Results from Game Design Challenge: Romance

By staff [03.16.10]

 While romance games have had a pretty long history in Japan, success has eluded this genre in the U.S. Sure, some Japanese games get translated and are appreciated by niche audiences, but there hasn't been a really substantial success comparable to Konami's Tokimeki Memorial or its more recent Love Plus.

What's the problem? Some Western designers have tackled the genre, but without making any major headway either. One notable attempt was the Nintendo DS launch game Sprung, which featured pithy dialogue and trendier characters than the Japanese games.

Konami even tried to launch an original romance game in the west with Brooktown High: Senior Year, developed by Backbone Entertainment. It copied the gameplay format of the Tokimeki Memorial games -- a blend of social interaction, character management, and minigames -- but was intended as a humorous, pop-culture infused attempt at the genre; it was met with stony silence from gamers.

Is there any way to make a relationship or dating game that's appealing to Westerners? Game Career Guide challenged its readers to come up with a solution.

What follows are the best and most original entries we received. Here are our top picks:

Best Entries

Emily Greenquist Student, Flashpoint Academy, I <3 Mullido (see page 2)
I <3 Mullido abstracts the concept of love, and tackles complex themes with cute characters. The result is an appealing experience for a carefully chosen target audience.

Isaak Kraft van Ermel, Noordelijke Hogeschool Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, Hearthunters (see page 3)
Isaak Kraft van Ermel suggests a competitive multiplayer dating game for mobile phone owners. Notably, gameplay requires physical presence and social interaction -- a potential spark for real-world romances.

Vladimir Villanueva, Artist, The Album, Burgundy (see page 4)
Villanueva's The Album, Burgundy is a unique title that challenges players to balance rationality, passion, forwardness, and defensiveness in the context of a "real-time strategy romance."

Honorable Mentions
Nacho Pintos, Student at UOC's Post-Degree Program (Spain), 9 Rooms (see page 5)
Will Armstrong IV, Someone for Everyone (see page 6)
Jean-François Michaud, Senior QA tester, EA Montreal, The Player (see page 7)
Tania Anta, Student at UPC's Master in Video Game Creation and Development, Lost in Your Memories (see page 8)
Randy Lee Bernard, Moves (see page 9)

Emily Greenquist Student, Flashpoint Academy, I <3 Mullido

The most viable western demographic for dating games is female preteens. I <3 Mullido is (at its core) an educational social simulation; although to entice this target group, it is marketed as a seemingly taboo dating game. Marketing to this younger audience may appear risky, but there is a precedence (ex: "Mystery Date," 1965 and "Girl Talk," 1980's). The intent of this 2-D Nintendo DS game is to subtly develop social skills and empathy in players at a critical, typically awkward, age.

As stylish, fuzzy creatures called mullidos (French for fluffy), characters are highly stylized in the graffiti design movement (saturated colors / thick outlines / urban influences). This art choice is twofold:

1) attracts the pre-teen audience who still gravitate towards cute (fuzzy) things, but are beginning to rebel against childhood games like "Littlest Pet Shop"

2) creates a risk free / otherworldly environment to subversively tackle complex topics

The game begins with the player (a modish mullido, gender unspecified) leaving its small town to explore and live in the big city, where other fashionable mullidos meet and mingle. This mirrors the real-world transition from middle school to high school, which currently holds the demographic's curiosity.

Before attempting to date a mullido of their choosing, the player must first develop a reputation through mini-games. In one instance, the player gains access to a dance club that houses mullidos clumped together in groups of like colors (green mullidos with green mullidos, pink with pink, etc.). To gain reputation points, the player must flirt with a member from each group, forming a multi-colored entourage. The underlying educational message is to promote racial integration and eliminate cliques, through social interaction.

Friendships are more quickly developed with a higher reputation level, and close friendships lead to relationships. Each character has a "friendship level," signified by the color of their outline. All begin with black and change as the relationship with the player changes:

Green - enemies

Blue - dislike

Purple - uninterested

Black - strangers (start)

Yellow - friends

Orange - close friends

Red - dating

Unsuccessful interactions (like choosing to flirt with someone else's mate), will ultimately create enemies, who spread rumors and further decrease the player's reputation.

