What do "Red Robin" and Legion Lost" writer Fabian Nicieza, DC Comics and Marvel Comics writer Sholly Fisch, DC kids comics artist Robert Pope, and "Sonic the Hedgehog" artist James Fry all do when they are not working on comic books?
FunGoPlay is an interactive online sports theme park and virtual world, aimed at children ages six to eleven. The site opened for membership subscriptions in mid-July and is the brainchild of comic book writer Nicieza and his business partners Steve Lerner and Dave Jacobs. CBR News caught up with the busy New York-based comics writer (and now online entrepreneur) to get the scoop on Nicieza's newest venture -- or, more accurately, to get the scoop how much hair he has left after the intensive three-year process of bringing FunGoPlay to life.
"We're already building a new football area for September, new games, planning new clubhouses, new assets for customization -- it really never does end. There goes the lone hair I had left on top of my head," laughed Nicieza.
Creating and running a kid-oriented sports website seems like an unusual job for a comic book writer, even one with a background as diverse as Nicieza's (besides writing for DC Comics, Nicieza also works on intellectual property management for Starlight Runner Entertainment). But as the writer cheerfully told CBR, he and his business partners "Really wanted to help create an exciting world of entertainment that would also provide kids an incentive to go out and play!"
"About five years ago, a very good friend of mine, Steve Lerner, had just stepped down as president of Wind-Up Records, one of the most successful independent labels in the last twenty-five years with bands like Creed, Evanescence and Seether," Nicieza said, touching on the genesis of FunGoPlay. Though Lerner planned to spend more time at home with his family, "after about a year and a half of living as a bon vivant, he began to get all itchy to work!" Nicieza laughed.
Interested in starting a new project, Lerner joined forces with Jacobs, who possessed a strong background in licensing consumer products for kids and television development, and who had been involved with shows such as "Sesame Street," "Thomas the Tank Engine," and most recently "The Cat in the Hat" series for PBS.
"Dave has a real understanding of how to generate and sell consumer products and programs for kids," explained Nicieza. With Lerner and Jacobs covering the business and marketing aspects, they still needed someone to take on the task of creating their digital world from scratch.
"They... were bouncing thoughts off industry friends of theirs, who all said that humor and creative content was a major differentiator for any kids-related endeavor. Naturally, when you think of creative people, you think of me, mostly when every other creative person is too busy," Nicieza laughed again.
Officially in charge of the creative content of FunGoPlay, the veteran writer described working on the self-contained FunGoPlay universe as similar to working on a self-contained comic book universe as both jobs are fundamentally about world building.
"The creation of the FunGoPlay world comes out of my experience with the Marvel and DC universes, working in licensed worlds for many years, and especially from my experience the last ten years working with Starlight Runner Entertainment," said Nicieza. According to the writer, "All of that has helped me to understand how to create something that exists in a clearly defined, consistent world."
Nicieza explained that in addition to coming up with the FunGoPlay All-Stars, non-playable characters "that could help us drive narrative content and exist in the world," he also concocted an extensive history for the entire FGP world -- a virtual continuity, if you will.
"FunGoPlay is nestled in Anytown USA, but FunGoPlay as a sports league and organization has 'existed' for 70 years, and in the fictional world it has different franchises all over the world -- there's a FunGoPlay in Japan and there's a FunGoPlay in Russia and we have athletes who come from different countries to play here," said Nicieza. "I wanted to do that because I wanted the characters that exist in the world to have a sense of history about them and a relationship to the history of sports."
A youth soccer coach for sixteen years, Nicieza asserted part of the appeal of sports is the history behind the games. "One of the big things about sports and following sports leagues and athletes is comparative stats and the history of the game and who has won the most titles and all of that stuff. There is no reason why it can't be created on a fictional level in a virtual world," said Nicieza.
Ensuring that FGP's young users would have more than enough material to keep them busy, the writer packed every cybernetic square inch of his world with games, videos, comic strips and motion comics, customizable avatars and club houses, and even partnerships with various kids brands (such as "Sports Illustrated Kids") that promise to bring real world sports to the site.
