Writer and editor Fabian Nicieza has been a fixture in the comic industry for the past 25 years. As writer for X-Men, Thunderbolts, Turok, and Nightwing, this prolific writer has moved shared worlds for years. Now, he'll be tackling virtual worlds with his latest project, FunGoPlay, which will be launching later this year. The developers of FunGoPlay describe it as "An online sports theme park, [which] separates itself from all other virtual worlds through “connected” sports gear that rewards kids every time they use them in the real world by tracking their play periods and earning them medals, points, and power-ups in the online world."
Nicieza was kind enough to talk to MTVGeek about this project, weaving narrative into sports games, and the huge lineup of talent behind the scenes at FunGoPlay.
MTV Geek: How did the transition from comic creator to virtual world developer come about?
FN: Well, to be honest, the only “transition” takes place during the course of any part of the day when I have to shift my attention from one kind of work to another. I’m working on comics, Intellectual Property management for Starlight Runner Entertainment and serving as Chief Creative Officer for FunGoPlay on a weekly basis, so my emphasis shifts depending on the need for that day. How do I do it all? I learned how to add two more hours to the day and an extra day to the week. Piece of cake.
Geek: Could you tell us about your role in this venture?
FN: I’m Chief Creative Officer, responsible for developing the tone, feel, characters, storylines and most of the written content for the FunGoPlay world. I’m also one of the co-founders of the venture with CEO Steve Lerner and El Presidente David Jacobs.
I’ve known Steve for 30 years and after he left Wind-Up Records, he kept me informed about the different project ideas he had in mind. I passed on his first idea of “edible shoe bacteria at retail” and his second, which I think was called “The Church of Steven.” Then he was considering some sort of teaching mechanism to help kids learn the rules of sports and since both of us had coached our kids, him in baseball and me in soccer, that piqued my interest. For about five minutes, this germ of an idea leaned towards instructional style comics, which I didn’t think was a great use of the medium. As Steve talked to David some more, who was also a dad and a coach, as well as Steve’s neighbor and a kid’s licensing magnate, they came back to me with the idea of developing a sports-themed virtual world for kids. Knowing how my youngest daughter was enjoying Club Penguin at the time, I said, “Yes, that’s it. Count me in.”
From there, we developed the basic approach to the site and the notion of creating a on-line destination that also rewarded kids for getting off their butts and playing in the real world. A mutual friend of ours, comics writer Sholly Fisch, who also happens to be one of the leading experts in education curriculum for children’s programming, recommended another mutual friend, artist James Fry, whom I’d known for 25 years, to help me develop the look of the characters. James has drawn everything from Spider-Man to Star Trek to Sonic the Hedgehog and he has a hellacious sense of humor, so he was a perfect fit. As Senior Art Designer, he defined a 2D visual approach for our entire world from its characters to avatars to environments that informed our initial presentations and still informs our approach today.
Steve and Dave then went out and raised the money we needed to get going. They were smart to keep me away from the money. Any time we were anywhere near any, they’d point and say, “Look, is that Anne Hathaway?” and I’d turn my head in circles and miss the money. We then interviewed several developers on a grand Canadian excursion and chose one in Manhattan. Then we were off to the races.
Geek: What kind of virtual spaces did you look into while developing the project? What did you pick up from them?
FN: We’ve done all kinds of research, both independently from the initial “three old guys have an idea and don’t know much about virtual worlds except seeing what their kids do” to, once we had the necessary financing, working with professionals, like Sholly and Alison Bryant, who runs her own researcher group [PlayScience LLC].
We looked at all the usual suspects from the standpoint of things that were working for them and things that we felt maybe weren’t. I didn’t need to mimic any of the creative elements of their sites because we’d already planned a world that had a very confident sense of place, a strong back story built into its existence, fully realized characters and a through-line that understood why and how the FunGoPlay world existed in its narrative fiction.
Geek: Could you talk a little about weaving a narrative through FunGoPlay? Why was that important during the development process?
FN: Steve and David have a friend who lived near them, Alice Cahn, who also happens to be one of the most successful children’s programming executives in the country. As they were first percolating the notion of doing this, she had told them, “The story is the thing.” And that’s where I come in. I’ve worked with incredibly complex shared universes for 25 years. I’ve helped flesh out new characters and develop new storylines for properties that range in age and gender from 6 to 60, including, at one time or another, standard mainstream comics’ characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Superman, Batman, the Justice League, but also as a writer or editor on licensed properties like Barbie, Ren & Stimpy, William Shatner’s TEKWorld, Power Rangers, various Disney characters, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In helping clients manage intellectual property content with Starlight Runner, I’ve worked on Hot Wheels, Pirates of the Caribbean, Halo, Avatar, Happiness Factory, Tron, Transformers, and Men in Black for clients including Mattel, Disney, Microsoft, Coca Cola, Hasbro and Sony.
What I’m saying is, I might not be all that good, but I have a little experience.
Creating the world of FunGoPlay was easy and fun. I wanted to build a fictional theme park that has a sense of history, can accommodate multiple sports and expand to international settings, had plenty of elbow room for a little bit of silly, a dash of wacky, a healthy dose of sarcasm and even a little angst and true emotion. It might not all be there face front, but as FunGoPlayers immerse themselves in the world and experience our additional features, they’ll see everything on a deeper level.
I think by having the basic foundation for the narrative fiction before we even started building the world, it gave us a solid grounding that helped fuel every decision we had to make in terms of look, tone, style, game development, sports gear development – everything. But I hope we also weren’t trapped in cement by the original conceits. We’ve been able to evolve the concept, which is exactly what should happen once you build a team of incredibly talented artists and producers, which we have.
The process of becoming a strong, unified team has helped create all the incredible, important details that help populate a strong virtual world. From all of James’ concept designs to the 3D staff of William Vaughan and Ed Chichik, who have created how FunGoPlayers (the avatars) move about the world, how they react during their game-animations and how the FunGoPlay All-Stars (our original characters) populate the world to the 2D animators and designers, Art Director Tim Shankweiler, Kirk Etienne and Kevin Sykes who have developed the best Flash background environments and GUI screen displays I’ve seen in any virtual world. We should get an award. Do they have like an Academy Award for virtual world coolness? We’re a shoo-in. I’m preparing my acceptance speech now.
Geek: What do you think is the key to engaging young users and keeping them interested?
FN: For a change of pace, I can give a short answer: give them lots of fun stuff to do in a place that’s lots of fun to hang out in with lots of people you like hanging out with.
It sounds simple, but doing it well is incredibly complex. I really think with FunGoPlay, we’re nailing it.
Geek: When can we expect to see FunGoPlay launch?
FN: If I reveal an exact date our Lead Producer, Sean McEvoy and Chief Technical Officer Chris Romero will want to strangle me. It will be later this Spring and we’ll make that announcement real soon.
Geek: We haven’t forgotten you’re still involved in comics—could you tell us about some of your upcoming work?
FN: I’m fortunate that at this point in my career, I’m still getting to write comics for DC, and I also get to do it on a character I love writing. My monthly title is Red Robin, who is Tim Drake, the third person to serve as Batman’s partner. He’s outgrown the sidekick role and is out on his own, causing trouble as he tries figuring out how to fight crime without alienating every friend he has and every cop in Gotham City.
I work with a great art team of Marcus To and Ray McCarthy and as long as I have the time, I could write the book forever.