Before choosing to reach the dating stage of a friendship, the player must research the character's reputation, by asking other mullidos their opinion. Each will generate a different answer, and it is up to the player to filter those responses. For example, through conversations, the player may learn that the mullido of interest is already dating someone or that it only likes short mullios.

Unlike other dating games, dating in I <3 Mullido is not ultimately guaranteed (as is true in life). Once in the Orange friendship range, the player can attempt a relationship, with at 25% success rate. It is the challenge and thrill of the conquest that captivates an audience and an even more realistic simulation is to experience unrequited love. This game is designed to prepare preteens for such complex forthcoming situations.

Isaak Kraft van Ermel, Noordelijke Hogeschool Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, Hearthunters

Type: Competitive multiplayer dating game.

Platforms: Real world + smartphone/any mobile device with internet


Hearthunters is a multiplayer dating game which takes place in the real world, supported by mobile devices capable of synching data via the internet.

At its core the game revolves around bringing people together, breaking down barriers through the use of simple gameplay mechanics and turning socializing and romance into a game.

Prior to the Game

Prior to the game players are required to download a mobile application to their device and an online profile which will allow them to participate in the game.

This application will allow players to keep track of their score and the other players while at the same time locating Hearts.

In the default game Hearts and Hunters are each made up of one gender.

As said the game takes place in a real world location, for instance a city or a small town.

Before the game starts all players gather at a central location where each 'Heart' is instructed by the Heartmaster to each go to a seperate public place (museum, restaurant) and wait for the game to start.

The Game

In the game there are three roles, two of which are playable: the Hearts and the Hunters.

The goal for the Hunters is to gather as many 'Heartpoints' they can in a limited amount of time.

Hunters get Heartpoints by finding Hearts, introducing themselves and do whatever they can within the rules.

Depending on how the talk goes the Hunter is rewarded by the Heart with points. The 'Heart' submits the score and the Hunters' leader board is immediately updated.

The Hearts' location can be found on a map which comes with the mobile application, along with the leader board and a rulebook specific to Hunters.

The Hunters don't start the application until the game starts.

Hearts wait in public places and give the Hunters points. The scores they give is based on a specific Hearts rulebook.

Like Hunters, Hearts also have an application which tracks the Hunters. This application however lacks the leaderboard, making sure a Hunter's score isn't a factor during the talk.

The Heart can give 1-5 Heartpoints per Hunter

Finally the Heartmaster only acts as a referee, scorekeeper and organizer.

It's the Heartmaster who starts the game, ends it and makes sure the game is played as it should be by tracking the players and the game's progress from the central location using an application on a personal computer.

The game can be played by either gender of any sexual orientation.

The rules can be adjusted to cater to specific ages, orientation or any other characteristic to allow themed games.

After the Game

After the game is complete all players return to the central location where there's room for people to get to know eachother even better and make plans for a more formal date.

Virtual Gold, Silver and Bronze medals are awarded to the winners to display on their online profiles.

Designer Commentary

At first I was working on a fairly conventional design, I had little experience with the types of games listed as examples, but enough to know my design would have absolutely nothing to do with any of them.

Combining the classic Cupid, a 3D environment, interesting scenarios and stealth gameplay, I came up with a design where the player would have to make situations happen in order to bring people together, all while not being seen.

For instance making a girl slip who would fall in the hands of a young man, an event which would culminate in a relationship later on.

This was already based on the goal of the design being 'bringing people together'. But while the player's goal would indeed be bringing people together, the actual game wouldn't.

On top of that the whole game wasn't 'out there'. The context would allow for incredibly interesting scenarios, but the actual gameplay wouldn't allow the player interesting to undertake.

The effect would be cool, cause... not so much.

After trying to rethink it, I took a break and watched Jesse Schell's DICE talk, which was ludicrously inspirational.

In short it made my look on games change completely and I got rid of the tunnel vision that been plaguing me a bit.

Instead of trying to design a game into romance, I began to design romance into a game.

