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The Case For In-House Publishing
by Philip Athans on 04/13/12 02:45:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In the mid-eighties, TSR, Inc., the company founded by Gary Gygax to publish the world’s first role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, boldly launched itself into the novel publishing business beginning with the now legendary Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

I believe that the video game business is in a similar position now, in regards to publishing, as TSR was when they started their novel lines. Because D&D was a game that was sold in the form of a book, TSR developed, by necessity, the infrastructure necessary to publish books. Novels were a simple and logical extension of that. Now, with e-books rapidly gaining market share and on track to capture 80% or more of the overall publishing business by the end of 2014, video game studios are able to create tie-in e-books with the same ease: They have built their business around delivering digital content, so an e-book is as logical an extension of that as paper books were for TSR almost thirty years ago.

“I would agree that e-books are particularly conspicuous by their absence in the video game space,” Mary Kirchoff told me in an email interview. The former TSR/Wizards of the Coast executive editor/VP of Marketing, Publishing, and Tabletop Games and former CMO of video game publisher 38 Studios added, “The marketing and purchase of e-books related to digital games is a no-brainer and should be a seamless and instantaneous extension of the game experience and available for immediate purchase and download.”

 

TSR BOOKS

 

According to Jean Blashfield Black, who headed up the very first books team at TSR, “It was quite difficult to get the powers-that-be to agree to do novels. It was such a leap into the unknown for a gaming company. When they started publishing the games, it all happened at a slow, step-by-step pace, with not too great a leap at any one time. Not so the novels.”

But Jean finally managed to make her case, and began a publishing program that is still successful today. Such was the untapped demand for D&D fiction that the first book in Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles series found a place on the coveted New York Times best sellers list. “We began to expand from there,” Black continued, “into an expanded Dragonlance world and then the Forgotten Realms.”

I came to TSR, myself, in September of 1995. I had submitted a proposal for a D&D project and my resume found its way from the head of the games department to Brian Thomsen, then head of the book department. I stayed on when TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast in 1997 and spent a total of fifteen years in positions of increasing responsibility, eventually ending my tenure there as senior managing editor, overseeing the books editorial team.

At one point during that time we were publishing nearly a hundred titles a year, and seeing more than one each year find its way to the best-sellers list. In those periods “between editions” when interest in the D&D game—or at least the current run of D&D supplements—waned, novels continued to click along, generating a steady stream of revenue year after year.

 

QUALITY CONTROL

 

One of the principal advantages to doing your own publishing in-house is control. You have a direct hand in the quality of the books, decide your own schedules, and so on. And it’s that quality message that’s of greatest importance.

Jean Black told me she thought that many of the initial novels in the expanding Dragonlance line saw the world of Krynn, “often redefined by some of the outside authors. A tight rein on the material was never maintained. Perhaps it should have been, since all attempts to create a Dragonlance encyclopedia or even accurate timeline failed over the years. There were too many contradictions within the large number of novels.”

By the time I got to TSR in 1995 this lesson had already been learned by both the RPG designers and editors, and the Books team, who, spurred on by an increasingly vocal and ever-growing fan base, kept a tighter and tighter eye on continuity.

Coming into the organization as a gamer and fan, I immediately understood the importance of internal continuity across books, games, and other media—what we now call “transmedia.” That’s a subject for another article, at least, but it was always a part of the overall quality message I did my best to continue to nurture at Wizards of the Coast.

This eye on continuity is principally the job of a good line editor. This is someone with a real eye for detail, and real experience handling novel-length text. This is a skill-set at least as specialized as any of the technical or programming disciplines game studios take such care in recruiting.

As Jean Black put it, there’s “. . . no point in publishing books that weren’t as good as they could be. That’s one of the things that concerns me about e-book publishing. Since anyone can do it, no one is doing the strict evaluating that should go in to any book before it is published. I’m unwilling to see e-books as something other than a different form of a real book that deserves all the respect that a book coming out of a traditional publisher always got.”

If your brand deserves a quality game, it deserves a quality book no less.

 

BRAND VS. AUTHOR

 

Once an experienced editor is in place, the next step is recruiting authors.

Authors of tie-in fiction tend to fall into three major groups that I’ll call: Insiders, Hired Guns, and Names, and there are certain advantages and disadvantages to all three.

