High School Story: Early Days

For many, summer is a time of beginnings and endings: It's the start of summer vacation, and the end of a school year. If you're a senior, summer means graduation and the start of a whole new chapter of your life. Here at Pixelberry, we feel the same way. Our original game High School Story is ending, with its final main quest coming out next Monday on June 18th. (Don't worry, the game will remain available to download and play!) To say farewell, let's take a look back at the early days of High School Story:

Pixelberry started out as a small tight-knit team, working on High School Story all the way back in 2012. Our team has grown a lot since then, but at launch in August of 2013, everything you saw in the game was thanks to a handful of designers, developers, artists, and writers...

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From one of our artists, Bob: "HSS has a special place in my heart, because we literally built the art from the ground up. So when you walk on the grass, visit a hangout, click a button, or notice a seasonal change on the loading screen, I was a part of it. I’ve worked on 30-40 games in my career. Each game offers new challenges and adventure, but I’ll always think fondly of my own story at HSS."

 High School Story when it was still a work-in-progress! Early sketch courtesy of Bob!

High School Story when it was still a work-in-progress! Early sketch courtesy of Bob!

And a note from Oliver: “Just as characters in High School Story matured and evolved over time, so did our team. The best example would be the guy in glasses - Daniel. Before we launched High School Story, Daniel was a high school intern with our team. When he graduated and went to college, Daniel tapped into his love of music and created the music for Choices. And this summer, he’s graduating and starting a full time job with us. We are so proud of him and so excited to work full time with him!”

Since the very start, one of the goals of High School Story was to emphasize acceptance. With that in mind, we partnered with others to promote non-profits to raise awareness about issues such as cyberbullying, body image, and sexism. Some of you may remember our Monster High quest to promote the Born This Way Foundation and our Girls Who Code quest, among other partnerships.

Along the way, new game features were gradually added in, like The Library, where you could learn SAT vocabulary, and Your Voice, a one-stop shop for poll questions on current events and just about everything else. These features helped us connect with players more than ever before. One QA member, Glenda, reminisced about our poll feature: "It was always fun finding out where our players stand on important topics from ‘Favorite YA protagonists’ to other vital questions such as ‘Denim on denim… yea or nay?’ Inquiring minds want to know!"

Of course, there were a few bumps along the road. Edward, another QA team member and the host of our very first livestream, encountered one such bump: "HSS was the first game I worked on, but also the stage for my first big mistake. A bug that got past me was immortalized into the game due to the love of our fans and I will never forget that." An outfit glitch sparked incredible fanart and plenty of jokes from the fan community, and later was the inspiration for an outfit in the game!

 The end result of the infamous outfit glitch - a key part of High School Story history!

The end result of the infamous outfit glitch - a key part of High School Story history!

As the High School Story community grew, so did our love for the creativity and enthusiasm we got to see everyday online. The sprawling community took place across our forums, social media, and even our official Ask Payton Twitter! We decorated our walls with fanart, shared funny and inspiring fan messages with each other, and speculated about how players would react to plot twists and new Classmates.

 One of our (many) fanart-covered walls. 

One of our (many) fanart-covered walls. 

Over the last few years, we've made lasting friendships, held countless board game nights, spotted ducklings, launched whole new games (Hollywood U and Choices!), and so much more. And with each passing month, High School Story's story and characters transformed into an entire world of its own. For a closer look at how the story evolved, read on:

 Neighborhood duck sightings, holiday parties, cutthroat cookie competitions -- every day was an adventure! 

Neighborhood duck sightings, holiday parties, cutthroat cookie competitions -- every day was an adventure! 

What was it like creating High School Story, especially around launch?

Kara: When we started writing High School Story, we really had to come up with everything, like how many lines of dialogue should be in each quest, or how we handled incorporating the quest requirements into the story. It was tricky figuring out new ways to have the requirements make sense ("We need more room for the football field!"). My favorite part was always making the characters. I loved working on the looks for Payton, Mia, and Kara (of course), but my favorite was Katherine.

Jennifer: While I didn’t write the initial first quests for the product, I was brought on pretty early, so we were still shaping the characters. My first quest was all about Autumn, and the most challenging part was making sure her voice felt right for the character we wanted her to be.