I was actually quite surprised how easy it was to combine readily available, existing elements into an interesting design after that.

All the pieces fit together and it was my shortest design stint ever, only taking a few hours to make (even after leaving my whiteboard eraser at college).

In those few hours I came up with:

- A basic set of simple rules
- A way to track the results for players
- A way for players to reach the goal of the game
- A way to make sure rules are followed

Given the millions of fairly obvious ways a player could fail and the whole word limit thingy, it was safe for me to omit that.

Even with that though I didn't expect I had to include every single detail that I could come up with, given the word limit.

So I just put in what I thought was absolutely necessary.

The result was a simple, elegant gamedesign playable for everyone while at the same time keeping the initial goal intact: bringing people together. With the possible goal of actual, real romance for players to achieve.

Vladimir Villanueva, Artist, The Album, Burgundy

Lips licked and muscles tensed, countless emotions scream into life then back into nothingness at heartbeat speeds. Death was done in your head for ideals, all for a smile you gave, captured in a photo, bound between burgundy.

Reminiscing over personally important days, 'The Album, Burgundy' is a real-time strategy romance for the Nintendo DS. Gazing at old photos, players relive the wars they waged in their heads as they walked with former loved ones. Starting with a sparse album, players access new photos by musing over the pictures they have.

Selecting a photo with the stylus, players are mentally and emotionally transported back to the day when the picture was taken. Inner turmoil fills the touch screen as players simultaneously control and attempt to mediate four warring mindsets: Rationality, Passion, Forwardness, and Defensiveness. Each faction controls numerous neuron fortresses that constantly generate brawling chemical infantry. Aggressively marching forth, infantry immediately enter into deadly melees with opposing forces they meet while invading fortresses they come upon.

Torn by all sides, players maintain composure by focusing on each mindset individually. With all four mindsets mapped to the directional pad, players can change focus to a different mindset by pressing a direction. Players guide the focused on mindset by tapping or circling their infantry or fortresses, then tapping on an opposing faction's fortress to invade. Excessively loyal, mindsets will not attack their own, while all mindsets not currently being focused on will maintain all previous orders they were given.

As inner conflict is played out on the bottom screen, the events that occurred between the player and their partner are presented in first-person on the top screen. With fickle memories, players remember the questions their partners asked at constantly randomized locations, while each inquiry influenced by an undisclosed mindset the partner is currently in. Players try to connect with their mate by providing positive answers using the same mindset.

When questioned, the player's inner conflict switches from battlefield to diplomacy. With each mindset listed on the left side of the touch screen, waves of selectable answers quickly scroll out to the right of each mindset, requiring players to hurriedly choose a response with a stylus tap. Influenced by their own emotional state, dominant mindsets will present responses at faster speeds while being mixed with negative choices, thus, players with too many passion fortresses will be peppered with highly emotional responses, while excessively forward players are given overly blunt answers. Further complicating the inner turmoil are the choices selected: for confiding on the chosen response, new fortresses will rise from the ground controlled by the mindset the player had selected an answer from.

By constantly answering to the partner's mood, players can positively end memories, earning new pictures to play through. Previously played memories can also be viewed behind their partner's perspective, allowing players to see why certain answers fit best.

When the book is closed and the present returns, players hopefully gain an experience they can take from the album, burgundy.

Nacho Pintos, Student at UOC's Post-Degree Program (Spain), 9 Rooms

An isometric game about conversations, stealth, blackmail, and money/love management.

Having inherited a 10-room villa, accumulate enough money in one year to pay the debts left by its former owner, to avoid the property being seized.

Without money, job, or diploma, your decide to rent rooms. The house is fabulous; many people reply to your ad. At the beginning, you browse through dozens of cover letters to choose 9 individuals. Each one describes personality, stay length, job, sexual preferences...

But you must find 'alternate' ways to earn cash quickly: with your last dollars, you buy a couple spy cams. Your aim is to get as much details about each tenant as possible, guess a suitable match, play cupid in secret so they start flirting, put the camera in the right place of the room (before they arrive), and tape the sex scene, which will be sold to a porn webmaster.

