Founded in January 2018, Crazy Maple Studio, a division of ChineseAll USA Corporation, creates interactive games based on novels in a variety of genres. Each game of Chapters: Interactive Stories tells a story featuring scenes in which readers can select a particular outcome.
Crazy Maple Studio sees its role as something between publishing and gaming. Today, many people play games on their phones. With Chapters: Interactive Stories, Crazy Maple’s developers hope to help traditional publishers re-engage with their audiences.
Susan Platt met up in cyberspace with Max Orkis, Megan McDonald, Cortney Chapman and Tania T. of the San Francisco-based Crazy Maple team to talk about the evolution of reading in the digital age, and how a raw story is turned into an interactive experience.
Susan: Hello and welcome everybody! Let’s jump right into the exciting world of choice-based interactive story-telling. I imagine the people who experience a story through written words are different than the ones who plunge into a story on a mobile device. Who are the people who experience Chapters?
Megan: We have a pretty global audience, but the people who play our interactive games are predominantly English speakers located in the US but also in Australia, Canada and the UK. What’s interesting is that our audience is not quite as young as we had expected. Most of our female players are between 18 and 34 but also going up to 50.
Max: Interestingly, we often get emails from people who tell us that they really do not enjoy reading, but playing the game made them want to read the actual book. So, the app helps people discover or rediscover their love of the written word. Chapters actually gets people more into reading or gets them to read more, which is completely the opposite to what people expect from a game.
Susan: What is the genre that generates the most interest, and why do you think that is?
All: Romance! Hands down. Probably because that is the genre that we launched with and we have been targeting people who enjoy that genre. That said, we do have a lot of other genres in the pipeline. Things like fantasy and sci-fi have a lot of dramatic structure that lends itself very well to games. We are actively trying to lead people to discover other genres in the app.
Susan: Part of that hook is that you keep adding chapters to your books. How often do you release chapters of the stories?
Cortney: We try to release a chapter or two per game and week.
Susan: That’s a lot of work for so many interactive books! How many of you are working on these stories at present?
Cortney: We are the four editors and each of us works with two to five writers to make the stories work.
Susan: How do you tie in the visuals for the books and make the characters come alive on the small screen?
Max: We have an in-house art team and freelancers mostly in the US, but we also had some artists from Germany and China work on some of the stories.
Susan: How long is the process from finding a raw story and then editing it, adding all the different ‘branches’ to the story, adding the art and turning it into a game?
Megan: A minimum of six weeks at this point. When we have a new story, we talk among the editors to see who has the most interest and connection with that project and then we check who has the best sensibility match to work on the material. Then we start to develop the artwork and the script. Typically, we try to have five to six chapters ready at launch.
Susan: What’s the trickiest part in that process?
Cortney: It really depends on the book. Some of the more ‘raw’ self-published material needs more restructuring and rewriting than traditionally published material. It took a while for all of us to learn how to structure and design the choice branches within the stories.
Susan: How big of an impact do these choice branches have on the story? Does a choice I make in the game actually influence the character development or how the story ends, or will the main outcome always remain the same?
Tania: The branches do have a large impact on character development and the story itself. Certainly worth trying out different choices to see where they lead!
Susan: How long has Crazy Maple Studio been around and what has your journey been like so far?
Megan: We started out about 18 months ago with four titles at launch. We currently have 13 titles and a lot more in the timeline. It’s been a pretty fast and crazy ride.
Susan: Judging from your social media channels, your readers seem to be happy to be along for the fast-paced adventures and many are eagerly awaiting the weekly chapters to drop. In that sense, your storytelling mechanism is like an old-school TV series where you would have to wait a week for a new episode in your favourite show. But with every editor having three to five stories to juggle, how do you ensure the quality and the integrity of the new chapters?
Megan: You bring up a good point. We recently decided to move away from the weekly TV series instalments and head a bit more into the Netflix model: dropping everything at one point. Going forward, we will have 10-15 chapters at the original launch date and then add the final chapter a week later—so the wait won’t be too long for the players, but also to take the time pressure off our editors. We can see on our social media feed that people are very engaged with the stories and are eager and hungry to finish them. They want the ability to ‘binge’. And far be it from us to deny them that pleasure!
So, the new schedule alleviates the tension from all of the editors juggling so many story lines at once. This way, we have completed the majority of the script before it goes live.
Max: We each have two books live at the moment, where we have to contribute a new chapter each week. That entails new choices, new art, new music, and testing and retesting and testing again to make sure it lives up to the standards of our audience.
Susan: Do you hide any ‘Easter eggs’ in the games? References to other books and such?
Tania: Yes! There is one in All the Wrong Reasons but no one has found it yet!
Max: I wanted to do an intertextuality-type thing and put a painting on a wall with images of a different book, but then I couldn’t find anything relevant to connect it to the story so I dropped the idea. But I might still do that in one of my other titles. We have a lot of artistic freedom to build in fun things.
Tania: In Starstruck there is a poster in the background that features all the titles of our Chapters games, so that’s a small, fun inside reference that many of the gamers notice and comment on.
Susan: What are the next projects and latest titles? Are you adding any genres to your roster?
Max: Yes. So far we have romance, fantasy and science fiction, and we have some LGBT titles that are doing really, really well. With all new releases, we try to mix it up a bit. For example, Hades’ Daughter is a crossover of fantasy, coming of age and YA. Bad Boy Blues is romance but with a mafia thriller tone. That is the fun of it: we can blend everything and have an open palette for people to experience new things. And then we put it out there for people to try.
Susan: In a sense, you are like a little interactive book shop. People can come in, peek and try a book in a genre they normally wouldn’t even look at because it blends with elements they are familiar with.
Max: Yes, that’s how we stand out from other players in this field. There’s not necessarily a literary quality to our work, but more of a bookshop vibe. We collaborate with people who read and write books and make sure more people get to enjoy their work.
Susan: And, finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?
Max: I used to always say One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez, but now I am in the middle of East of Eden by Steinbeck and that just shot up to the top of my list.
Megan: I am a huge Jane Austen fan. And that served me well with how to portray relationships. The way that she sets characters against each other informs how I create or pursue the quiet moments of our books that lead up to choices and pivotal, moral decisions.
Tania: I don’t really have a favourite. I never read romance stories until I started working for Crazy Maple Studio, but then I had to, and it changed me completely. But I do really like Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.
Cortney: I am a light-hearted reader and writer. I like things that are fun and make me laugh with a strong, zany romp and a strong narrative. My favourite author is a local: Christopher Moore writes comic fantasy and he has some pretty great titles like Fluke or Bite Me.
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