Every year we go to the CGDC I meet folks from the book publishing world. It seems like there is a basic assumption that there is some natural connection between their world and the world of video games, but so far nobody seems to have really figured out how to make it work. Publishers come to the CGDC to sniff around for games or studios that would be good fits for supporting their existing catalog of books. As far  as that goes…I’m willing to say that the impulse seems reasonable enough. Publishing books at least has some things in common with publishing games. I presume working with an author to get a book out has some similarity to working with a game shop – so we’re good to that point.

But things go immediately sideways beyond that basic assumption.

Book publishers are completely missing what is really happening in the game space and the deep misunderstanding is costing them millions.

Wrong Assumption One: Games are for Kids

Over and over and over I’m met with this assumption at a place so deep it’s almost invisible. I have yet to met a single representative of the book publishing world who does not immediately connect video games with minors. But there are tons of good studies out there that indicate the average gamer is in their mid-thirties. That’s 35 years old folks, not 16.

The instant and costly effect of this wrong assumption is easy to see: 35 year olds don’t read ‘Stink Bug Saves The Day’ and they won’t buy a game about Hermes. If publishers continue to look for the game/book connection in their teen and tween catalog they will continue to miss the huge opportunity to reach the bulk of the gamer market: males between the ages of 26-37 with disposable income and a proven willingness to part with said income in exchange for painted pixels.

Sub-Assumption: Games should be educational

This is connected to the first assumption and may be unique to the  Christian and family-friendly space but I regularly sense the unquestioned notion that a game can only be valid to the degree it teaches something. I know where this comes from, the old saw that ‘games are excellent teachers’ is a kind of gateway concept for older professionals wrestling to understand how video games can be the huge business they are. But many folks stick there and assume that teaching is ALL games are good for. The problem with this understanding is particularly acute in the history of Christian games where  the most fundamental aspect of a game – that it be fun (hello!) – gets sacrificed in the intense drive to be didactic.

Wrong Assumption Two: Video Games are Supporting Players

I’m certainly more sympathetic to this thought when it comes to book publishers. After all, they are in the book business and they are interested in the idea that a video game might increase the reach of their core business – fair enough. But there is a huge opportunity here that really needs to be seized to move book publishers into the next phase of media. Video gaming is a unique story-telling medium that is quickly developing its own rules of narrative structure, plot development, and character formulation. There is a good body of evidence now that he stories that are well suited to books or movies do not translate well to gaming and vice-versa.

To the extent that publishing is not truly about any particular medium, but about the deeper human impulse to create and experience Story, there is an opportunity today to embrace and shape what is quickly becoming (if it isn’t already there) the dominant cultural medium of the next 50 years. All fiction publishing is about the art of bringing a good story to the people who will pay to experience it and I have to expect that the experience book publishers have gained over the years working with authors on books would translate well to game designers.

I hope this post doesn’t seem negative. I’m really very interested in and positive about the overlap that could happen between books and games, especially in the way we want to see our stories rolled out across several media including games, graphic novels, books, even movies. What I’m noting though is a repeated experience with book publishing folks who seem stuck on what amounts to a question of format. The result of this is a loss of opportunity for all parties – publishers want to find properties that will make money and video games are a massive and exploding market. Game designers want to be published…see prior reasons. That seems like the kind of place where there is a natural win-win for both sides, so long as everyone can agree on what winning looks like.

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5 Comments
  1. PatrickXX

    You’re dead on with your assessment. There really is a disconnect. From our, XrucifiX, experience working with these guys is almost impossible if you’re not working on a non-violent game targeted at the 6 to 10 year old demographic.

    With our first game (Shadows of Light) we literally had a 100% finished product and the publishers and distribution channels (Christian bookstores) felt that THEY had the right to tell us to completely overhaul the game to meet their every whim. Even after we made every single change requested change some of them refused to carry the product. When asked why the answer we received was silence.

    I can “guess” that they feel that there is too much action and violence, but personally I feel that is a double standard considering some of the products they were already carrying. For example, at the time there was a novel from a major Christian author where an angelic character literally shoved his arm up a demon’s anus and ripped out its innards. Even if we hinted at, but did not directly show, such an event in our game they probably would have outright banned it.

    The other major issue was of advertising. They really don’t know what to do with these video games. Most of them get relegated to the bottom of a shelf hidden in the back of the store. No signs, no banners, no training of staff on how to sell the games (or even mention they’re there!). Fortunately, this is slowly changing from what I’ve heard but it’s still not “good”.

  2. Well said. No doubt we have a chicken/egg issue and it all comes down to the risk involved in making any creative product.

    I do especially like your part about “Promot[ing] the developers that are already exploring adult themes through games.” since that’s exactly what we want to do here.

    So like…um…wanna tell your friends about Soma? 😉

  3. Yeah, there’s definitely a feedback loop going on.

    I haven’t met with these publishers myself, but maybe the only games on their radar are the ones that meet their own qualitative distinction of worthwhile. That’s why they’re just thinking kids/family in the first place.

    I think too many _developers_ are missing a massive market segment by limiting their interest to games that target adolescents. I believe that to be the case because many of the developers themselves still have adolescent (immature) tastes. Or they did until the industry became established and started relying on a self-feeding cycle. What’s left on the mainstream radar is family (lately Wii things) and kids (franchise IP and…DS?).

    So book publishers look at this – the “surface” of the gaming landscape – and see that the shallower things that target adolescents (GTA as a cliché example) might not work for them, so they assume what’s left is family & kids stuff, which is true to a certain extent. They simply don’t know a whole lot about the game industry, so they aren’t aware of the more obscure (and IMO interesting) games that exist.

    Assuming those problems, some solutions could be:
    – Show the book publishers these obscure games that actually do explore adult themes, which could start with more “mainstream” indie examples like Braid.

    – Convince game publishers that players will enjoy games with more adult themes (they are slooowwly coming around to this).

    – Promote the developers that are already exploring adult themes through games.

  4. Hi God At Play. You got the gist of my comment regarding ‘supporting players’ – that games are seen as secondary.

    But you add a layer here that is important, but not really what I was after. What makes a story ‘worthwhile’ is a qualitative distinction – a matter of opinion by definition and good grist for a different discussion.

    I’m really just considering the business and demographic aspects here. If the average player of video games is mid-thirties with an almost even split between men and women, publishers are missing a massive market segment by limiting their interest to games that target adolescents.

    I do think the two questions are related however and a feedback loop is operational. The publisher that starts bringing more grown up games to that demographic will create a market (read: paycheck) to the writers and developers who want to create more grown-up content. As it is, people go where the work is and that slants strongly toward the youth.

  5. I agree with most of it, although I’m not 100% sure what you mean by “Video Games are Supporting Players.” The use of the word “Players” is confusing. You mean they think video games are a secondary medium to something like books and film?

    If that’s your point, then I would agree with the publishers in the context of worthwhile fiction. Most games don’t provide the same fictional experience one would get from books.

    Right now games are WAY too adolescent and not enough adult in their subject matter. Thankfully the indie scene is starting to pick up some slack in that area with small freeware titles like I Wish I Were The Moon, Don’t Look Back, Edmund, and Judith. But most people don’t even know that indie games exist.

    Maybe the book publishers see the adolescent game titles, try to think of a way to translate that to books, realize the result would be kind of trashy, and opt for the gaming alternative of kids’/family games?

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