"The beauty of a virtual world is that you can give [kids] time to work their way through things. The kids love to discover and uncover stuff, as if they just unlocked a treasure," said Nicieza. While the online world is fairly open ended, there is a narrative aspect to the site played out over the GoQuests, structured games that help players explore the FGP universe in greater depth.
"There's not an over-arching narrative in that it is initially linking everything together, other than the location where it all takes place, but there is an underlying narrative that will infuse the world as it goes along, and the Quests will play into that," said Nicieza. The comic strips and motion comics also serve to enhance the site's narrative.
"The storytelling that we do in ancillary opportunities like the motion comics and the comic strips and the character blogs in the FGP newsletter, any original animation that'll appear on the FGP TV player, the blogs that appear on the community boards, and characters interacting with users on the community boards as well, all these things will go to the aspirational notion of earning achievement and success through hard work, competition, and fair play," said Nicieza.
More important to Nicieza than narrative, however, are the overarching themes he imbued his world with. "Maybe if we're lucky and do our jobs right, [kids will] carry some of those themes out with them: that they play hard, they play fair, that they try different sports, that they applaud if an opponent does a good job -- the positive aspects of sports and kids' play more so than the negative, which is what we see often in media portrayals," said Nicieza.
There are also plans to make the GoQuests an even more integral part of the world by allowing one player a year the chance to have their avatar selected to become an All-Star.
"Eventually we plan to structure the Quests in such a way that if you are participating in the quest system, you'll have the opportunity for your user to graduate and become an official FunGoPlay All-Star. The user will become a part of the roster of characters you see in the world that kids can play with or against," Nicieza explained. "It would be as if the best letter writer for one year into DC Comics got to become an ongoing character in the Justice League!"
Additionally, the site boasts a chat system and a "mini-Facebook" where kids can friend other players. "The chat system will safe and monitored, with parent notification and approval," said Nicieza, explaining that FGP is compliant with the guidelines set out by COPPA, the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. And if all this sounds like a lot of work -- well, that's because it is.
"Once I started to get a handle on exactly how much work was involved, I almost ran away. The Hudson River is a block away from our office, so I was thinking of swimming to Jersey and escaping!" laughed Nicieza.
Setting aside content for a moment, one could point out that an online website encouraging kids to exercise may actually do the opposite. After all, how are kids supposed to play in the offline world when they are busy playing in the online one? Addressing that concern Nicieza and his co-founders added one last component to the FunGoPlay website: real world sports gear. Those who signed up as annual members at launch received either a free FGP soccer ball or flying disc.
"The foam ball and disk have electronics built into them that register motion and impact, so the level codes go up the more you play. Seven minutes of activity roughly equals one level," said Nicieza. Once kids finish playing they can then plug the level code back into the virtual world to receive "increased GoPoints, Power-Ups and opportunities for customization." "The more [kids] play in the real world, the greater the rewards online," concluded Nicieza. The FGP team also plans to introduce new gear for subscribers such as a pedometer kit and a football as time goes on, with hopes to eventually get the FGP sports gear into major retail, though Nicieza said that was a far-off goal.
After all this initial planning and creating there was still one component missing: someone to design the characters and the world. Enter James Fry.
"James Fry is an artist I've known since 1985 when I first walked in the door at Marvel. He was one of what was then called 'Romita's Raiders,' serving an internship where he did art corrections in return for learning at the side of the master, John Romita Sr.," Nicieza said. Fry is an incredibly versatile artist who has drawn everything from "Spider-Man" to "Star Trek" to "Sonic The Hedgehog," and when it came time to bring an artist onboard to design the FGP All-Stars and site, Nicieza knew he needed someone comfortable with the more cartoonish aspects of the world.
"They had to be able to draw heroic figures, but they also had to be able to draw in a bit of a cartoony style. I was looking for someone who could do superheroes mixed with 'Wacky Races,'" said Nicieza. "The All New Batman: The Brave and the Bold" comic writer and friend Sholly Fisch suggested Nicieza give Fry a call. "It was like I'd been hit in the back of the head with a bat. It was a 'duh, of course!' moment," laughed Nicieza.
