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April 16th, 2014

5:00 PM

The gamebook identity crisis



Background info. Not sure what gamebooks are? Here's the Wikipedia article - it's accurate.

You may notice I review gamebooks now and then. "Now and then" is the key phrase here - most of them were published in the 1980s to the 1990s. While a few pop up now and then as novelty books, the gamebook genre is for the most part dead. I've already reviewed all but six or so of the gamebooks in my possession, so it's not like I have something new to add to that section every day.

Gamebooks are not entirely dead, however, as there is a recent revival of the gamebook scene due to the ease of self-publishing and the existence of places like Kickstarter that allow folks to try to get funds for production. This is good, and as someone who likes fantasy and gamebooks, I think this is a nice development.

The thing is, I'm not sure whether these people are doing things right.

Wait, let's go back. I'm not sure what relevance gamebooks have today, other than for nostalgia.

You see, gamebooks started before the PC fantasy role-playing game was born. I remember reading a gamebook which came out the side time as that old Atari game Karateka - that's how old gamebook as a genre is. Back then, those gamebooks were great. They were cheaper alternatives to tabletop RPGs, solo-able, and, for the most part, requires mostly some dice to play. One can be a hero and go on vicarious adventures while imagining that one's decision shapes the story in significant ways (not true, but true enough for gamebook fans).

Then came those blasted computer games. I'm not sure which came first, gamebook death or rise of the PC games, but it is also said - and I think I agree - poor quality mass-manufactured Fighting Fantasy drek contributed a lot to the demise of gamebooks. Too many editors never respected gamebooks as anything more than money-making fads of the moment. While some authors attempted to innovate, the publishing house never played along and the whole thing became stagnant. The kids grew up and lost interest.

Now, gamebooks want to come back, but in many ways, they are competing with Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, Dark Souls, and other entrenched fantasy role-playing video game franchises. It's going to be an uphill climb to attract new fans, although I personally feel that gamebooks and video games can co-exist very nicely. But tell that to a kid who has never read a book but sinks hours into video games. It'd take some effort to convince him to try.

But are these new gamebook publishers even trying to convince kids like the one I mentioned? This is where I am confused. A lot of time I see them being marketed to old codgers like me. Gamebooks of the old days, reissued in hardcover, and while the new graphics and such are nice, GIRL, LOOK AT THOSE PRICES! They are more expensive than a typical tabletop RPG splatbook, and I can finance at least two tabletop campaigns with the cost of the entire reissued gamebook series. I'm not opening a museum of gamebooks, so no thanks.

(I better clarify at this point that I'm talking about gamebooks released in dead tree form. "Interactive gamebooks", mostly for mobile devices, are in a good place, actually. Sure, the animation and such can't compare to a Grade-A fantasy RPG title - duh - but the prices are generally fair and on the affordable side. Whether or not we can call these things "gamebooks" is a debate for another day.)

Who are they selling these to? Why aren't there more effort to make them available at a more affordable price? I mean, really, do we need colored illustrations? Hardback covers? Many of the frills and fu-fu stuff in these newly reissued gamebooks, that drive up production costs, seem more decorative than anything else, adding little to the actual gaming experience. I did pretty okay with black and white maps in older gamebooks, for example, and they are all in soft covers. Do I wish for a hardcover to replace my tattered copies of the Blood Sword series? Oh yes, but I'm not paying a thousand over bucks in my local currency to get the hardcover replacements.

What I am saying here is that if they insist that they can't charge affordable prices because production was expensive, then it seems reasonable that some corners may be cut as long as the core value of the product remains intact. Otherwise, these reissued pretty hardcovers would sell a small amount of copies, make some people a tidy sum of money for the moment, and the rest of the world just move on without a care. Is this why we are reissuing gamebooks? To sell nostalgia?

I think, if we are serious about reviving gamebooks, the most important thing here is to get people to buy them in the first place. These gamebook people can take a leaf from tabletop RPG game producers. They too are competing with video games - MMORPGs in this case - but they are doing pretty good. This is because the "big" players - Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, and the like - find a way to create their products at more realistic cost (they are not cheap, but they are not "Am I buying a kidney or what?" kind of prices), while indie publishers produce materials either in PDF format (lowering the cost considerably) or provide a cheap PDF format for those who can't afford to buy the physical product.  Even college students can buy these things, and that's good.

Right now, so many "gamebook reissue" launches seem like small-scale vanity projects that would reach out only to a small crowd of people, and that's a shame. I'm sure there are gamebook authors out there that would love to make a living doing what they love, just as there are readers like me who would welcome the revival, but right now I think we need either a generous backer or a better production and distribution model. People just aren't finding enough of the new gamebooks, and if they do, more often than not they aren't going to buy them due to the cover price.
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