Andrew: HSS was the first game I ever worked as a designer on, so it was both amazing and terrifying, like I’d been thrown into the deep end. I remember how fun it was coming up with all the mechanics, with the way stories integrated into gameplay, with the different kinds of requirements that could be fulfilled. Early on, the party building and the date building were the same thing, so you went on dates to recruit new classmates… which we quickly realized didn’t make much sense!

Eric: Close to HSS launch, we all came into the office on the weekend and tested the partying probabilities. We had to throw like a million parties each to make sure we could get all the different types, and that partying worked how we expected it to. We had a bunch of big sheets of paper hung up on the walls, and everyone would write down their results... We were dedicated and excited and nervous about how this big project we’d been sacrificing our time for would be received. A few months later, those same walls were covered with fanart.

Owen: Leading brainstorms for new Classmate types with the other writers was always fun. In the beginning it was easy, but as time went by, we were wracking our brains trying to come up with new combinations and covering our whiteboards in nonsense like “NINJAS?? DOG-WALKERS??” with a million question marks.

 High School Story brainstorms, back in 2013... #ThrowbackThursday

High School Story brainstorms, back in 2013... #ThrowbackThursday

How did you feel when you first started writing for High School Story? What did you enjoy the most? What was the most challenging?

Megan: The thing I enjoyed the most and what I found most challenging go hand-in-hand: working with a team of incredibly talented writers. I learned so much from them every day, even (or especially) when I struggled to live up to their awesomeness. It's been incredible to watch the team grow and learn as we've expanded to HWU and Choices, but I still remember my very first Writers' Sync Meeting where we all fit comfortably in one little conference room.

Jessica: Honestly, I was terrified. I was in awe of all the senior writers, who were pros in the game industry already and also just happened to be BFFs. Plus, the HSS cast all have such unique character voices, and I was afraid I wouldn't get them right. Fortunately, Max took pity on me during training and let me play to my strengths, assigning me a nerdy Nishan-centric HeroCon adventure for my first quest. Since then, I've grown to love writing every member of the HSS cast, but Nishan is still my favorite.

Kathleen: I started out as a poll question writer, then gradually clawed my way into writing quests full time. Learning to write in the fun, lighthearted style of HSS was definitely an adjustment for me (let’s just say there’s a reason why I write for the horror book now, haha). But HSS had this deep emotional sincerity that grabbed me right by the feels and pulled me in. Everyone on the team (not just the writers!) was just so in love with this world we were building together, it was impossible not to get swept up in that wave of enthusiasm. Even when we were stressed out and overworked, we talked about Nishan, Koh, and all the rest like they were old friends.

 At any given moment, writers could be found writing poll questions... or building tables!

At any given moment, writers could be found writing poll questions... or building tables!

Do you have a favorite memory from your HSS writing days?

Kara: When we launched High School Story, we didn't know how quickly people would play through the storyline, but the week we launched, we realized we were going to need a lot more content. I was going on a trip to Oregon, but we had to get the next quest written, so I remember writing our 14th quest, "The Gamer Girl" where you recruit Sakura, while I was riding in the car. It was surreal to have been working on this game for so long and to suddenly have people playing it -- flying through it, really -- and needing to write the thing that would come next before they ran out of things to play!

Megan: Oh man. We had so much fun writing HSS, even when we were in crunch time. Our poll question brainstorms are definitely a highlight. Or all the times we walked to the nearby shaved ice place to brainstorm. Or staying late in the office until everyone left was delirious (and our writing was definitely not shippable).

Kathleen: All the afternoons spent in the gazebo near our old office, trying to brainstorm quests but also laughing so hard at our own ridiculous jokes that we couldn’t breathe. One of those jokes made it into the Black Friday quest: Blurble the Turtle. Fun fact, Blurble the Turtle got name-dropped in Choices HSS, too!

What was your favorite quest that you wrote? What about storyline?

Jennifer: My favorite quest and also the quest I had the hardest time writing was Hope’s Story. When I was asked to write it, I thought of it as a tremendous honor, but at the same time, I knew it was going to be really important, so I was keeping that in mind all the time I was writing. To this day, it’s my favorite because it’s spoken to so many people and has had a real impact their lives.

Andrew: I really loved writing The Games We Play storyline, where Sakura deals with sexism and harassment in gaming. It was the first storyline that I wrote that really tackled some serious real-world issues, and it also let me write my favorite trope, which is building a team of friends to kick some butt. Having Sakura and her crew defeat the bros of the CarnageKings was some of the most fun writing I’ve done in my years here.

