Michael McCormick obsesses over high school cliques, clothes, homerooms and homework, but that's because it's his job — he's making a video game about it.
McCormick is the lead designer of "Brooktown High: Senior Year," a PlayStation Portable game from developer Backbone Entertainment and publisher Konami. It will focus on a year of life that was the best ever for some — and the worst for others. And yet high school is not a setting that's been used in many video games.
"You've been in a flaming lava cliff or in an ice cave but never in the school gym," said McCormick, 39, who recalls his high school years at New York's Calhoun School as "a lot of fun." "People ask, 'Who's the target audience for this?' I say, 'PSP owners looking for a change from driving and shooting.' " The game is set for release in the first half of 2007.
Since October, McCormick and a team of about two dozen developers at Backbone have been crafting the interactive escapades of a male or female — your choice — high school senior from the Midwest who has transferred into the California school Brooktown High and has 32 weeks to find a date for prom. It's a fictional school, one where, according to McCormick, "A fashion-conscious character might say, 'Oh, those clothes are so last week. I have to break up with you.' " That is fictional, right?
There will be 20 students that the male or female player-character can possibly date — 12 guys and eight girls. The romance will primarily be male-female, though McCormick said there is "some talk about a character or two who may have some leanings."
The team members have drawn inspiration from movies like "Napoleon Dynamite" and "The Breakfast Club" but have naturally been drawn to their own experiences as well.
"We keep coming up with examples [from our past]," McCormick said, " 'I hated this guy in high school! I've got to get him in there.' "
In press releases, Konami has classified the characters as jocks, nerds, preps and the like, but internally, the development team is using a more nuanced system. One character is considered a jock-jock, another a jock-nerd. There's a rebel-prep and a nerd-honey. The first term is their primary leaning; the second is added flavor. It can be hard to define, McCormick acknowledged, even when team members try to classify themselves for kicks. The game's lead programmer claims to be a rebel-nerd, according to McCormick. "We all think he's a nerd-rebel."
In terms of real-world research, McCormick's 18-year-old stepdaughter just went to her prom, and he asked her if he could come along and take some notes.
"She said, 'No way!' " he recalled. "She thought it was a terrible idea to make a game about high school anyway. It hit too close to home." These are sensitive years being re-created for a video game. It won't be for everyone.
So how does one succeed in Brooktown High?
"You start off in September," he said. "You're new. Your popularity is zero. Your confidence is minimal." Does this sound like a recent nightmare to anyone else?
An opening personality quiz will help establish things like parental behavior and a starting wardrobe. The game begins in the lead character's bedroom, where he or she can change clothes or get online and apply to college — hopefully a college that they'll get into and brag about to the right people. The development team also hopes to allow players to stream their own music into the in-game bedroom stereo. Then it's off to the first day of school.
The "Brooktown" concept emerged when people at Konami decided they wanted to translate the success of a Japanese Konami series of dating games called "Tokimeki" into something that an American audience would enjoy. Dating video games have long been popular in Japan but have barely registered in the U.S.
So one of the first things the Backbone team did was play some "Tokimeki." Most of the games' dating involved choosing the right dialogue. That would work. What didn't fit so well was the tone, which was a bit more serious and conservative.
"It's a little more formalized," McCormick said of the Japanese game. "It's almost like the 1950s. Walking the girl home from school is a big deal."
The Backbone developers felt their American audience would demand more action, in the various senses of that word. So players will roam the halls, using a gesture system to decide, for example, whether to glare back at a menacing jock or cower in fear. All the while, players make friends while looking for the special someone — or someones, really.
"You can't just see the girl the first day and just exclusively talk to her and date her and bring her to the prom," McCormick said. "We're kind of requiring you to date around a bit and keep things more interesting."
Building a circle of friends, managing the game's popularity and confidence statistics, shopping for essential accessories, consulting a fashion oracle and strategically using the game's "ultra-coolness" (codenamed "Fonzie") button will lead to dating success. Actual dates involve not just strategic dialogue choices but proficiency with shorter games like a "tongue-wrestling" mode that involves a spin-the-bottle party or a strip blackjack party that goes down to underwear.
There will be dances throughout the year where the player can prove their heart's in the right place or get caught gawking at someone other than their date. Take a date to the beach and see if they'll go over to the secluded cave, or go to an in-game PSP meet-up and maybe head to the roof to "look at the stars."
The developers are going for a Teen rating, which tames things a bit. "It's an interesting thing to navigate for a high school game," McCormick said. During a passionate kiss the game might cut away to file footage of a rocket launch. A flubbed kiss might elicit a scene of a bridge collapsing or two trains colliding.
Some high school topics will be taboo. First of all, McCormick is not looking to make an after-school special. "One of the designers kept bringing up, 'Can we have teen pregnancy and drug use?' I said, 'No and no.' They didn't fit the light-hearted design."
And there's one other staple of high school existence that the team tried to minimize: schoolwork. "We tried to focus as little as possible on the tedious academic parts of school. For a while we were talking about having tests and making them funny, but then we were like, 'How fun can a physics test be?' "
These aren't recommended real-life priorities for high school, but McCormick said concessions have to be made for fun. And ambition needs to be tempered to get this unusual game finished. One member of the development team had objected that the goal of the game was getting a date for the prom.
" 'Dude, only losers go to prom,' " McCormick remembered the team member saying. " 'We need the alternate prom.' " But that would have required the creation of an entirely new alternate-prom level. It wasn't worth the effort.
And so the moral of the game is that, at Brooktown High, the prom matters.