Gamebook store

Friday, 26 December 2014

For whom the bell tolls

I was sorry to hear the news about Destiny Quest. After putting out books two and three with quite a bit of fanfare and nice production standards, publishers Gollancz found the series wasn’t selling as they’d hoped. There will be – from Gollancz, anyway – no book four.

I’m sorry because Destiny Quest was meticulously designed, brilliantly plotted, vividly written, and imbued with genuine passion. If it had come out back in the ‘80s it would have been one of the classic gamebook series that everybody talked about today.

But I’m not surprised. Even by 1995, the gamebooks tide was ebbing so fast that we couldn’t convince Pan Macmillan to let us finish Fabled Lands. What happened? Videogames happened. They can do just exactly what old-style gamebooks did and, let’s be honest, they do it better. If I have an evening to kill and it’s between The Witcher and Deathtrap Dungeon – no contest.

Wait a moment, though, because what I’m talking about here is ‘80s-style adventure gamebooks. That is, a multiple-choice format Dungeons and Dragons game – or, these days, World of Warcraft. And in print. All that Gollancz’s announcement has confirmed is that in 2014 you can’t put a gamebook series like that into bookstores, with all the pressure of finding a wide, deep market that implies, and make a go of it.

That doesn’t mean there’s no room for gamebooks any more. Gollancz's experiment possibly shows that dungeon-delving gamebooks with highly detailed rules don't sell well in bookstores. But they should have tested the water with several different types of gamebook - some rules-lite, some non-fantasy. That's the only way to find out if there's a broad market for interactive fiction out there. The success of Inkle's Sorcery and 80 Days suggests there is, and don't tell me a publisher couldn't figure out any way to get similar success in print or ebooks. They just didn't try a wide enough range to get any kind of statistically significant result.

And in any case, Destiny Quest was a success long before a publisher tried to take it out to the mass market. (There are various magnitudes of mass market, but that’s a detail.) The series’ creator, Michael J Ward, built it all up on his own and established a solid fanbase. That’s still there. I expect we’ll see more books in the series before too long. Think of Marillion albums. And regardless of the fate of gamebooks in print form, Destiny Quest itself will be back as a browser gamebook-meets-CRPG called Destiny Quest Infinite from Adventure Cow.

And then there are apps. I think this will be a narrow window, and one that’s already closing as far as those traditional DnD-type gamebooks are concerned. It helps to have the phone or tablet handle the stats for you, but in the long run people want their eye candy. A big chunk of text and three choices isn’t going to hold its ground against animated combats. So let’s not see the future there as book apps but as mobile entertainment in general.

Fabled Lands Publishing is reissuing series like Way of the Tiger and Blood Sword in print, not because we expect them to usher in a new Golden Age of gamebooks, but because we want them to always be there for the fans who’d like to collect them. Those fans may be small in number but they are devoted and this is something we owe them. But we’re a business, and we couldn’t reissue all those books if the only revenue was from print sales. We also want to see what we can do with those adventures in new formats. I don’t mean book apps (possibly a closing window, as I said) but something more. Blood Sword would make a great tactical adventure game along the lines of Warhammer Quest. We tried Fabled Lands as book apps and they didn’t work, so now we want to turn them into full-on CRPGs. Inkle have begun this process with their brilliant Sorcery adaptations – the book part of those, let’s face it, is like a placeholder waiting for the graphics and audio. It’s poetic justice, right? Videogames killed off gamebooks, so now we’re aiming to move on over and elbow us some room there.

Every crisis is an opportunity, anyway. There may not be much demand for dungeon-bashing and +3 swords in text gamebooks, but there are plenty of interesting avenues for the medium to explore. Look at Versu, or Inkle’s 80 Days, or the interactive Frankenstein I did for Profile Books using Inkle’s engine. Look at how Cubus Games evolved Necklace of Skulls into something new, with its roots in books but its branches stretching to the firmament of a new medium. (And I happen to know that's just the starting point for Cubus, because we're working on some even more exciting things with them.Watch this space.) If gamebooks are going to survive in text form they have to play to the strengths of prose – deep characterization, unreliable narrators, different points of view, relationships between reader and character. You know, literary stuff. Ironically, Jamie and I offered something like that to Gollancz a couple of months before they signed up Destiny Quest. A shame they didn't do it, as there'd have been plenty of room for both.

