For those who find video games a headache, it's time to take an Advil, because they've evolved into a significant force in entertainment—including publishing. Video game sales surpassed movie sales last year, with a staggering $9.4 billion take. Mario, the plucky plumber and star of an 18-year-old series of games, has brought in twice as much revenue as all five Star Wars films combined. The Sims, a digital family whom players manipulate through every stage of life, has sold nearly 20 million units. So it's no surprise that book publishers are turning to video game novels. Yes, novels.
With more than 36 million of the top three game consoles in use, not to mention a lot more PCs, a good game title can sell well over a million copies and build a lot of name recognition. "Well-done books based on name brands sell, period, and that's what these books are," said Kuo-yu Liang, sales & marketing v-p for Diamond Books, a division of the pop culture products distributor.
It would be a mistake to think of these mass market tie-ins as generic products, however. Story is as critical to a video game novel as it is to any other tie-in, explained Del Rey executive editor Steve Saffel: "I want to make good books, not second-guess the video game industry. Give me a great story, and I'll help you tell it."
So far, game companies have been doing just that. Forget Pong; the new games often involve complex worlds with strong characters and elaborate back stories. Whereas older video games mindlessly progressed to advanced levels where it's harder to blow stuff up, many games now involve a narrative journey. "Games are much more cinematic now, more immersive," said Scott Shannon, Pocket Books v-p and associate publisher. "You get into the world and it almost becomes real."
How real? The biggest such novel right now, Halo: The Fall of Reach (Del Rey, Oct. 2001) by Eric Nylund, is actually a prequel to the game, based largely on an elaborate story "bible" that the game's designers developed to help them craft the world and characters. "In some cases, our story bibles detail hundreds of years of 'universe history,' " said Microsoft's Eric Trautmann, lead content developer for the Franchise Development Group, who wrote a lot of the Halo back story. "I often joke that I write novels no one outside of Microsoft gets to read."
Even though most of that work never makes it to the screen, it's a vital exercise to give substance to the game narrative. "It's really no different than what a novelist does," said Saffel. "You need to know everything about the world you're writing, whether or not it's on the page." Instead of inventing a new story, the game novels often provide access to a larger game universe that already exists in the minds of the creators. Indeed, a second Halo novel, The Flood, by William C. Dietz, is due in April.
A Long Shelf Life
Del Rey has sold more than 150,000 copies of Halo: The Fall of Reach, with a return rate of only 10%. The book benefited from Microsoft's aggressive marketing for the game, which was tied to the debut of its Xbox platform. As a result, the book made a rare and limited appearance in video game boutiques, in addition to the chain bookstores where video game tie-ins are almost exclusively found.
But even without that perk, other novels are selling briskly. Pocket has sold a total of 750,000 copies of the nine books it has published over the last two years for Blizzard Entertainment's WarCraft, StarCraft and Diablo games (three books for each game), and is planning eighteen more. The first titles in the series have broken the 100,000 mark, and the rest are on track to do so, Shannon explained. The six titles in Pocket's Resident Evil series have sold more than 750,000 copies in five years; there are at least two more in the works.
Equally notable is the novels' staying power. "We published the first Resident Evil book in 1998 and we're still selling it today—in fact, it rated more copies last year than in any previous year," said Shannon. Micha Hershman, Borders's buyer for science fiction, graphic novels and role-playing games, agreed: "Resident Evil always stuns me with how well it does. And Halo has been out for roughly a year and sales are not slowing."
The sales pattern tends to be modest initial numbers, followed by a long, steady reorder period, with very few returns, according to Hershman. Sales for Halo and Resident Evil sell about a third of what the biggest science fiction titles, like those by Terry Goodkind or Robert Jordan, do, while second-tier titles, such as Orson Scott Card's novels or the Dune series, sell only twice as much.
Game novels also tend to be longer-lived than movie tie-ins, observed Hershman. "At Borders, the typical movie tie-in will chug along, then explode two weeks before the movie," he said. "Two weeks after the movie, it will generally drop off into oblivion." For his part, Pocket's Shannon stressed the advantages of game novels' high sell through and total sales: "We are already on par with movie tie-ins in some ways, and we get there with fewer returns."
Multiple Platforms, Multiple Markets
Part of the reason for the books' long shelf life is the way games are marketed. A successful franchise like Resident Evil will market a new game title every two to three years. In the interim, the manufacturer will put out an "expansion pack" with new adventures and characters that keep consumers focused on existing licenses, capitalizing on brand recognition rather than starting from scratch each time. "The old licenses keep building and building," said Hershman.
Another quirk of the video game industry is that its products operate on multiple platforms that compete with one another for market share. Console makers like Microsoft or Sony will try to negotiate exclusive deals with game developers in hope of acquiring a hit game that will lure fans to their platform. "A year or two down the road, the deal expires, and the game will get ported over to [another platform, like] the PC or the GameCube, so you are frequently gaining new markets," said Hershman, comparing the process to the syndication of a TV program.
How broad can that market go? Saffel believes most of these readers are currently game players "looking for a more immersive experience." Pocket's Shannon agreed: "We're providing great stories for a built-in audience looking for more." Borders is trying to expand beyond that core group, however, with aggressive in-store marketing. "We push big video game novels to our front-of-store fixtures, right next to Tom Clancy and Tolkien," said Hershman.
Certainly, the video game audience has expanded into the mainstream like never before. Games that feature actual athletes and John Madden's color commentary are bringing in the ESPN SportsCenter crowd. TNN, part of MTV Networks, is launching a video game awards show targeted at its core audience of 25- to 34-year-olds. Video games based on movie and TV shows are almost de rigueur, and not just for SF/fantasy titles like The Matrix or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but adult drama shows like Law & Order. "Video games are the next theater, the next cinema, the next major form of mass entertainment," declared Hershman.
For publishers, this presents an opportunity to win new readers. "As games develop into their own form of entertainment, books can borrow from that, and vice-versa," said Mike Salmon, editor of Xbox magazine. Hershman sees a lot of synergy among video game novels, graphic novels and role-playing games: "All of it taps into the pop culture." By selectively grouping different products by franchise, he hopes to turn readers into gamers and gamers into serialized fiction readers, and so on. "We want to introduce them to the breadth and selection that Borders has to offer."
So what about booksellers offering the games themselves for even more synergy? The leading chains are just beginning to try it. Borders is test-marketing game consoles and titles in selected stores. Barnes & Noble is a majority shareholder of the Game Stop retail chain, though the stores do not carry video game novels. (Barnes and Noble declined to comment for this article.)
Electronics retailers, such as Circuit City, have so far proved more intractable when it comes to stocking video game novels. Part of the problem is the steep discounts they demand from publishers. Mass retailers may also be resisting the novels because their limited rack space is already filled with monster authors like King and Patterson. "I make the case on a weekly basis," said Pocket's Shannon. "WalMart sells the games, why not the book? There's a natural upside." Still, he remains optimistic: "We're in the infancy of this market. I think we're going to see growth in the next few years."
Of course, it all starts with a strong brand that transcends a single medium. Already, there is a successful line of Tom Clancy video games. LucasArts even made a video game featuring a spacecraft from Attack of the Clones, then turned the game bible into a graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics. "Everyone is looking for a brand to hang their hat on," said Shannon. But, he added, each product survives on its own quality. Salmon agreed: "The Clancy name has value in the gaming world largely because he has a rep for good games, not because of his writing." Added Liang, "You also have to remember [SF writer Ted] Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. For every good game like Halo that can make a good book, there are a lot that don't."