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Hey, lil mama: What was Boyfriend Maker? Exclusive
Hey, lil mama: What was  Boyfriend Maker ?
November 28, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

November 28, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

"Is there a party in your pants?" You type to your virtual boyfriend. "I didn't make it to the bathroom," the lush-lipped Ken doll replies.

In the past few weeks, all my friends have been interested in one title above all others: A tacky Japanese app called Boyfriend Maker. This, at the most crucial time of year for reflecting on big hits and hunkering down with holiday blockbusters?

Scratch the surface of social media just a little bit and Boyfriend Maker, which lets players build and customize a princely, decidedly androgynous young man, dress him and have conversations with him, is the talk of the town among players of all genders and orientations.

It's a garish conflagration of pink, blue and J-Pop aesthetics. Though conversation is the primary game mechanic, it's awkward and occasionally busted. In a flagrant breach of fantasy, your 'boyfriend' will routinely remind you that conversation costs energy, and to get energy you're forced to share these 'romantic' conversations on your Facebook wall. You can pay to ask more questions if you don't want to wait -- the exact sort of setup Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker was intended to mock.

Social game designers have wrestled with energy mechanics and forced sharing -- yet here's a game that not only makes players delighted to participate in its virality, but motivates them to share jailbreaking techniques so they can continue to play the app even after it is inevitably yanked from the App Store.

Unpredictable Boyfriend

Wait, yeah, that happened. Earlier this week, Apple removed Boyfriend Maker because dewy-eyed dream date's patter regularly bordered on the extremely sexual, racist and vulgar.

"I stole a car," my friend tried typing to her virtual boyfriend. "Correction: black guy stole your car," the placid Prince Charming declared in reply.

Obviously, that's a big part of why everyone loved it, putting Apple in the unique position of quashing an app for the precise thing that made it popular: Try to read this popular Tumblr (NSFW) devoted to screenshots from the game without laughing.

Somehow this game got on the App Store to begin with. Developer 36You disclaimed responsibility on the app's now-defunct Store page and on its website: "all statements of information contained in the responses, replies and/or answers in Boyfriend Maker are generated and powered by a 3rd party engine (API) and are the sole responsibility of such 3rd party engine (API) and not of 36You," it says.

According to PocketGamer's report, the current core of Boyfriend Maker is the chat bot SimiSimi, which users can 'teach' to respond to certain word triggers with essentially whichever responses they like.

The result can be terrifyingly intuitive, like song lyrics, primitively obscene, or whatever you'd guess the internet might want. It's impossible for 36You to anticipate or vet the bot's behavior, hence its disclaimer -- but shouldn't someone have maybe spotted this rogue variable in an App Store game marked for kids and up?

A lovers' spat
Seems neither 36You or Apple knew what could happen, especially as the integration with SimiSimi was part of an update that only went live back in August, effectively sneaking it in a sort of blind spot for users, 36You and gatekeepers -- the task of keeping up with SimiSimi would have been monumental for anyone.

As of press time Boyfriend Maker is no longer available on the App Store, and is unlikely to pass muster again unless it develops a more predictably-safe chat engine. Its absence is causing a veritable outcry in social media circles, though, and it's interesting to think about its spontaneous boom and what we might learn from it.

It's more than just the alternating amusement and horror at a fantasy boyfriend spewing casually-offensive gibberish that helped Boyfriend Maker become an internet sensation. Part of what compelled players to try the app out was the unique pleasure in experimenting with a complex and inscrutable system, to unpredictable results (some of which reveal the Boyfriend's ability to identify Pokemon, albeit imperfectly, and to sing The Eurythmics).

'I created this.'

Players were able to create and own their unique conversations and share them with friends; spreading Boyfriend Maker screenshots was a form of irreverent storytelling, and a community quickly formed around trying to up the ante, to create the most perfectly-awkward capsules of experience. To test the system to ever-more surprising and funny results -- all of which bore individualistic stamps, calling cards of I created this around every wacky accident.

That's not just because the app begs for sync with personal social networks, making the advertisement of humor easy; players also have crude but significant control over the Boyfriend's appearance. Some lines are just funnier spoken by a vacant-eyed, swoop-haired pretty boy you can dress in a shirt that says "Thug."

