Gamebook store

Friday, 9 June 2017

See what's on the slab

To give an idea of what makes The Frankenstein Wars such a revolutionary (no pun intended) development in gamebooks, I asked writer Paul Gresty to tell us about a scene in which Anton Clerval, one of the protagonists, and Mr Legion, the original Frankenstein creature, hunt each other in a ruined church. Take it away, Paul...

"Writing a gamebook and writing an app require two vastly different approaches. A gamebook, for all its branching interactiveness, for all that it places control of the story's direction in the hands of the reader, still has a beautiful simplicity. Limits to word count and page count impose a finite set of options on the player at each turn. The story itself tends to have just one satisfying outcome - or, on those rare occasions that there's some flexibility to the story's ending, that number of 'non-death' conclusions is still pretty small. An enemy's combat abilities, if such things are pertinent, tend to be described on a single line, or over a few lines at most. On the whole, gamebooks are fairly 'short form' writing. The focus is on concrete action, speech is reported rather than direct, characterisation is slim ('Why is Kaschuf the Deathless evil? Y'know, just because.'). And this is no bad thing - on the contrary, while the practical limitations of the format necessitate such a direct style, that stark, good-versus-evil simplicity is itself a source of considerable charm.

"A gamebook app - that is, an app written from scratch for that form, rather than a print-to-digital conversion - is a different beast. The writer has far greater scope for nuance. Freed from practical constraints of overall length, the number of variables that can influence the story is much, much larger. Similarly, rather than having a binary effect on the story ('if event X has occurred, goto...'), these variables can have a gradational impact. From memory, I think The Frankenstein Wars has around 450 different variables at work 'under the hood'. Some have a fairly minor effect, aiming for a shift in tone only. For example, one of the story's main characters is Tom Clerval. Depending on Tom's previously established position on the ethics of reanimating the dead, his conversational choices when later discussing that subject - or even his precise wording within those choices - can shift. Other variables have profound, game-changing consequences. Notably, and without getting too spoiler-y, rather than having just one single satisfactory ending, the game incorporates a spectrum of possible endings at the personal level, for the game's principal characters, and for the world as a whole, forever after.

"When I came on board to write The Frankenstein Wars, I already had a couple of original apps under my belt. And yet this was my first time writing something so technically demanding - working with interactive maps, for instance, and in-game countdowns. In that regard, Chapter 3 of the game has been by far the most challenging. My original concept of the scene was that the player, as Anton Clerval, and the mysterious Mr Legion would stalk one another around the interior of a church - hunting one another, playing hide-and-seek with guns. So I began by dividing the church into sixteen different areas. Mr Legion initially follows a track around the church until he and the player encounter one another. At which point there's combat, and if both people are alive and disengage, Legion might start out at a different point on the track. He'll be more wary the next time he comes near the player; he won't fall for the same tricks a second time. And so on.

"What took ages and ages to write was taking into consideration things like direction of movement, who's facing in which direction, how far they can see, whether anything is obstructing their view, things like that. The player and Mr Legion move at the same speed (which already is a simplification), so each time the player moves into a new area, the game code runs through a checklist of a dozen different points (has the player already visited this section? is Legion to the north, one area away? is Legion to the north, two areas away? if so, is the player moving quietly?) before actually moving onto the content of that area.

"Testing all of that out drove the guys from Cubus Games absolutely crazy! If I were writing that scene again now, I'd probably do it quite differently. In fact, in a way, I did. There's a large-scale battle later in the game. I'd originally intended to do the battle in a similar way to the church encounter, with enemy units wandering all over the battlefield. In the end I kept it comparatively simple. The enemies' area of allowable movement/effect is much smaller in each case, which allows me to devote more space to the player's actions, rather than writing thousands of lines to cover the enemy's reactions. Focusing on the player's options is never a bad thing.

"So writing The Frankenstein Wars, and writing that third chapter in particular, has been a learning experience, for sure. But I believe all goes in to improving the player's experience and creating an interactive story that is as deep and a world that is as richly textured as any novel, game or movie."