Together, Fry and Nicieza began designing the NPC characters that make up the FGP world. "[James] started sketching designs and ideas. Some characters I had come up with initially and others he would come up with and we'd hash them out together," said Nicieza. This process finally ended last summer when the game developers came onboard, translating Fry's 2D drawings into 3D characters.
Fry also worked on the FGP motion comics, which are colored by comic book artist JayJay Jackson, another formal Marvel employee and one of the original artists from '90s comic book publisher Valiant Comics. Fisch and Nicieza wrote the motion comics, and the pair also collaborated on the site's comic strips, featuring art by DC kids artist Robert Pope whose work includes drawing the "Scooby Doo" and "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" comics.
"The comic strips, which will either be like daily newspaper strips, three to four panels in color, or a Sunday comic strip style, which are about six panels, those will just pop up as flat 2D artwork on a window overlay of the world," said Nicieza. The motion comics will be slightly longer three to four page comic stories. As of right now, Nicieza plans to release one new motion comic each month. "We're not looking to do twenty-two pages of monthly comics like Marvel or DC does. That's not really our approach," Nicieza clarified.
While the busy writer did not have any plans to involve other comic book creators initially, he admitted he might bring more artists onboard for future asset development.
"The goal would be, which would be nice, is that if we amass enough content we can try to publish a FunGoPlay comic geared at kids and sell it in bookstores. But that's a 'we'll kick the tires down the road' projection," added Nicieza.
In an online environment awash with sites targeted at children such as Disney's mega-successful Club Penguin, Nicieza believed FunGoPlay stood out from the competition for a number of reasons, not the least of which was their emphasis on exercise and imparting positive values through online play.
"We're building a brand that philosophically has a lot more weight behind it than other kids virtual worlds do," said Nicieza. Going through a mental checklist, the writer then proceeded to tick off the aspects he believes ultimately make FGP stand out from the crowd.
"Number one: games! We're launching with more games than most of those virtual worlds have after three years or four years of existence," said Nicieza, noting the site launched with twenty-six games available with more in development for later this year. "Games are a huge, huge motivating factor for kid's involvement in the world," he added.
The writer pointed to his own work creating character content as another reason kids will flock to the site. "We have a strong character identification that other worlds don't have. Kids become very emotionally invested in story narrative, and we're going to be providing them with more story content than just about any other kids' site that's out there," said Nicieza. Circling back to Fry and the FGP art department, Nicieza claimed their world design looked "better than 90% of these worlds," with "richer art and environments, a lot more fun and stuff that makes you go 'Hah!'"
He also firmly believes having sports gear encouraging both offline and online play makes a huge difference. "Most worlds just do licensed products, a plush toy or a plastic coin as a reward incentive," said Nicieza, recalling how his youngest daughter used to be an avid Club Penguin player. When the site advertised a real-world Penguin toy available in stores she begged Nicieza to buy it for her, which he did.
"She tears open the box in the car and when we get to the garage she gets out of the car and leaves everything on the floor of the car except that one little gold plastic token that she wanted, because that had the code she needed to log back into Club Penguin," Nicieza continued. "The figure or character meant nothing to her. The packaging, the look meant nothing to her, she just wanted that code to access whatever was online."
"Our product enhances your performance and status in our world, gets you extra stuff and exclusive stuff, plus it gets you off your butt and exercising! Show me a penguin that does that!" Nicieza finished with a laugh.
Of course, the three-year race to get FGP up and running left Nicieza little time for much else including, ironically, exercise.
"Online work has turned into real world fat! That's not as good a sales pitch is it?" chuckled Nicieza. He could take his FGP flying disc and go "level-up" outside with his daughters, right?
"Unfortunately for me, my kids have pretty much outgrown the world! When we started it my youngest daughter was right in the target demo, but really she's outgrown it -- she's thirteen and a half. She visits the site, but that's mainly to humor Dad!" moaned Nicieza. "Even though I definitely have to get off my ever-increasing butt and go get some exercise, I may have to do it with the dog!"
Annual membership subscriptions are available at www.fungoplay.com.