Despite never having read a romance novel, Melissa Heidrich had always thought about making video games based off the popular literary genre.
A chance encounter at a recent high school reunion with former classmate and bestselling romance writer, Marjorie M. Liu, and losing her job at a small Seattle software firm, gave Heidrich the impetus to launch PassionFruit Games.
I never actually read romance before, but I was really captivated by her book, said Heidrich, 32, about Liu's Tiger Eye, which she started her online gaming company (www.passionfruitgames.com) around in late 2009. I just thought to myself, 'Wow, this could make a great game.'
Heidrich, who previously worked as a developer at Her Interactive creating games that included the Nancy Drew Dossier series, had just been let go along with her entire nine-person team. They all immediately jumped on board when she told them about her idea for a new game.
Because our team had so much experience making casual games together, why not form a startup? said Heidrich, adding everyone became an equal founder, including Liu. We didn't even have a break really from our past company, we just launched straight into production of our next game.
The first game, Tiger Eye Part 1: Curse of the Riddle Box, is set in China and is based on the first half of Liu's book. Aside from a paranormal romance story, which Heidrich compares to Twilight, the game includes hidden objects, brain teasers, word games and puzzles.
It costs $9.99 to download from the company's website, as well as some other gaming portals. Heidrich also offers a platinum package that includes bonus features such as a strategy guide. Game-related merchandise such as mugs, hats and T-shirts is also available.
Compared to the conservative Nancy Drew games, which helped pioneer games for women, Heidrich said Tiger Eye allowed the team to be a little more risque with the content. Heidrich said she started the company with about $36,000 that came from family and friends and paid for equipment, voice actors, utilities and Internet costs, and left little money for marketing.
Last year the company sold 50,000 games and has seen the Tiger Eye game translated into German, French, Spanish and Japanese. The game is also sold on Amazon and Heidrich said she hopes it will soon be available at popular big-box retailers.
PassionFruit Games has been mentioned on air by television talk show host Jimmy Fallon and the company's website has been linked to by Ellen DeGeneres.
Despite her success, Heidrich admitted money from royalties - split equally - has taken a long time to trickle in and six of the 11 founders have left to find more lucrative full-time jobs. It was a rough time for our company, said Heidrich. We all spent a lot of 2009, 2010 developing the game without receiving compensation until the game was released.
In the U.S., there are roughly 30 million regular romance readers, said Heidrich, who added about 75 million Americans say they've read at least one romance novel.
If we could just capitalize on one percent of regular romance readers who are already accustomed to paying an average of $100 a month on romance books, what's keeping them from spending $9.99 on a full-fledged interactive game, she said.
Heidrich said the casual gaming industry is predominantly female, noting about 75 percent of paying customers are women. The company is targeting current casual gamers who regularly visit online portals to play, as well as would-be players who are new to the industry but read romance novels, she said.
The two demographics match up so well. Both are primarily female, most of them over the age of 35, they're looking for a chance to escape or relax, to lounge out with a good book or a good casual game. It makes so much sense to combine the two.
Romance industry kingpin Harlequin is also in the gaming space, but Heidrich said Tiger Eye is the only game out there that is based on a paranormal romance novel at this point. The company's biggest challenge is funding, Heidrich said, especially with the poor economy.
We're really hoping to get some funding that will help us create the second half of the game, Heidrich said, adding she wants the sequel to come out later this year. I would love to make games based on the rest of the books in Marjorie's series.