Megan: My favorite quest I ever wrote was Snack Attack (originally titled "Proof in the Pudding") where all your friends become homework-loving zombies after eating some poisoned pudding. I also enjoyed writing all of the various date quests and the education storyline with Kallie. Oh, and I wrote the infamous Max / Kara breakup, which was a blast.

Jessica: I loved "The Mild West", because it made zero sense. My favorite storyline would be the Ace quests. When we started brainstorming, Luke said "I know you don't like drama..." and then proceeded to assign me this dramatic, betrayal-filled quest arc. It was awful, but I learned a lot. I'm pretty darn proud of that moment when (spoiler incoming) Ace cuts into a rare steak as he's betraying you, and a trickle of blood pools on the plate. Drama!

Kathleen: One time I got to write a quest where you help your friend Ryan throw a birthday party for his misanthropic cat, and honestly I feel like that’s where I peaked as a writer.

How about a favorite quest that someone else wrote?

Kathleen: It’s a Winterful Life. You get sucked into an alternate timeline where you never founded your school, and then Autumn threatens you with nunchucks.

Jessica: The Zunana quests that Kathleen wrote. And Nishan's Fanfiction by Owen. And Snack Attack by Megan. And Keyan's haunted Oregon train ride quest, which was the moment I started secretly shipping Julian and Nishan. There's so many, I can't just pick one!

If there's one thing you want HSS players to take away or learn from HSS, what would it be?

Kathleen: Everyone is different, and that’s awesome.

Jessica: Don't treat life like a competition. Your worth isn't determined by your success, academic or otherwise. You deserve love and support, no matter how much or how little success you've achieved. That was the underlying message of the Ace quests, and I think everyone could do with a reminder of their inherent worth.

Royal: Whenever people ask me about the games Pixelberry makes, I describe them as games that come from a better future -- a future where a lot of the hangups people have now simply don't exist anymore. One of the examples I point to is the dating in HSS and HWU. We didn't make a big deal about the same sex-dating option, because same-sex dating shouldn't be a big deal!

Jennifer: Friendship really is magic! But seriously, I feel like the one takeaway is that life is full of challenges, and we’re all trying to do our best, but it helps to have support, whether it’s that you’re looking for help and you ask for it from the people who love you, or if it’s that you see someone struggling and you reach out to help them.

 Braiding hair during lunch, and accidental plaid day (spot the Hollywood U fanart wall!)

Braiding hair during lunch, and accidental plaid day (spot the Hollywood U fanart wall!)

Do you have any final messages for HSS players?

Megan: Thank you, for everything.

Royal: Thank you so much for playing! HSS was a game made by real people, and if you follow our blog you know that Pixelberry Studios went through some rough years there. There was a very real chance that the studio would close. Knowing that you were out there, playing, laughing, cheering, feeling... that was the positive energy that kept us going through the tough times. We're so happy that we could revisit HSS in Choices, and we hope you join us for more stories in the years ahead.

Jennifer: HSS will always have a special place in my heart, and I want to thank all our fans for their support throughout the years.

Kara: It's very hard to say goodbye to High School Story. I love these characters like they're my real friends, and I've heard stories from players who feel the same. If I had one hope for High School Story, it would be that -- to make people laugh, to tell them a story, and to give them a place where they can come and have an amazing, funny, quirky, group of friends. The writers here pour our hearts into everything we write. It's incredible to have been a part of something that's resonated with so many people. I'll never forget High School Story, and I can't wait to see its spirit continue on in Choices!

Oliver: I always loved how the core of High School Story was about misfits who weren’t wanted elsewhere coming together to create a great school. In many ways that was the story of the Pixelberry team. At the beginning, we had all been laid off from EA. We were unwanted, executives didn’t believe in us, but because we believed in ourselves, we formed Pixelberry. And with hard work, persistence, and a good helping of fun, we created something that touched the lives of millions, saved actual lives, and continues to live on in our hearts.

We all had a lot of fun taking a trip down memory lane, and we may have gotten a little carried away! As you can see, High School Story shaped so much of what Pixelberry is today, and that's something we'll never forget. This Monday, we've got one more blog post for you about the bridge between High School Story and Choices. We hope you'll follow along and, if you're at Level 36, tune into the High School Story finale quest. Until next week...