-80% of my sales have been to women. However, I know of three college professors around the country who used the game to demonstrate gender respectful design.
The people who like it, REALLY like it! The reviews have been incredibly positive, in the 80-90 percentile.
Sales have been good, and it hasn’t had full distribution yet. Already, the game has earned about half of what it cost.
What was it like to work with major portals, and would you do so again for your next project?
It is interesting to note that Big Fish required us to shorten the name to just Dangerous High School Girls for their version. I think you’ll find how we changed the art quite amusing…
Working with the portals is very much the business side of things. You learn to respect what they do, and if you make good products they will really go to bat for you. Because it’s all about money. As long as I make games for their audiences, I will be grateful for their services and continue working with them.
What effect do you think the economic downturn will have on indie game developers? On the gaming industry in general?
This has been a big topic in the developer forums. Nobody’s panicking. Some have seen less sales. Some haven’t. I think my rate of conversion dropped slightly, but DHSGiT has been out since May.
The gaming industry in general will ride it out, but there have already been some tragedies. A lot of small developers (50 employees or less) rely on fluid loans to cover their short term gaps of income. The recent shortfall in those loans has killed several otherwise solvent companies. The bigger companies having problems would have had the same problems in a good economy. The big guys still don’t get the idea that regular innovation is required to keep a company healthy in the games business.
I tell myself I’m already unemployed. I can’t get fired. Fortunately, my wife also works in a recession resistant industry, groceries. And DHSGiT has earned just enough to cover my share of our expenses. Knock on wood.
What games are you currently playing and enjoying, and why?
Ahh! I wish I had more time to play! I am currently enjoying short sessions with Rondo of Swords for the Nintendo DS. Short and non-action is key. I bought Okami for the Wii, and it’s great, but the action sequences are too much for me. I’m hoping Mass Effect and Fable II won’t over-tax my reflexes.
I try out casual games regularly, but the only one that grabbed me so far are pretty old: Oasis, and Lux. I liked the original Bejeweled so much, I wrote my own match-3 game and give it out for free on the Mousechief website.
Basically, I have only random times to sit and play a game, and the DS is handy and quick. Consoles have become tedious to use. That used to be their forte. Other games I enjoy on the DS: Mario Kart, Panzer Tactics, Final Fantasy III, Age of Empires, Advanced Wars, Warhammer – Squad Command.
I also play board games and pen and paper RPGs with friends every few weeks. Puerto Rico, Caylus, Ticket to Ride, Cartagena, are some of my favorite board games.
Can you give us any sneak peeks about your next project?
You could peek, but turmoil is all that you would see. I was working on a particular design, and then got sidetracked into pursuing a bizarre, new kind of opportunity in game design. Most likely I’ll pick up the reins of the sidelined game and finish the prototype. If the prototype isn’t fun enough, I’ll start on a different idea. All I can say about the game is, when I described it to a friend, he told me, "But nothing very interesting was happening in 1954!" I’ll try to prove him wrong.
Any last words for your fans?
What? I have fans? Say hello sometime! Indie developers need all the encouragement they can get.