Boyfriend Maker's straight up weirdness managed to blithely defy best practices about the virality of social games and in-app purchases, which says a lot about the kind of content some demographics want to identify themselves with and share. It's not unheard of, either: fandom for joyous Eastern-flavored expressivity and a yen for unpredictable imagery helped an oddball little Korean pop song called Gangnam Style top the global charts.

Amid the mainstreaming of internet culture and the decline of Japanese influence in games, it could be that a certain audience is thirsty for the surreal feeling of media that feels just slightly foreign, that piques humor and imagination among what gets lost in translation.

One of the screenshots on the Boyfriend Maker tribute Tumblr prizes the day the app ranked an impressive 12th among iOS free apps. App developers have been on a metrics-driven quest for the perfect formula for fun, but the crucial internet audience that leads virality is always looking for something decidedly left-field, as well as something they can experience cultural ownership of -- concepts devs should take to heart.

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Brian Canary
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I love that this little disruption actually generated real, honest to god VIRALITY not manufactured by rooms of metrics obsessed product managers.

Adam Bishop
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That tumblr is the funniest thing I've seen in a while.


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I'd buy this if they made a girlfriend version. That tumblr was the funniest thing I've experienced this week.

Will Mallouk
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There is a girlfriend version. Here:

Zack Wood
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I'm intrigued by this SimiSimi. It is being taught by all players collectively and gaining knowledge, so you never know what someone else might have taught it? How much was actually hard-programmed in? I kinda wanna talk to it.

Doug Poston
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Check out CleverBot ( ).

Samuel Green
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I'm sad I didn't manage to download it before it was pulled. The tumblr is hilarious

John Byrd
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Next week: Apple begins bricking the iPhones of people that have R-rated telephone conversations.

Luis Blondet
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Oh, for fuck's sake, Apple! *sigh*

Alice Rendell
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The Boyfriend Maker conversation highlights this wonderful mesh of serendipity and creativity. This is why it was so naturally viral, people wanted to share not only what they had discoverd, but what they had helped create. We saw a similar thing happen when Draw Something was released, with players wanting to share their drawings (good and bad), not for any extra reward but for the sheer pleasure of having friends join in the fun. I think this was the original premise behind games on social networks, easy access for friends to join in your fun. It does seem though that the message has gotten lost somewhere along the way.

Paul Marzagalli
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There a slew of independent reasons that end up piling into the same bowl. It's not that different from the traditional way people and things go in and out of style, but the internet turns that from Betty Crocker using an egg beater in a bowl to a Ronco blender set to "full-speed puree." The pushback, exploitation, falling out favor, and whatnot all comes around much more quickly and violently.

But if "we" means that you worked on "Draw Something", then thanks! It's one of my daughter's favorite games!

Alice Rendell
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@Paul sorry for the misunderstanding, I didn't work on Draw Something but work in "Social Games" to which I reffered to as "We". That's true though that this kind of hype does ultimately fall back down to Earth. I'm not sure how many people are sharing their Draw Something pictures now in comparison to the first month or so after launch, but what it doesn't take away from is the fact that Draw Something provided a more organic version of play and share, which had not really been seen in Social Games before. Boyfriend Maker seems to have (unexpectedly) repeated this, and we in Social Games can take an example from that.

Paul Marzagalli
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The social games scene right now *feels* to me like the tech bubble burst a decade+ ago. I have lived in Boston for the better part of the last twenty years, and whenever I drive up Rte. 128, I see buildings and remember all the different start-up companies that once upon a time occupied those spaces. From about 1996 - 2001, everything in the world was possible and then it all went down faster than the Titanic. Obviously, the market course-corrected and some companies which were on the ropes are doing alright now and different industries have risen to capitalize on new markets.

These days, it feels like social gaming is at a similar point where it's facing some hard questions about what it needs to be a financially viable and ethically sound enterprise. Zynga's troubles (again, impacting the greater Boston area) certainly point to it, and I'm curious to see where things go. I think Nintendo is trying to explore that, too, with their Wii U and, for that matter, I thought Bioware's original intention for their social network was an interesting attempt to make a single player game a shared experience.