Insiders are authors who come from the existing creative pool—producers, narrative designers, etc.—of the original expression of the property. Hired Guns are professional writers who know how to do the homework, respect the material, know which questions to ask, and how to work closely with editors and other members of a creative team. I recruited and nurtured quite a number of these authors in my time at TSR and Wizards of the Coast—they’re the lifeblood of shared world fiction. Names, on the other hand, are authors who have already made a name for themselves writing original fiction. These are authors you recruit because you hope they’ll bring some number of readers into your property, lending it a certain air of professionalism or importance. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not sure, for instance, that Name author Greg Baer’s Halo books have sold any better than those written by Insider Eric Nyland (director of narrative design at Microsoft), or Hired Gun William C. Dietz.

Both TSR and Wizards of the Coast were well-known for mining their pool of creative talent to write novels. Weis & Hickman, Troy Denning, Douglas Niles, and myself were all employees of the company when we wrote our first D&D-branded novels.

On the subject of Insiders, Mary Kirchoff wasn’t surprised to find game designers and editors who were excited at the prospect of branching out into novels. “We introduced an audition process to allow us to find the best voices available to us wherever they were on the planet,” she told me. “Those voices sometimes came from within, but the decision to work with an in-house author had nothing to do with saving money (the same royalties were paid over time) and everything to do with finding people who understood and loved the game world and who were willing to demonstrate—on spec—an ability to write compelling stories.”

I went through precisely this sort of blind audition process myself when my proposal for the Baldur’s Gate novelization was plucked out of a pool of anonymous submissions.

Though more and more Name authors are moving into the tie-in worlds, attracted by the growing audience for major intellectual properties, there are some compelling reasons to pay more for a Name author, but that’s something that should be carefully considered.

I agree with Mary Kirchoff when she said, “Consumers who are heavily invested in worlds like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance can smell an arranged marriage a mile away. More specifically, the author’s personal investment in the world (or not) can’t be manufactured, or it shows in the work.” If the Name author is a fan, great, if not—better to find a Hired Gun who is, and end up with a better, more fan-friendly book.

At TSR Jean Black had the same experience: “Once we got the go-ahead from management, we did decide to go for the big names. We spread the word among known writers. We offered them a fairly nice deal, though they would have to be willing to take a chance, too, because we were, in effect, asking them to audition—something most of them had moved beyond. We gave them the material, and then waited to see what would come in. We received a couple of samples, at which time it became clear that the work really needed to be done by someone more familiar with the game world. It was too easy for an outsider to latch on to the wrong aspects of the game. Before I rejected anything, though, Margaret and Tracy surprised me on a Monday morning by bringing in a sample they had spent the weekend writing, presumably with little or no sleep. So we now had writers who knew the games inside and out. And the rest is history.”

As for the question of whether any of these three types of authors is more important a driver of sales than the brand itself, Mary Kirchoff and I share a certain ambivalence. Is it the brand (Halo, Star Wars, Forgotten Realms) that drives sales, or the author (Eric Nyland, Timothy Zahn, R.A. Salvatore)? According to Kirchoff: “The answer to which drives sales—brand or author—is both and, unfortunately, neither if a line doesn’t take off. Initially, the driver is whichever has greater recognition, so in most cases in game-related fiction, it is the brand first. Over time, however, with an established brand, sales can be driven by both, as individual authors occasionally burst from a brand’s stable of authors to develop a measurable following beyond the brand’s average. The obvious example is R.A. Salvatore, whose name now eclipses the Forgotten Realms brand.” This is an example of an author moving, through his exceptional interaction with the brand, from Hired Gun to Name. This should always be the ultimate goal.

 

CONCLUSION

 

A novel line can bring revenue to a property, for sure, but what other “intangibles” did the TSR/WotC novels bring to the overall brand picture? According to Mary Kirchoff, “Game-related worlds actually come to life primarily through their novels. Sure, video games have quests and dialog boxes, trading cards have flavor text, game modules of old had boxed copy. But none of those creates a continuous story with the exact same beginning, middle, and end for every player the way fiction does. No other brand extension provides the same depth and breadth of connection with the world and its people as novels—except for movies, which often spring from novels anyway.”

And no novel is ever going to cost you $200,000,000 to produce!

 

—Philip Athans


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Comments


Jim Fallone
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Very good article Phil. A lot of Bioware's problem with Mass Effect could have been mitigated by a strong parallel novel program. TSR learned very effectively how to use the books publishing program to control and fix some of the more more controversial reboots like mass killing of gods, odd continuity oversight and wholesale rule changes.

