High school student raises money on-line for his visual novel

Erin Sullivan, flanked by some of his characters. — Photo by Eli Dagostino

Erin Sullivan, an 18-year-old from Vineyard Haven, had a goal of raising $4,000 on the Internet funding site kickstarter.com to help pay for his online visual novel project called “Driftwood.” He posted his request for funding on April 17. On April 29 with 17 days to go he had raised $5,397.

By day, Erin is a senior at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS), but for much of the rest of his life he is a world-class gamer and writer-program developer. He is known by the moniker Wakagana online.

Erin transferred from the Edgartown school to MVPCS in the seventh grade and loved it so much, according to his father, Neal Sullivan, an Island property manager and former executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Martha’s Vineyard, that when his family moved to Falmouth the following year, he chose to commute back to the Island for the eighth grade. The family moved back to the Island a year later. Erin’s mother, Rossette, is the newly hired head of housekeeping at the Winnetu Restort in Katama.

During his high school years, Erin became an avid online gamer with a passion for World of Warcraft (WoW), known as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that has 9.6 million official subscribers. He became so skilled at WoW that he was recruited to join a team known, as a guild, called the Impatient Undertakers that was run by Randy Pitchford, the President and CEO of Gearbox Software, an independent computer game development company based in Plano, Texas.

In the summer of his freshman year, Erin was invited to tour Gearbox and play WoW with his guild all in the same room. He returned to Texas in his sophomore year, filmed a documentary about the experience and last year, after his junior year, worked as an intern at Gearbox.

During his junior year, Erin began to develop his idea for an interactive online novel. He said that he realized during his internship in the marketing department at Gearbox that he had the wherewithal to put together and manage the pieces necessary to make his own project a reality.

He returned for his senior year at MVPCS with a plan that would also become his senior portfolio project. Erin took on what his dad calls an ambitious goal of becoming the team leader, producer, developer, programmer, recruiter, and writer of “Driftwood,” the visual novel.

Over the past 11 months, he has assembled an international team including three visual artists, three audio specialists/musicians, a graphic user interface designer/programmer from South Africa and several editors to work on the project.

The Game

Driftwood is a fictional bishoujo, a named derived from the Japanese word for electronic animated games that often use images of pretty girls. It is a text-based visual novel-interactive computer game that allows the reader to pick the direction of the storyline. It is a dating simulation game set on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard that features an advanced text box, static graphics, anime-style art, animation, and original music.

As the player reads through the text, the backgrounds, characters, and sounds change. The game is programmed to prompt the player to make choices at strategic points which impact the direction of the remainder of the story.

Erin says that the game/story can take as little as four or five hours to several days to complete, depending on the reader’s choices and how fast they can read. He said that one character’s story is over 100,000 words long.

Coordinating the work has required some late nights to accommodate the different time zones of his team, whose members are based in the United States, England, South Africa, and South Korea, according to his dad. Erin said that he usually takes Sundays off and that he works on the project from about 3 to 9 pm six days a week.

“I am interested in changing peoples’ view of life with the story and the characters,” he said, “and not making money on this project.” The game will be readable-playable for free when it is finished. He did say that there may be merchandising opportunities if his site becomes popular. He hopes that money he earns working for his father this summer will pay for whatever the kickstarter campaign doesn’t cover.

The story centers on Marcus Feick, the adolescent protagonist, who lives in Boston, according to a description on the kickstarter website. During his junior year of high school, Marcus asks the girl of his dreams out on a date and finds himself caught in a catastrophic event that leaves him physically and emotionally scarred. Complications with his newly formed romantic relationship cause his overprotective parents to transfer him to a boarding school south on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Marcus is introduced to a variety of cultures and personalities at his new school. The story and game focus primarily on four main female characters who can affect Marcus’s life positively or negatively based on the player’s choices.

Each character is designed to teach Marcus a profound life lesson, helping him better understand his world and assist him in the difficult process of becoming an adult.

Erin said he plans to put off college plans until the project is complete in the spring of next year. He is considering colleges with gaming majors and hopes to work on his artist’s skills wherever he goes.

The kickstarter Driftwood listing has a video and project information including samples of artwork, animation, music, a game demo download and information on how to pledge financial support.

Kickstarter is a website that provides fundraising tools for creative projects via crowd funding. It has been used to fund films, music, stage shows, comics, books, video games, and food-related projects. People cannot receive money for funding projects on kickstarter only rewards like a personal notes of thanks, custom tee-shirts, dinner with an author, or a copy of an initial production run of a new product.

For more information or to donate to the project go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/758714218/driftwood-the-visual-novel.