Interview: Jean Leggett of One More Story Games
2016-03-04 · by Kerstin
Jean Leggett is co-founder and director of One More Story Games. She is situated in Canada and makes a lot of jokes about dumplings.
This interview took place over Skype.
Kerstin Hall: Let’s start with the basics. When was One More Story Games founded?
Jean Leggett: OMSG was founded in July 2013, incorporated in Dec 2013.
Kerstin: How have things been going so far?
Jean: Good. We’ve been bootstrapping the development of our engine this whole time – and we’re now in beta. The engine is only available for PC at the moment, but published games play in browsers, on Facebook, and on Android.
Kerstin: According to your website, at OMSG, story comes first. How do you make this a reality in practical terms?
Jean: Because we’re less focused on the graphics in the game, the focus naturally falls on the story. We’re not about building a platformer or puzzle game like Candy Crush. When you play one of our stories, you’ll see that narrative is central. We work with writers and game devs from all over the world to create story-driven games.
Kerstin: All over the world? Which countries have come up thus far?
Jean: France, USA, Germany, India, Thailand. They’re in various stages of development.
Kerstin: That must add such interesting dimensions to the work you publish.
Jean: We’re exceptionally passionate about diversity in games—we want people from many different cultures to share their stories on our platform. For example, I’m hard of hearing and my whole family is deaf. There’s never been a game with deaf characters as the central figures. We’re working to develop a game that is delivered entirely in ASL—American Sign Language. That’s a perspective in games that has never been available to date, but our engine makes it possible.
Kerstin: With the previous answer somewhat pre-empting this, what do you think is lacking in gaming currently, both in the mainstream and more generally?
Jean: Games are the most pervasive they’ve ever been—half of Canadians have played a game in the last four weeks, according to reports—and what’s missing is the diversity and focus on storytelling.
I think that waiting on big studios to deliver diverse stories is a mistake. Look at Hollywood. They’ve been around forever and it’s still very white, very male. Diversity is an issue.
Kerstin: As evidenced by the Oscars. I think there’s more pushback against normative frameworks in general. A productive environment?
Jean: Indeed. And games are an art form. People still think games are exclusively for 17-year-old boys, but the largest segment of consumers are women over 18. Plus, women over 30 are fast becoming the largest consumer base. So we think, based on reports and our own feedback, that women love stories and deserve better than Candy Crush (I’m on level 1494 or something).
I think that when we make tools available to storytellers with diverse backgrounds, we’ll start to see more diverse stories. I watched this great TEDtalk by a woman from the Nigeria. She talked about how, growing up, she read children’s books that were imported from the USA. She never saw Nigerian storybooks and thus never saw her culture represented in books. How tragic is that?
Kerstin: Was that “The Danger of a Single Story?” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?
Kerstin: Africa, taken as a whole, has limited opportunities to access the international gaming or writing scene. So I’m happy you guys work on making this stuff accessible.
Jean: We were sponsors of a screenwriting conference this past September. There was a sizable contingent of writers from Joburg and Cape Town, and they asked if we could come and teach our software. I’d LOVE to do that—because anyone anywhere can create story games.
Kerstin: I will be so on board. At sub-Q, we work with Twine. At OMSG, it’s all about StoryStylus, your proprietary software. What are the pros of StoryStylus over other programming platforms?
Jean: Ha! Yes, back to the software!
First, SS is WYSIWYG and we’ve broken down the elements of story into Lego bricks—people, places, things, conversations, relationships, etc. We call those entities. Going through and adding each of those components to your story world is fairly simple. We have built in some really cool features like rapport and requirements to unlock access to other entities. For example, in order to unlock a location, you may have to sweet-talk a character to a certain rapport level, or you may have had to discover the attaché case in the attic…
We’re currently working on serialization of content. Creators can put requirements on Story 2/3/4 that were the result of player actions in Story 1. For example, you were rude to the neighbour in story 1? You may have to work extra hard to win them over in story 5. We’re building story worlds where your consequences as a player really matter.
Plus we’ve also built in the marketplace. Most content will be shared via direct link, and then exceptional content will be published in our marketplace with royalties returned to those games.
Kerstin: So people can earn real money?
Jean: Heck yes. Now that we’ve built the engine and it is more or less complete (VR is something we’re looking into for 2017, and multiplayer, too), we’re ready to switch into digital publisher mode.
Our job is to develop great content for people to discover. Last week we announced we’re working with #1 New York Times Bestselling author Charlaine Harris. She’s best known for her Sookie Stackhouse series that went on to become HBO’s True Blood. We’re adapting a book called Shakespeare’s Landlord into a story game.
Our goal is to have that game complete and ready for sale by early 2017 or sooner. So the great writers we find and nurture between now and then will have their content published in a small, select marketplace next to someone who has millions of fans and has sold over 36 million novels.
Kerstin: I’ll get back to the exciting Harris development, but first, OMSG is headed by you and your partner. What’s that like?
Jean: 24/7 with your spouse is an interesting way to start up a new company. We’ve been together for nearly 20 years now. I think we’re a good team—we complement each other well. He’s the techie, I’m the talkie. The visionary and the evangelist.
What makes us a particularly good team is that he has degrees in computer science, philosophy, political science and English, and I also have an English degree. We’re building the games we want to play, but in the end, it’s about our users, not us.