And if you really absolutely gotta have print, that can survive too. Not thirty thousand copies sold in Waterstones at a tenner each, but lovingly produced, full-colour hardbacks like the editions that Megara are producing for hardcore collectors. In an ebook era, hardbacks are the new vinyl. As Marillion probably could have told us all along.


11 comments:

  1. Loved this in your HuffPo link: "How about: a massively multiplayer, ongoing, episodic, interactive soap opera? Here's the sort of thing Dickens would have done if he'd started out working at a game developer instead of a blacking factory. All the readers are able to interact around the fringes of the world and some of that feeds into the core narrative that everybody's following. It can even be text-based. The novel itself, in effect, is now the emergent main thread being woven out of an interactive world." like a game with its own in-game social media, upload user 'created' content like cool screenshots or videos and have them become part of a curated Newspaper / Youtube-like in-game Site. And that's just scratching the surface or user agency.

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    1. I would have liked to do something like that after Frankenstein, but the publishers all wanted to set their controls for the heart of the sun with things like the Black Crown Project :-/

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  2. I hope to see Destiny Quest continue too. The main question for gamebooks is how to compete with the Skyrims of this world. I think that for mobile phones one advantage for gamebooks is that we can't yet do a game like Skyrim justice.

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  3. I think the analogy with vinyl records is fair: vinyl satisfies the desire to own a physical copy in a particular form. It has tangible and aesthetic values that exist in addition to the music impressed upon it. When interactive fiction is presented in the classic print gamebook form, especially when ancillary material (dice, cards, etc.) is included, the interaction not only with the story but also with the book and the physical elements of the game system is an important part of the experience.

    I could list the reasons why I prefer print gamebooks (with all their game mechanics/systems), but that's all it would be: a list of reasons why I prefer print gamebooks, not an argument for why they are "better", and certainly not an argument for why they should be popular. It is a matter of taste. Electronic interactive fiction could span a vast variety of forms, and authors and publishers should have the courage to experiment, to see what's possible and what the market will support.

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  4. Future of gamebooks is in 4 directions:
    - education
    - iOS/Android apps
    - themes for adults, gamebooks are not only for kids!
    - literature with high level: interesting stories well written, literature with quality... We cannot forget that gamebooks are games that uses text mainly wnd videogames uses audio+visual tools.
    We are strong if we use a good text.

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  5. "If I have an evening to kill and it’s between The Witcher and Deathtrap Dungeon – no contest."

    True indeed !

    However, I can't resist quoting Proust :

    "There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.

    Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the uninterrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist."

    Happy New Year from France !



    However,

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    1. Indeed, I am with Proust here. If the choice is between a game, movie, comic or favorite novel, then the novel wins because its ability to grip our imagination and draw us so completely into another world is unequalled by any other medium.

      Happy New Year!

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  6. In France, there are currently new gamebooks being released, geared towards children or young teenagers.

    An old and established publisher of children books, "bibliotheque verte", released series of gamebooks based on the classic boardgame Cluedo. You are Miss Violet or Colonel Mustard, and you should find the murderer.
    The same publisher proposes gamebooks based on the star wars universe and other franchises.
    Links (in french): http://www.bibliothequerose.com/aventures-sur-mesure
    http://www.bibliothequerose.com/cluedo,16798

    An other publisher named Makaka Editions proposes several comics-gamebooks.
    There are comics for kids, in wich you are a pirate, a knight or a wizard. They propose one in which you are Sherlock Holmes.
    Link: http://www.makaka-editions.com/category/catalogue/la-bd-dont-vous-etes-le-heros/

    I guess there are at least a few other interactive books released in France because I have seen some in libraries. What about others countries? I do not know.

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    1. It sounds like they're still solve-the-plot gamebooks, which I think are stone dead. Videogames just do that better: more seamless interactivity, whizzier graphics, more immersive because of voice tracks and sound FX.

      If there's anywhere for gamebooks to go that videogames can't follow - not quite so easily overtakng, anyway - it's in deeper stories. A gamebook equivalent to Telltale Games' Walking Dead would work well and be a lot cheaper. Or look at Versu - print gamebooks can't deliver the same experience, but they could at least start to explore questions of trust, loyalty, moral dilemmas in place of whether you use the +3 sword with the +2 fire power-up to take on the ice ogre. Or similar.

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  7. I think the analogy with vinyl records is fair: vinyl satisfies the desire to own a physical copy in a particular form.
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