*  *  *

Dave here again: Michael Hartland brought up a good point last time about the long turnaround time for most Kickstarter projects. This has been a matter of concern for me and Jamie recently because we've been thinking about doing some crowdfunded gamebook apps, but I find myself torn. On the one hand the writers and coders and artists aren't getting paid much upfront, so unless they expect the app to sell really well on release -- and have a rich uncle to buy their groceries in the meantime -- it's impossible to knuckle down to working on it full-time. But on the other hand, any backer with enough belief in the concept to stake $20 to get it made has a right to expect they won't still be waiting for the thing three years later. What's the answer? I don't know. I'm chary of trying to use crowdfunding to produce print books, but in the case of apps at least all the money raised gets spent on the content. Even so, long development times are a big problem. You guys are smart, though, so all suggestions very welcome!

The Frankenstein Wars is available now for Android and iOS.


  1. One idea: Make the apps so that they work on Window/non-Apple products. You'd get my money for sure and you'd have a wider potential customer base.

  2. Also, don't count print out completely. TORG was game released in 1990. It was pretty successful for a good 2-3 years, went on hiatus in 1994 and released a (sloppy, half-assed) adventure that ended the story in 1995. There were a couple of attempts to bring it back, but it's been pretty much dead since 1995 (1993, really, because that last release just sucked rotten lemons).

    And now we have this:

    1. The tricky thing is that a good gamebook app doesn't really work in print and vice versa. For instance, I asked Paul Gresty whether a print version of The Frankenstein Wars was feasible, but with 450 variables and at least 25% conditional text, the print version is a whole other project. Although, come to think, we could run another KS to fund that. Certainly if we do apps they'll be for Android as well as iOS.

  3. Hello! What happened to the idea of having the original Dragon Warriors books back on sale at Amazon? I was eagerly waiting for a chance to purchase brand new copies of the books. Hope it still happens! Did the rights revert back to you in the end? Cheers! Big DW fan here! :)

    1. We're still hoping, RF. I haven't heard anything from Serpent King Games so I assume nothing's happening there. Once we've established what's going on I'll update everyone, but I'd really like to get the books on Amazon ASAP. If I had the PDFs I could do it myself this afternoon!

  4. Update: by sheer chance I just noticed that the DW Players Guide is on sale on Amazon. But only the Players Guide, as far as I can tell. It looks like somebody got the PDF and uploaded it to Createspace - so go ahead, RF!

  5. If crowdfunding can't work, given the global reach and ability to target niche audiences at scale, then honestly I don't think anything will.

    It's a bit cliched, but maybe the answers (or at least some questions to ask) are in the old marketing 4 Ps.

    Product - was the product on offer the right mix of game and story? Was the setting appealing (ie. would other time periods have held more general interest)? More importantly, were the creators and developers known and their output trusted? In the case of TFW, I was slightly on the fence originally because I didn't know Cubus and their output didn't then convince me of the quality of what they'd deliver; I also didn't know Paul, as I didn't know of his Choice of Games titles until the KS ran. Dave's credibility is what persuaded me. Partnering with creators with established track records, and leveraging those records, is crucial with a new concept.

    Promotion - was there enough done to spread the word outside the faithful on this blog and other (smaller) gamebook sites? Dave's very influential among many modern gamers who grew up reading his gamebooks; could any of this be leveraged for endorsements or cross-promotions of some sort?

    Price - was it priced correctly? This is tricky, and I think in the case of TFW the price was set conservatively with expectations of greater backer volumes, but actually always felt like a bit of a steal to me. Would pricing it higher have made any difference on its cost-effectiveness, assuming stable backer volumes?

    Place - are there any other channels through which the app could have been presented? Probably none more widely than KS, though now that the app is complete could it be optimised for and sold through Steam?

    PS. Chapter 3 was a doozy; must have played it 5 times before successfully completing it.

    1. Those are excellent points, Michael. The pricing question in particular -- it seems to me and Jamie that people value a physical object more than they do an app. In a sense, it isn't so much the content they want as a thing to keep. If that's true, we'd need to do a print gamebook, but the problem is that's much more limited in scope than a digital gamebook (though less work, so there's that...) and a good chunk of the money raised needs to go on printing and shipping.

      Still, you've given us food for thought!