Kerstin: At present, your flagship game looks to be “Hard Vacuum Lullaby”. You seem to have many, many female characters in a setting that is generally depicted as having none (or maybe one token woman).
Jean: That’s intentional. I feel, as an indie studio, we have a responsibility to create the missing content. In “Skycarver”, we also have a female protagonist.
Kerstin: A LOT of visual and sound elements contribute to the gaming experience. It’s more of a point-and-click adventure than a typical text-based game. How does this play into your story-centric goals?
Jean: Funny you should ask that. In September 2014, I went on a tour across North America and asked writers, screenwriters and game devs to come see our rough prototype. The strictly IF people did not like what we’d built. We still encounter that resistance.
This isn’t IF. It’s an adventure engine—I guess—that isn’t genre-limited. Mystery, adventure, sci-fi, romance, fantasy… if you have crafted a story that is about discovery, it will work.
Honestly, I didn’t mind that our first couple of games didn’t have sound, but we’re going back and adding sound effects and soundtracks to the earlier games. With “Hard Vacuum Lullaby”, we’re told that it really adds to the intensity of the experience.
Kerstin: How long does it take to develop a game like “Hard Vacuum Lullaby”?
Jean: I’d say the art was done over 30 hours by one of our in-house staff. The game was written almost exclusively within our engine. I would recommend people write the story in Word as much as they can, then cut and paste as appropriate. I believe 80 hours would be a good approximation, plus testing time.
Kerstin: That’s actually much less than I guessed. Which says good things about both the engine and the game.
Jean: This was Sutherland’s 3rd game with us. So he’s a pro at the engine.
Kerstin: The elephant in the room (shooting fireworks and trumpeting the national anthem) is obviously your new and exciting partnership with Charlaine Harris. This is an author who has sold enough books to exceed the GDP of small countries. How did this wondrous thing occur?
Jean: We met her at Bouchercon (a mystery writer/reader conference) in Long Beach, California in November 2014. I went up to her in a quiet moment and asked, “Have you considered turning one of your books into a game?”
She replied that they had done that before, but that the company went out of business before they finished the games. I replied, “Is that something I can help you with?” and I will never forget her response: “That would be lovely, dear.”
It was as simple as asking. And in fact, there is another international bestselling author we met who wants to create original content with us. It means their fan base would have to come to OMSG to play their latest story…
Kerstin: That’s kind of adorable.
Jean: It is.”That would be lovely, dear” is going to be a chapter heading in my biography.
Kerstin: And the other mystery bestseller is…?
Jean: They’ve had several books adapted into film. They see games as virgin territory for writers. I mean, how many mainstream writers have had their work adapted into games?
Kerstin: Seems like you guys are going really big places. People should get autographs now.
Jean: Fingers crossed. I’m excited because a large American organization that teaches teens how to make games wants to use our engine in 2017. Imagine, thousands of young minds using StoryStylus to make multi-media games? YAY!
Kerstin: Adaption will be a different challenge to writing original stories. Who is taking charge of transforming the static novel into a more fluid storytelling experience? What do you see being the greatest challenge?
Jean: We have some great people on our storytelling team. You can see detailed bios on our website under “Storytellers”—we’re working with Will Hiles, Neal Hallford, and Sande Chen. Each of them has come from a narrative design and writer’s perspective over a traditional game designer perspective.
They all understand that what we’re trying to accomplish first and foremost is story. Clickable things are part of the story, but we aren’t building a hidden object game. I want it to feel like a Tex Murphy or Gabriel Knight game, driven by character and plot.
The greatest challenge for the average writer is building a more complex narrative structure than they’re used to. We’re going to start offering online discussions and webinars in March with narrative designers to show how to do this. Also, those following the Charlaine Harris project can visit www.lilybard.com and sign up for the behind-the-scenes access. They’ll see how we deconstruct her narrative and turn it into our game. What are the steps, how do we create this living, breathing interactive world. We want to engage her audience and make them story game fans from the beginning. Many of them may have never played a game like this before.
Kerstin: How can people (ordinary-ish ones, not Ms Harris-types) get involved with OMSG?
Jean: I recommend that people first play our games. More than one of our games—they’re all different. Some have LONG narrative pieces before any interactivity. Some have short. Some have puzzles. Some have photographs. Start thinking about what your story game looks like.
Then go build something. Our engine is free to use for 90 days. After that, there’s a hosting fee for storytellers. Paying that annual subscription doesn’t guarantee that we’ll sell your content—it gives you access to create story games and share them. Build a following. Uplevel your writing!
Kerstin: Shakespeare’s Landlord is coming out in 2017. What can your audience look forward to in the mean time?
Jean: Will Hiles is building the most amazing supernatural mystery set in late 1800’s New England. I am currently looking for an artist. It is a phenomenal story—when I saw his story bible for the series (yes, a series!), I had no words!
We have a cyberpunk thriller coming out by the first week of March and a comedic take on Dante’s Inferno. Lots of different stories are on the way!
Kerstin: Quite a bit of variety in subject matter too.
Jean: Absolutely. Variety. Diversity. Stories for the new world.
Kerstin: I think I’m out of questions. Anything you want to still talk about?
Jean: I think we covered it all. My main points are diversity, women in games, democratizing game publishing and getting writers paid.
Kerstin: Excellent points all. It’s been lovely talking to you.
Jean: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. I hope you’re as excited as I am!