Time and money Each Monday you receive money from your tenants, which you can spend in a wide range of presents (if mentioned in conversations), video tapes, or more cameras. When a tenant leaves, you can pay for another newspaper ad.

Get information The game progresses through day-night periods. Each tenant follows a routine: i.e. at 6am the lawyer gets up and the freshman returns from a party. Time can be accelerated and slowed down at will. You can talk to them while they are in, choosing from a list of predefined topics. Conversations are logged to your diary. Relevant data (items, sentences) is highlighted. If someone seems impossible to match, you can ask him to leave. If someone had a crush on him, she will also leave the house.

Play cupid Leave gifts in from of the door of one, with a note signed as the other. Example: pretend the young lawyer left a classic French novel in front of the romantic girl's room.

Or push false handwritten notes under the door, with an appropriate sentence from a predefined list. Only one sentence will work, and it will only be present if you talked enough with them.

You could also 'orchestrate' threesomes and even orgies.

Hide the camera When you feel sex action is imminent, you have to hide the camera in your victim's room, while he/she is away. Put it in the correct place of the room (pointing at the shower, or the desk, or the carpet...), based on previous conversations.

Get caught while hiding the camera Depending on their personality they will: - Silently Leave the house - Blackmail you: stay for free and remain quiet - Sue you

Make money Sell the video to an amateur porn website. The more exotic the couple, the more they'll pay. Each subsequent scene of the same couple will bring less money.
Blackmail them.

Game Over when: - Get caught three times. - Get sued without money for a good lawyer - Not enough money after one year - A tenant falls in love with you

Will Armstrong IV, Someone for Everyone

Basic Concept:

Someone for Everyone is a romance-based real-time strategy title that challenges players to pair a variety of characters together, using the abilities each couple can perform to unite other couples and solve each map. Only with careful planning will players be able to pair up every character with their ideal match.


Players are able to take control of individuals and assign them specific actions; each character can perform a variety of basic tasks, but also possess several ‘Partnership' roles and abilities that remain locked until two characters with the same role are paired.

Example: John has the Guardian, Scavenger and Trapper role options; when paired with Julianne (who has the Guardian, Sailor, and Jeweler roles), both characters form a single Guardian ‘unit'.

A couple can only have a single role; John can only perform the abilities of a Guardian once paired with Julianne. Had he been paired with Cindy (who has Trapper role option), that couple would have the Trapper abilities instead.

Partnership Abilities:

Each Partnership ability is represented as a mini-game, and every ability functions differently.

Example: Guardian couples are used to explore ruins and caves; when using their abilities, the gameplay switches to that of a turn-based RPG. Trapper couples have a more action-oriented style, setting traps and attempting to herd animals into them.

Each is also designed so two players can participate if so desired, making this a fantastic game to play with a significant other.

Forming Pairs:

In order to pair two characters together, they must first have their pre-set desires fulfilled by their partner before they're willing to pair up. Some characters desire items (that can be found on the map or created via another couples' Partnership abilities), others to visit specific locations or structures. Many of these desires can only be met by utilizing the Partnership Abilities of other character pairs, so players will have to carefully plan which characters are matched up.

Example: Julianne desires flowers, a trip to the museum, and a boat ride. The flowers must be found on the game map, the museum must be built (and stocked with items found by a Scavenger couple), and the boat ride requires a Sailor couple to hook up .

Once a pair is united, they cannot be separated.

Someone for Everyone:

Each map is a puzzle with a pre-determined solution; the player is free to pair who he likes, but there will always be a ‘perfect solution' that has every couple perfectly matched up. Players must be careful not to pair couples too hastily.

Example: John is trapped on an island. Players need a pair of Sailors to build a boat and ferry John to the mainland. If the player pairs Julianne (who can be a Sailor) with Dan, they will be able to rescue John, but John and Julianne will be unable to hook up, denying the player a "Perfect Pair".

Perfect Pairings award the player with rewards usable on other maps. A perfect couple will start to shimmer when near each other, providing a valuable clue.

