Anthony E. Zuiker, Fanlala, Fuhu Partner for Mysteryopolis on nabi Tablets [Interview]

Mysteryopolis“CSI” franchise creator and executive producer Anthony E. Zuiker, in partnership with family-friendly entertainment company Fanlala and nabi tablet creator Fuhu, Inc. have today announced “Mysteryopolis,” an animated video series that combines traditional videos with interactive games in a new genre focused on “gamified narratives.” Mysteryopolis debuts this week, exclusively on Fuhu’s new nabi Pass, a subscription service available on the nabi family of tablets.

In Mysteryopolis, viewers / players follow along with the story of Jordy, a typical 13-year old turned secret agent, who must save his hometown of Mysteryopolis from a “major threat.” As users watch each portion of the seven-part series, they’ll play through multiple interactive mini-games to advance the story along. In addition to writing the storyline, Zuiker helped conceive the activities players will complete.

We had a chance to chat with Zuiker, alongside CEO of Fanlala, Alan Anderson, about the development of Mysteryopolis, and what it was like to create a new brand of mystery for a younger audience.

Inside Mobile Apps: What was the inspiration for Mysteryopolis?

Anthony E. Zuiker: Well, I have three children – 14, 11, 7, all boys – so I always wanted to do a mystery for children, as an original series. I had been dabbling in the adult crime space for a long time, and I loved the gaming space in terms of the technology, and I wanted to create something that was sort of a “fashion forward” version of “storytelling 2.0.” We kept the best of what we can do in terms of animation and movies, and combined it with gaming, and invented what we call “gamified narrative,” which basically is consuming a mystery movie for children. Every 30 seconds or so, you’re able to interact and play a mini-game inside of that which moves the story forward. You’re not just watching the episode, you’re playing the episode.

IMA: In terms of these mini-games, can you explain a couple of them or give examples?

Anthony: Sure. So, there’s seven episodes, for a total of about 90 minutes long. Each episode is about seven to ten minutes long. Every time you start an episode, there’s a level of interactivity, whether it’s using your finger to swipe on clouds or doing something to open somebody’s eyes, or something [that] kicks you off in terms of the storytelling.

Inside of that, for example, our main character Jordy is going to school one day on a skateboard, and he actually bumps into a truck that looks like it’s in front of an abandoned building. He gets curious, so he walks up to the gate to go investigate – there’s a lock there, and the camera will go inside the lock, and the gaming begins. So, they’ll do a small little broken key challenge; they’ll put the key back together, the lock opens and he continues forward in animation. He goes to the building, there’s a key padlock. You go ahead and play the key padlock game to gain entry, you’re inside and the [movie] continues.

Another example would be that you’re looking for something that’s buried in the desert. You click on different plots of land, you shake the tablet to sift through it to find the artifact and go forward. There’s always this level of really fun storytelling in terms of animation, with looking forward to these really fun games. They’re not just side mini-games for mini-game purposes; they’re actually intrinsic to move the story forward, and each episode features about five to seven of those.Mysteryopolis 1IMA: What is the exact age range you were going for when you created Mysteryopolis?

Alan Anderson: The whole objective was to have something for four all the way up to ten – that sweet spot. We really believe that because as you get older, kids have really moved more toward even more sophisticated, teenage types of games. These games are really focused on the interactivity – the winnability, if you will. So, that’s the sweet spot for us, not only based on the tablet, but also based upon what we’ve learned over the years as it relates to kids.

At Fanlala, we’ve been in the kids space for quite a while, and there’s definitely a break in that “10, 11, 12, 13” age where they start to migrate toward more sophisticated music, more sophisticated and interesting content from an older standpoint. But it’s that “5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10” age where you really can engage them positively with a really nice little mystery story, with activities that tie to that story. So for us it was natural based upon what we learned over the years, and of course there was no one better to do it with than Anthony Zuiker as it relates to anything written – mystery or otherwise.

IMA: Going back to the mini-games, would you say they’re “trial-and-error” based, or is there any skill-based gameplay to it?

Anthony: Yeah, they’re definitely skill-based. They’re very fun, sort of addictive little games. Most of them, if you don’t do them properly, you lose life and then once you accomplish the games from a satisfactory timing mechanism… you complete the task and you keep going. So, sometimes the games could be five seconds [long] or 30-seconds [long], but they’re all designed to be quick and fun and simple.

What’s unique about the whole entire thing, is when I wrote the script, I would purposefully stop in the writing to write a gaming element inside of that. It wasn’t like I wrote the movie first and went back and plugged games in there. It was all designed with “a little but of writing, a little bit of gaming, a little bit of writing, a little bit of gaming,” to where there’d be a good rhythm in the experience – to really get the rhythm of what gamified narrative is.

IMA: Why did you decide to go with nabi rather than release on a wider platform like iPad or Android tablets?

Alan: There’s a couple of things. First, at Fanlala, we’ve had a relationship with nabi for about two and a half years. That relationship stemmed from us having a relationship where we had created something called nabi Radio, which is – if you will – “Pandora for kids.”

The second thing we’ve done with nabi is – they have a lot of our content from our website on the tablet itself, meaning that it’s native; it ships with the tablet. So, we’ve had a really good relationship there. We knew that, based upon the age we were focusing on, that the tablet itself hit that sweet spot immediately.