    2. Maybe it comes down to target audience. I think you're right that the old gamebook crowd do prefer a printed product, but if the product on offer is as much a game as a book then I think apps are just as viable for a wider audience. Sunless Sea is a good example; I posted on here a while back about just how similar that is to Fabled Lands, as a game very much rooted in a narrative story (and the Sunless Skies Kickstarter went gangbusters).

      So for any TFW sequel or similar product, could a similar approach of emphasising the game elements and appealing to the wider app audience be more successful? It may not be possible to match the resources that Failbetter have, but that direction might be the one to consider.

      Having thought on it a little more, I also think timing may have hurt TFW, as it was literally a month in advance of FL7 as I recall, which naturally had a lot of expectation around it. For gamebook fans who were already committed (in intent) to FL7, they may not have wanted to shell out for both. Whereas if it launched today, when there's nary a gamebook KS to be seen, it would be more exceptional.

    3. Fallen London has quite an FL feel (in design, I mean, not genre) and the success of its spin-offs is well deserved. I'd like to move on, but many of the fans we'd be reaching out to on Kickstarter want a continuation of what we did 20+ years ago. Hardly anybody's clamouring to back my Mirabilis comic book, sadly. I guess Joss gets the same thing with people asking him about Buffy and Firefly, lol. I think you're right, Michael, that we have to break beyond the core FL fanbase (much as we appreciate them all) and appeal to a wider audience. Stay tuned for some developments in that direction.

  6. Crowdfunding... ah. Personally, I'm not a big fan of it from a consumer point of view - at the end of the day, it seems to me to be basically a preorder, with none of the advantages of a preorder for the consumer. I can see the benefits to it from the creator side, except that one easily risks binding oneself to a creative vision that may change during development (plus - of course - bad estimates happen).

    Software development in general is simply such a complicated process that it's hard to do correct estimates on new projects. This is even more difficult when dealing with a deeply creative endeavour like a game - and that's before you add in all the other creative work required, such as the writing, art, etc. - all of which add extra uncertainty.

    This wouldn't be such a problem if everyone went into a kickstarter with the right expectations - i.e., we're throwing money at this thing in the hopes something good comes out - but unfortunately that is not always the case.

    From a digital game viewpoint, I think that Kickstarter is best when doing repeat projects; i.e., projects where one has already built the framework in previous games, and is not trying too much new. Ironic, because those are usually also the projects that are in the least need of Kickstarter to be realized.

    I'm not sure what the answer to the problem is, but I have some ideas.

    One is to not let the game be constrained by the gamebook format. For sure, one can make a living from the gamebook/IF faithful (Tin Man and Choice are proof of that), but why not play to the strengths of the platform? If you're moving around, use a map instead of forcing the player to "choose" where to go. If you're doing a Dracula gamebook, why not resolve the combat encounters themselves using tactical combat system similar to "Chaos in Carpathia"? And so on. I think we're beginning to see this happening more and more, though I'm surprised that there is not more of it yet. Reading the above dissection of chapter 3 (and the later stuff), I can't help but wonder whether this could have been done a better way (still need to get on TFW - haven't had time to play it yet). Why write a thousand lines instead of having the game system handle it?

    Another approach that I think might work is to do episodic content and/or DLC. Choice of Games does that a little bit, with many of their big IF works being split out over multiple chapters/apps, as well as releasing the first part for free, and then requiring players to pay for the rest. It's a smart approach, IMO, because it means one can develop things slowly, and hopefully have the income stream from the early parts help fund development on the latter parts.

    I've always felt that it should be possible to do that with a gamebook/RPG thing - similar to the RPG/adventure modules of tabletop RPGs. Start the player up with a low-level party and a single adventure, and then add new modules to the game over time (that the player can play at a price), letting the player carry over the same party from adventure to adventure (without necessarily requiring them to be done in a specific sequence).

    For instance - continuing on from the earlier idea of a Dracula/monster-hunter gamebook, one could have a limited adventure that ends with the player founding a "League of Monster-Hunting Gentlepeople", and then add new adventure modules over time in which the party travels around the world to deal with vampires, werewolves, and every other imaginable monster.

