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.