The other piece to note is, it’s somewhat of a controlled environment, meaning, we know how many people are going to see this content. If we were going to take a different tack we would have a little bit less control. Now, long term, we do have strategies to continuously expand our distribution, but really, to have a partner that’s very focused on the age category that Anthony wanted to target, and one that we could have some degree of control over was very positive.

IMA: Anthony, when you were writing the script, how difficult did you find it to construct a mystery storyline for kids, that wasn’t too dark, or wasn’t too difficult for them to understand?

Anthony: It wasn’t hard at all – it really wasn’t. I had so much fun with it. I would get up in the morning and write at the CBS commissary from seven o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock almost every day for three weeks, and wrote the movie. I had an absolute ball. It was fun to be able to write lighthearted, to write for children, to write [something] that’s a little bit more mature than what we’re expecting… It’s also a very smart piece; it doesn’t talk down to kids.

I had a lot of fun, and I was looking forward to my children consuming it and other children also. So, that part wasn’t difficult at all.

The gaming was relatively simple, because I was able to freestyle what games should go where, and I was along with the journey as a writer also. There’s nothing better than when a writer has a pure experience, where it’s coming and flowing freely, and you’re able to not have a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and really be able to write right from the level of honesty and purity for children. [I] never really had any issues in terms of censoring anything that I wrote or “was this too dark?” I knew what the age range was, I felt very comfortable in that age range because I have children.

I might have cut a few words… and a couple small things for kids that wouldn’t be appropriate like “screw you” – that kind of thing. Those are just honest mistakes when you’re writing, but we fixed all those. It’s very very clean, good-hearted fun. We call it over here – it’s kind of like a “warm blanket of mystery.”

IMA: How would you say your work on projects like Level 26 or Cybergeddon helped you craft this “children’s entertainment product,” or were they not really related?

Anthony: Well, Cybergeddon wasn’t interactive. Cybergeddon was chopping up a 90-minute piece of pie into nine episodes at ten minutes a piece, so there was nothing really that new in that. What was new is that we did a scripted movie originally for Yahoo!.

Level 26 was way ahead of its time, because you’re able to “read a little bit, watch a motion picture scene, read a little bit, watch a motion picture scene,” and as you know, I’ve been dabbling in that space for a while. It was tougher for adults, if they’re really used to sitting with a book cover-to-cover, they’re not used to putting the book down and typing in codes to unlock motion picture footage.

I think kids are a little different. Their “interactive clock” is always ticking. Kids love to multitask, so rather than have them navigate from device to device, we felt like it’d be great – [they] can watch a really engaging story and have them interactively play with it while they’re watching. Kids get the best of both worlds: everything you’d really want in a really, really fun story, and then looking forward to an original game at every pit stop. That was the philosophy behind gamified narrative.Mysteryopolis 2IMA: That actually goes into my next question. You mentioned that kids have short attention spans, if you will. Did you take that into account when creating Mysteryopolis, and then implement anything specific that would keep them engaged over the long term? Or do you think the product itself is engaging enough to not need any extra encouragement to keep playing?

Anthony: Well, we’re going to find out. Because it’s the first of its kind, and the first original program for nabi, we had to guess what felt right for us. Obviously, if you “over-gamify” it, then it’s just a gaming app where the story gets in the way [and vice versa]. The real “special sauce” here – the real “DNA” of trying to establish perfection when it comes to gamified narrative, is to really have an incredible, delicate balance between both.

Alan has always been pretty strict – and he’s right – to make sure the story always tells first – it’s of upmost importance. Then when the gaming comes in at just the right time, in terms of our interactive clocks, we get the best of both worlds. We have no interest in doing a story that doesn’t make a lot of sense, or not a very engaging story and [throw in] a bunch of mini-games – that’s definitely not what it is. And we don’t want to do an original series where we have a couple of random pit stops that don’t have a real methodology to it.

This is a big-time commitment, especially with me sitting down and writing it, [with] the same level of care as I would do with a “CSI” episode, in making sure we have a really engaging game at every particular pit stop, so the back-and-forth nature really felt organic and really felt new and fun for kids.

IMA: Did you do any play-testing? Perhaps with your own kids?

Alan: We did. We actually did some play-testing at nabi, our platform partner, and we did some also at two schools here in California. On both instances, it was exactly as Anthony says – you want to have it to where they’re engaged in the story, but they’re participating. It’s one thing to have someone sit and watch a good story – they watch it, and then the second time they watch it, they’re kind of “done.” But when you can actually “play” the episode, “play” the story, it keeps you engaged. It keeps you guessing. It keeps you thinking about what’s next.

IMA: Anthony, is this “children’s entertainment” project a “one-and-done” activity for you, or can we expect to see more projects like this from you in the future?

Anthony: Oh no. I’m definitely committed to this space. We have other motion pictures in the works, that we’ll probably talk about in the Spring or in the Summer, but this is a space I’m fully committed [to]. The last movie I wrote was Terminator 4, [but] I’ve written two movies in the past four months for Fanlala because it’s just so much fun. It’s really a different process – like I said, you don’t have networks and studios and a thousand people to deal with. It’s about giving a lot of autonomy to do the best writing I can, and being able to really craft the vision and craft the games, and have them execute it at a very high level – from Fanlala and Alan.

It’s a really simple relationship, and it’s a very small team. It’s a team of only a handful of people that do this, and for that, you get a unique niche project that we’d like to scale as quickly as possible and let everybody enjoy it.