Jean-François Michaud, Senior QA tester, EA Montreal, The Player

The Player is a 3rd person free roaming, business oriented game where the protagonist goes from zero to greatest seducer in the city. It is based on the fantasy of entering a bar and seducing every woman. It is meant for a 18 to 34 male demographic.

Story: You are a student of The Player, a seduction teacher. Your progress is fast, however, and a jealous Player kicks you out of the city to a suburban town. Your goal is to take over his business.

The game starts with a flashbacks and your first class. The Player sets you up to talk to some girls. This serves as a tutorial to the game where you learn the mechanics of the game. You then wake up in the suburban town where you have a tutorial about business.

The world is divided in five areas that are each ruled by a seducer and his business. The game starts in low end suburban bars and make your way to own every section of the city, to go on and take over The Player, who rules over the high class bars of the city.

You give classes every night. You start in small bars with a student or two. There is a small number of target women to seduce. As you grow your business and earn more money, you get more students and you can go to better clubs, where there are more target girls. You earn money by multiplying your seduction score and the number of students you have that night.

Day time is when you build your business by advertising, getting more student, going on dates and preparing you next evening by scoping for your next class location or going shopping.

The game revolves around three elements: seduction, style and reputation.

Seduction: The seduction itself is based on active listening. As a seduction goes, the girl will drop hints about what she likes and dislikes. Talk about what she likes, you score points. You can also move the conversation to other areas of the bar. If she dances, you can bring her to the dance floor. Be successful at trying to kiss her, you get more points. The seduction ends when you get her phone number.

Style: The better your style, the easier it is to seduce. Show up in a limousine and have great clothes, girls will be more open to you and give you more chances when you make errors. You can lose when you get turned away from girls, when you get slapped, or if you meet a previously seduced girl that you ignored by not bringing on a date. No style means you can't seduce, hence your class is over.

Reputation: This helps you get more student to your classes, and eventually take over every part of the city. You increase it by buying advertisement and by having successful classes. You decrease it by failing at the classes or lack of advertising.

Tania Anta, Student at UPC's Master in Video Game Creation and Development, Lost in Your Memories

To provide a bit of context, as the game will be heavily story-driven, I had the main idea while recalling 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', one of my favourite films ever.

The goal consists of gathering the pieces of a perplexing puzzle: the memories of your girlfriend/boyfriend and the relationship you had/have, which apparently you have completely forgotten. Solving the riddle doesn't mean you both get to live happily ever after: as you regain new memories and get closer to your goal, your decisions throughout the game and your interactions with other characters may significantly affect the outcome.

You won't be alone in your journey: Together with a partially controllable NPC who's going through the same, you'll have to cooperate to find out why your respective significant others seem to have been erased from your memories...if they ever existed.

At the beginning, you'll get to choose your gender and sexual orientation: they'll determine your partner's identity. Then you can pick a career (such as a scientist, a painter, a PR or a stripper) with benefits and disadvantages to your skills. There will also be some traits to choose which will set some background story-wise and grant you with further bonuses and handicaps. Your character's appearance will be customizable, for the eye candy.

Your companion will start with some skills of her own. As you progress through the game and get to know her better, you'll be able to 'discover' her own traits (not necessarily the same set you were offered in the beginning) and further refine her skills.

The plot will advance by completing certain sub-goals: - Get some reaction from an NPC, through conversational trees or performing in-game actions. - Reach some particular location. - Cooperative missions. Say, your partner uses her persuasion skill to distract some guy while you sneak past and then use your amazing ability to find information to...find some information. - Mini-game solving, related to whatever you're doing. Oblivion is useful as a bad and a good example: While I found the persuasion wheel totally unimmersive, the lock picking mini-game was, in contrast, reasonably well done.

Solving a sub-goal will trigger some hint about your relationship (which will contribute to get you attached to him/her, lest you might end up always romancing a secondary or even more unimportant character) and may give some clues for the next mission.

If you end up romancing other people (you cheater!), you'll have to talk to them, give them gifts or help them out. Your choices during the game may also modify the approval of one potential lover (where that option makes sense: no clairvoyance!). I'm afraid I won't be spoiling much if I say beforehand your companion will be a love interest, but there'll be more, some of which you might not get to meet on a single playthrough.

