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Surviving High School: A Mobile Survivor Story


July 17, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

High School Chronicles?

She suggested that the studio turn High School Kings into a text-based adventure, along the lines of the moribund "Choose Your Own Adventure" concept. The game still featured some RPG elements, such as light stat-building, but its content and mechanics were refactored towards the mass market.

For example, football stood in for fighting, and dating replaced item collection. The tentative title changed to High School Chronicles, which was more gender neutral.

Kan and She also replaced free movement with an on-rails story, featuring choice menus that popped up at important junctures. This way, players would still be responsible for all of their character's important decisions, without having to spend time traversing a map or managing an inventory. Those choices would have weight, too, because the game would have many different endings depending on how you played.

The game wouldn't necessarily end when the story was done, though. In an especially unique twist, the two designers envisioned a system that would allow Centerscore to distribute additional content over the air. These episodic content "packs" wouldn't be as deep or replayable as the main story, but the idea was to provide more of a continuation than a replacement.

In theory, if Centerscore got players hooked on the main scenario (or "big pack"), the supplementary episodes would help the game retain subscribers for longer periods of time. As Miao would soon explain to Verizon, it would be akin to running a syndicated TV show inside of a mobile game.

Although he approved all of the team's changes, Miao knew that the revamped concept would be a tough sell to carriers, because there was nothing remotely like High School Chronicles on the market. In fact, the major mobile games trends in the second half of 2005 were Texas Hold 'Em games and ports of casual games from the web. Of course, this uniqueness cut both ways. If the carriers agreed that the game had promise, it would have its own little niche to itself.

Episodic Emergency

As it turns out, Verizon Wireless did agree. The carrier's reps were impressed by Centerscore's vision - especially the episodic content angle - and decided to take a chance on the game.

The game was slated for release in August 2005, but two weeks before it was supposed to go live, the team got some bad news: Chronicles weighed in over Verizon's download footprint, and the main culprit was the game's bulky big pack.

The best solution probably would have been to trash the big pack and start over from scratch, but the team didn't have time to design and balance a new scenario. Instead, Centerscore opted for a technological workaround. The team quickly chopped the big pack up into episode-sized pieces and fed them out over the air. Once again, the episodic content feature saved the day.

Meanwhile, Miao, Kan and She second-guessed the High School Chronicles title. There was nothing wrong with High School, but Chronicles sounded tedious. This was dangerous on a seriously impoverished merchandising and marketing platform like the download deck, where well-branded shovelware beats a superior game with a lame or inscrutable title almost every time. Centerscore ditched Chronicles and settled on the far more intriguing Surviving High School - an active title that evoked both the triumph and struggle of adolescence.

When the game finally launched in early 2006, nobody knew how these last-minute changes would affect the game's commercial performance, but the first returns were very encouraging. Surviving High School rose to #20 on Verizon Wireless' Top Sellers list after its first month on sale, generating approximately three times more revenue than any previous Centerscore game. The company had finally hit pay dirt.

Enter Vivendi Games Mobile

Even so, Centerscore couldn't afford to rest on its laurels. Surviving High School quickly dropped off the Top Sellers list, and the business picture looked worse for small publishers by the day. After surveying the landscape, Miao and company made three quick decisions.

First, they increased the flow of new episodes to Surviving High School subscribers from a new pack every three weeks, to every two weeks, to weekly. Thanks to Verizon Wireless' enthusiastic subscribers and reliable monthly payments schedule, Centerscore could count on a steady cash flow for the first time in its existence. It had to develop that subscriber base, and that meant turning episodic content into the game's premiere feature.

Second, the company began work on a sequel, Surviving High School '07. The team desperately wanted to release the game with its big pack intact, while also making improvements to the UI, adding polish to the graphics, and conducting thorough user testing.

To that end, She researched and developed a custom scripting language that cut the size of the big pack in half, even as Verizon Wireless raised the download cap for its games service. The team now had plenty of real estate to play with.

Third, Centerscore reluctantly put itself on the market, after reaching the conclusion that staying independent was a losing proposition. The studio simply couldn't match the big publishers' sale and marketing muscle, and carriers were starting to freeze the smaller players out entirely.

Several suitors approached the company, but one stood out in particular - Vivendi Games Mobile (VGM), the French media conglomerate's new mobile games arm and one of four divisions within Vivendi Games. VGM had assembled studio assets in Europe and a strong business team in Los Angeles, and it was looking for an experienced studio in California to round out the ensemble.

Both sides felt that the studio's experience with original IP would be a great complement to VGM's business resources and connections. After all, if Centerscore had managed to boost Surviving High School into Top Sellers by itself, imagine what it could do when plugged into a big publisher's production pipeline. After a full summer of negotiations, the acquisition closed in September 2006, a month before the launch of Surviving High School '07.


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