One thing that you did not touch on was the retail distribution ecosystem that was a major and unique reason for the TSR book programs success. A significant amount of paper RPG distribution just happened to funnel through bookstores. This fact was a major reason TSR was able to establish it's own book line. Customers were already funneled through the bookstore to buy RPGs making it much easier to get the novels in front of them. The fact that the bookstores Science Fiction and Fantasy sections also provided a predisposed audience ready to be introduced to new fantasy worlds also helped significantly.

Game Companies today do not have the same ideal ecosystem so there are more issues to overcome. This is one reason they tend to prefer licensing the properties to a publisher with existing distribution. Game retailers like Game Stop do not have a built in book section, Best Buy does not devote nearly the space of a Barnes & Noble or Books A Million.

Digital is one option available to Game Companies that TSR did not have and their core customer is already assumed to have maximum access to digital content. Bundling narrative content with the game and then continued with periodic downloads (like software updates) could effectively distribute novels to existing users but "discovery" is much more difficult and getting new customers introduced to you through reading your books and then migrating them into your franchise is much more difficult. Direct distribution could offset some of the distribution hurdles and there is some opportunity for this. Valve's Steam is a great site that I wish the Big 6 Publisher's would take a cue from. It would take some doing to build it as a destination for narrative content other than Games but it couldn't do worse than Apple's iBookstore.

But sales alone are not the core reason for a book publishing program. There is a significant marketing value to being able to being able to build and flesh out content like NPCs, equipment, as well as story. Novels increase the amount of branded content exponentially that can then be exploited in toys. action figures, comics, paper games, and film. When marketing and brand value is factored in it begins to offset traditional book distribution shortcomings.

The real argument for Game Companies then has to be ROI. Rather than hire editorial and production staff to create a publishing program around properties than may or may not have life beyond an initial release MMOs and mature franchises now exist with so much story and narrative content being created during each game release development now there is a real opportunity to some companies to create a publishing program within existing organizational structures with little or no additional headcount. Digital books make production issues such as warehousing less problematic. With just a few thoughtful hires and a well thought out workflow rich deep narrative content can be developed into a major part of the game's engine. Depth of story outside of gameplay can carry more and more weight of graphics and gameplay extending the life cycle of a release and for a significantly less cost than upgrading the game engine.

Philip Athans
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Good points, Jim, thanks!

At the heart of all this is the continuing evolution of the e-book and, for lack of a better term (and for better or for worse) the DE-evolution of traditional book distribution. The book retail landscape was severely impacted in the opening rounds of the Great Depression II thanks to the double-whammy of the so-called "credit crunch" and the bursting real estate bubble. Combine that with consistently outlandish fuel prices and the business of moving heavy paper books from point to point to be sold on consignment is getting harder and harder to rationalize.

This is the environment that has fueled the e-book, which requires no investment in retail real estate (and staffing), is delivered wirelessly so who cares how much a gallon of diesel fuel costs, and requires no investment in returnable manufactured goods--as much as 90% of which can end up being pulped (at cost to the publisher).

The advantage that the video game sphere has, and this is particularly true in the MMO and free-to-play online space, is that they don't need any new distribution/retail network--their customers are already coming to them. With Amazon controlling somewhere between 60% and 70% of the e-book retail market, you have as good a chance of being discovered there--if not better--than on shelf in a dwindling retail market that is also being extremely conservative in their buying. Without a substantial co-op investment up front, chances are your local Barnes & Noble might get one copy of a new SF/fantasy title in stock, which makes that passive discovery impossible to depend on, whereas an Amazon landing page is an Amazon landing page and it can be argued that the latest indie self-pubbed vampire opus is granted the same "shelf space" as Twilight.

Okay...it's a little more complicated than that, but ultimately if you're feeding a hundred thousand players or more through your web site, that's a HUGE venue for any book!

Jim Butler
profile image
Great article, Phil!

The incentive for novel publishing is brand extension, revenue, and ongoing engagement. While not every novel line is going to generate half of your revenue, creating a line can be very profitable. Extending your brand to new consumers and providing more points for engagement of existing consumers are likewise very positive elements.

The drawback to game companies going down this road is commitment and specialization. Just like Name authors who lack knowledge of the world, consumers can smell a half-baked novelization attempt from a mile away. If it's just a money-grab, don't expect success. #Winning with novelization will take effort within the company in terms of committed resources--PR, promotions, internal owners that collaborate closely with the development teams, etc. And some game companies want to stay specialized on making GREAT games... :-)


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