Last, there will be a variety of optional areas where you can get some benefits: insight about missions or the game world, shops, secondary quests, workplaces, motels, etcetera.

Randy Lee Bernard, Moves

Platform: Console with dance-pad capabilities.
Genre: Dating/RPG/Party Game
Intended Audience: Teen-Mature, Male and Female, Singles and Couples
Premise: Club/Dance hall Simulation.
Goal: Build confidence in the player in a realistic situation and to offer social opportunities in dating in the comfort of the player's home.

Single-Player Mode:

The player will begin the game by creating a virtual representation of themselves using a library of customizable physical features. Creation of this in-game avatar would serve the purposes of both making the player what they would like to be, and establishing confidence in the player. After all, image is everything.

Immediately after creating their character, the player will choose a local to begin their adventure. Selections on a world map will include a Disco, Country Western Dance hall, Hip-Hop club, an underground Rock bar, and possibly a Ballroom Scenario. The difficulty of the game will scale based on preference of the player, and will offer a beginner's difficulty, to an expert difficulty.

Once the player has chosen the first location, the player will see the interior of the building, with several interactable characters. The player must then engage members of the opposite (or same?) sex and engage in conversation. The player will at first only have basic conversation starters and topics to discuss, but the end goal will be to convince the target to dance. If successful, the player will then be taken to the dance challenges of that particular location, with music and dance styles to match (country music in the Western hall, techno at the Disco, etc.). If the player fails the conversation portion with a particular target, the player must try again with a different target.

Show off your Moves!

Once the player has successfully impressed a target enough to earn a dance, the player will then have to show their stuff on the dance floor (pad). Think Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, etc, with a romantic twist! The player isn't only working on their own skills in this case, but actual skill with completing a particular song will impact how their dance partner thinks about them! Failing miserably will only send the on-screen partner walking away laughing, but will also force the player to try again with a different target. Success is measured on accuracy and completion of the song. Streaks of successful dance moves will cause verbal and physical approval of the player's dance partner. Completing one song will unlock subsequent songs in the same genre, with that same target.

So you think you're hot stuff?

The player has now completed a set-list of songs at a particular location, and the actual accuracy of songs completed will then translate into character development points. These points can then be distributed into physical stats such as Attractiveness, Personality, Charisma, Intelligence, and Charm. These stats all begin at zero, and the player must decide which stats are the most important to them to use in the future. Once these points are earned and spent, the individual characteristics will weigh in on future conversation choices and potential targets. Some targets will then begin to prefer a more intellectual conversation, and absolutely refuse to dance with someone who would select conversation topics revolving around the player's looks. Where as other targets will be attracted to the charm and charisma of the character that a player has build. Once stats have risen to a certain point, new conversation options will appear in the chat dialogue to custom tailor how the player will be able to talk to targets based on their strengths and weaknesses.

I have zero intelligence, but darn, I'm a looker!

Once a character has been built one way or another, the choices and potential dance partners will be set in stone to a certain extent. If a player notices someone at the disco that looks or sounds particularly interesting to them, but that target refuses to dance with a player based on how the character is built, it will force the player to think realistically. Sometimes, you have to think outside of the box with courtship, and this can serve as a lesson to be taken into the real dating world. The player may start from scratch to rebuild a character that has different options and possibilities open to them, to experience all of the different dance partners available to them.

The End Game:

This game does not take things beyond the dance hall. After completing each scenario, the player will gain confidence in his target, allowing for something as simple as a kiss on the cheek, a phone number, the offer of lunch this weekend, etc. The player may then select a different location to take their advancing character to, with slightly increased difficulty.

Multi-Player Mode:

In addition to a single player campaign, two players may dance simultaneously to the in-game library of music (possibly expandable with Internet connection). This mode will not have a failure/success goal, and will allow a pair of players to customize their on-game avatars to dance with each other. Again, the focus is confidence and opening up the players to social experience. This may serve as an ice-breaker at a party, or a fun first date!

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