Like most writers, Andrew Shvarts’ road to publication was filled with ups, downs, twists, turns, and valuable lessons. Shvarts knows better than anyone that the tricks of the trade can be picked up in surprising places, like a mobile gaming company. In designing and writing Choices, a choose-your-own-adventure game (and a nominee for Google’s Best Game of the Year award), Shvarts learned invaluable lessons about storytelling and characters that helped to shape his debut novel. Here, Shvarts shares how writing for mobile games led him to writing Royal Bastards.
When I graduated from Vassar College with a Creative Writing B.A. and four years’ worth of encouraging workshops behind me, I had a clear vision of exactly how my future would go: I’d move back to Silicon Valley where I’d grown up, crank out horror short stories, and keep working on my opus, a sprawling post-apocalyptic Western. I’d succeed immediately, of course, and in a few years I’d be the next Stephen King, writing violent, gritty horror and thrillers, infused with just enough literary depth. It seemed so plausible.
That dream took only six months to crash and burn. It turned out no one had any interest in buying anything I was writing, and my novel was a mess of false starts and incoherent world-building. I was paying the bills writing marketing copy for a PC hardware company. The dream of being a professional writer and sharing my stories with the world felt impossibly far away.
Opportunity came, as I suspect it does surprisingly often, in the form of a Craigslist post. A mobile games company called Centerscore, was hiring for a junior games writer. I’d never heard of them or really any mobile games company for that matter. This was in 2008—before Angry Birds and Candy Crush and even Farmville—when the iPhone was still a luxury good for early adopters and the only mobile game most people knew about was Snake. Even weirder, Centerscore’s signature product was something called Surviving High School, which appeared to be some kind of tween-aimed choose your own adventure.
It was nowhere near the path I’d envisioned for myself, but I sprang for it. I mean, a paid writing gig is a paid writing gig. I figured I’d be there a year, maybe two.
Nine years later, I’m still with the same team, and I can confidently say responding to that job listing was the best decision I’ve ever made. The ride has certainly been tumultuous; Centerscore was acquired by EA, shut down, and reborn as the startup Pixelberry Studios, creators of High School Story and Choices: Stories You Play.
I worked on Choices as both a writer and a lead designer. It’s a content platform that offers many different genres, from the rom-com Rules of Engagement to the epic fantasy The Crown and The Flame, and I had to master them all. Learning to write for Pixelberry was a massive plunge out of my comfort zone. I’d spent 20 years tinkering about in the same familiar genres, but working here meant learning to write the kind of things I’d avoided in my horror haze: romance, comedy, and sweet upbeat stories aimed at teens. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. By having to quickly learn all these new genres, I was forced away from all the tropes and clichés I’d enveloped myself in. I was forced to learn, from the ground up, how to tell a good story. I discovered I loved the lighter tone of YA, that I actually relished romance, and that I felt vastly more comfortable writing for teens than I ever had trying to impress literary journals. Writing for Pixelberry, I didn’t just adapt to the demands; I found my true voice.
That wasn’t all though. Mobile gaming isn’t necessarily a space known for its social activism, but here as well, Pixelberry was unique. Our eyes were opened shortly after the launch of our first game, High School Story, when a young player wrote to us saying that she was planning to kill herself. We were able to put her in touch with an expert who got her the help she needed, but the moment was a profound wakeup call: We had this platform that reached, literally, millions and millions of teens each month, and that brought with it a tremendous responsibility to be a force for positive change. Pixelberry has continued to use our games for social good. We’ve done this through partnerships with organizations like Cybersmile and Girls Who Code, and through storylines that explore issues like harassment, discrimination, and depression. We’ve also made diversity a major commitment in our storytelling, offering casts with broad representation in terms of ethnicity, sexual identity, and culture.
Three years ago, having long since put aside dreams of fiction writing, I opened a new blank Word document and decided to give it another try. I felt like a different person, like I’d fought my way through a dozen dungeons to level up past the point of recognition. It felt like coming back home after that first semester at college, looking at everything familiar through new eyes. Best of all, I knew clearly what I wanted to write now: young adult genre fiction that mixes humor, romance, and edge-of-your-seat action with a story that champions diversity and strives to positively impact teen readers.
My debut novel, Royal Bastards, tells the story of a group of disparate bastard teens who get framed for a murder and are forced to go on the run. It combines a lot of the elements I’ve come to love over my years writing for Pixelberry: a diverse ensemble cast of loveable characters, a high-stakes thrilling plot, and an irreverent tone that pokes fun at tropes while never losing its heart. It’s an original work, one I’m damn proud of, and I never would’ve been able to write it without the lessons I learned in mobile game design.
Andrew Shvarts is an author of novels and video games. He has a BA in English Literature and Russian from Vassar College. He works for Pixelberry Studios as a designer, making mobile games like High School Story, Choices, and more. Andrew lives in San Jose, California, with his wife, toddler, and two kittens. Find him on Twitter @Shvartacus.