    FailBetter kind of does this with Fallen London, except that they also have the whole energy mechanic (which I personally hate - can't stand energy mechanics) + a subscription system.

    At the end of the day, though, it's always difficult to predict what will succeed and what will not. Who would have thought that a cyberpunk version of Jules Verne with mostly grayscale artwork would take off the way it did?

    1. I realize it seems a bit rich me saying this, in light of The Frankenstein Wars, but it’s a shame that crowdfunding tends to reward derivative rather than truly original projects. The interesting projects on Kickstarter are the ones that don’t recycle old ideas. Like Alas Vegas (which scraped through) or Chris Crawford or Outcast (which didn’t). How many mash-ups of Lovecraft, Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, HG Wells and Bram Stoker are actually possible before the nerdoverse enters a fugue state? A friend was describing a successfully Kickstarter-funded RPG to me recently and it was clearly just a dumbed-down version of Tekumel. Why can’t we have the original rather than the knock-off? The answer is that the mash-up is quick to come up with (none of those agonizing false starts you get in real creativity) and easy to pitch. “It’s this meets that.” “Ooh, I like this and I like that. So I’ll like the combination twice as much.” D’oh.

      Climbing off my soapbox now, Michael, you make some really excellent points, as always. One of which -- the possibility that the creative vision may need to shift from what was pitched to the backers -- touches on this originality issue. It would be better to back the creator rather than the specific project, but it rarely works out that way. It's great when people come up and tell me they love Dragon Warriors or Fabled Lands, for example, but it means so much more when they're interested in what I'm doing nowadays. To date only one DW player (Gavin Orpin) has ever actually said that, so I suspect Kickstarters for my own pet projects might not fare too well. The problem is that every new project has to find its own audience, whereas on Kickstarter you're talking to the audience for your last project. The very definition of narrowcasting.

      As far as episodic content is concerned – well, we almost have the trademark on that with the original Fabled Lands books, the only thing missing being a coupon at each border paragraph allowing you to make an in-book purchase :-) But there is always the problem of diminishing returns. By the time you get to the seventh or eighth instalment, who’s still on board? If we did run Kickstarters for FL right through to book 12 then I’m sure there’d be a core of diehard fans who stick with us, but maybe not enough to make it work. Not just as print books, anyway. Maybe we’d have been better off going with a smaller series to start off with. That way nobody could say (as they sometimes do) that the problem with FL is that it was never finished.

      Wrt not being constrained by the book format – completely agree with you there, and previous posts will have made it clear by now that I'd rather design to the possibilities of the medium than create gamebook apps that are a retro trip for nostalgia buffs. Dice rolls, imitation character sheets, simulated paper... I don't see the point. It still saddens me that the Winter’s Rage app project failed to get off the ground (you too, I know, as you said at the time) but would that have fared any better on Kickstarter? Perhaps not unless I set it in Narnia and had Cthulhu as the main villain!

    2. Kickstarter definitely favors derivative works - though sometimes people do invest in the creator,
      albeit usually based on that creator doing something similar to what they've done in the past. As you said: you're definitely pitching to the audience of your last project.

      There is definitely a risk with episodic content that you "drop" players along the way, but this probably does work way better in an app than a book series for various reasons. E.g., I've seen lots of feedback from people who drop an app for months at a time (often without deleting it), rediscover it and start playing again (designing for replayability helps there too, of course). With episodic content, the incentive for that behavior is stronger, contributing to more long tail sales. Which is definitely a thing - there're always new people discovering an app. I've been amazed that the number of active install for my app, Pirates and Traders, managed to stay pretty stable for > 5 years - only starting to fall once I released the beta for the sequel (and begun cannibalizing the player base). And of course, digital media has one really huge advantage: your product is never out of stock, so potential buyers are never frustrated by not being able to get episode X or Y.

      That aside, I definitely think smaller projects are the way to go for this sort of thing, but I think the episodic format helps with that (done right). The idea being to KS for a few episodes - maybe only one - rather than promising 1 million words from the start. The smaller scope also means one can ask for less (which obviously increases the likelihood of the project succeeding) and can - hopefully - deliver faster.

      Just speculating, though - my own experience with KS has been limited to backing a few books.