Video game IPs turn into TV shows, but where are the books?

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Once upon a time – in the early 2000s – novels based on video games were a nascent but rapidly growing trend. New York Times best-selling science fiction author William Dietz had something to do with it: In 2003, his publisher approached him to write a novelization of the historic video game “Halo: Combat Evolved.” It was his first time writing a novel based on a video game.

“I had to learn the game, master it, and write the book — all in three months,” Dietz laughed. “It was a little crazy.”

But the result, “Halo: The Flood,” was a smash hit, selling over a million copies and, along with Eric Nylund’s 2001 book “Halo: The Fall of Reach,” helped to trigger a surge in video game novels. Soon the term “transmedia” – telling a story across multiple platforms – became a major buzzword in the publishing industry, and it became standard fare for Triple-A game releases with a series of companion books.

“Some people take a dim view of tie-in books as uncool,” said Dietz, who has gone on to write novels based on other video game series, including Mass Effect, Hitman and Resistance. “But I think they’re great fun – and I’m always proud of them.”

In recent years, streaming platforms have jumped on the transmedia bandwagon, adapting video game IPs at a rapid pace. This year has seen the release of Paramount Plus’ “Halo” and Netflix’s “Resident Evil” series, and plans are in place to produce shows based on Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, God of War and The Last of Us, among others. .

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But with video game IPs looking hotter than ever, literary ties – which had become so commonplace over the past 20 years – face a more uncertain future: Authors say the number of video game novels has decreased significantly.

“It’s a shrinking market,” Dietz said, adding that it had been many years since he had received an offer to write one.

Part of the problem, he said, is that people are reading less: Although the publishing industry has made record profits during the pandemic, Dietz cites a Gallup poll from early 2022 that found that Americans read two or three fewer books a year than they used to. between 2001 and 2016.

Author Brian Evenson, who has written a number of video game tie-ins throughout his career, has also noticed a decline.

“In those early days – the days of Halo – there were so many video game novels, and it certainly slowed down,” he said. Evensen also noted that he was particularly surprised that story-heavy franchises like The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption chose not to pursue tie-in novels.

For Kari Snyder, a professor of digital media at the University of Houston who specializes in transmedia, shifting the focus to television adaptations is a logical next step for video game IPs and reflects how people consume media. .

“When we just look at trends in communications, video skyrockets, and everything leans towards that,” she said. “The reason streaming is the go-to choice is only because audiences have moved there.”

Book publishing and video games have always made strange bedfellows, according to Eric Raab, former editor of Tor Books who later worked for Bungie, the original developer of Halo. In the early 2000s, he said, many notoriously old-school and traditional publishing executives dismissed video games as a niche hobby. Meanwhile, game designers – many of whom didn’t have dedicated writers on staff – often treated plot and world-building as secondary aspects of the development process.

“But after the success of the Halo books, one thing that we all realized was that it had a lot of potential,” Raab said.

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Each project, however, proved to be a big gamble, and Raab points to “Perfect Dark Zero”, a 2005 launch title for the Xbox 360, as the one that didn’t pay off. Hoping to replicate the success of Halo and its accompanying novels, Microsoft signed a multi-book deal with Tor, one of the leading science fiction and fantasy brands, and enlisted the award-winning author Greg Rucka to lead the project. But when the game was released to modest reviews and disappointing sales, the book series fell apart.

Since storylines were often finalized in the later stages of a game’s development cycle, novels had to be written quickly to coincide with their release and “ride the video game publicity,” Raab explained. “It was a lot of work, and you just never knew when a game would take off or not.”

According to Mat Piscatella, video game industry analyst at research firm NPD Group, video games have historically been difficult to license on other forms of media, including books, due to the unpredictability of their market. Unlike Star Wars – a franchise that seems to enjoy perpetual success across all of its licensed media – and other well-known television and film IPs, modern video games are steadily losing popularity, sometimes suddenly.

“You bet that when a particular game comes out it will generate enough interest to make your novel work,” Piscatella said. “You can have the best IP address in the world, but if you miss a single game, everything can change.”

He cites the Dead Space series as a notable example: When the third game in the series received lackluster reviews, the franchise quickly lost momentum and its corresponding book series dried up.

The sudden drop in popularity surprised Evenson, author of two of the Dead Space novels.

“The Dead Space games were pretty groundbreaking, and it was a pleasure to write these books,” he said. “But then it just sort of…disappeared.”

This is not all catastrophic for the literature of video games. Although the volume of tie-in novels has slowed, some of the more established game franchises, including Halo and Gears of War, continue to release new books. In fact, a recent NPD study shows Halo to be one of the best-selling book licenses in the second quarter of this year – the only video game intellectual property in the top 10. Author Kelly Gay, who wrote the recent “Halo: The Rubicon Protocol,” attributes the game’s enduring literary success to the IP’s long-term commitment to novelizations and world-building.

“There’s so much content and depth at this point,” she said. “It makes you feel like this is a universe that could possibly exist.”

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Additionally, Blizzard Entertainment created its own publishing division in 2016 (Evenson contributed to a collection of Diablo short stories slated for release in the fall). And aside from Triple-A titles, the meteoric rise of self-publishing in recent years has helped some smaller game developers seek literary connections: the designers of the indie horror game “Five Nights at Freddie’s,” for example, released a novel based on the game in 2015, prompting publishing company Scholastic to later release two sequels.

But the rise of online multiplayer games, such as “Fortnite” and “Roblox” – where players essentially create their own stories – has added new complications to the already shaky release pipeline in recent years.

“These massively multiplayer games might have hundreds of millions of registered players, but they don’t focus on a unifying plot or a single character, like Master Chief,” Dietz said. “That makes tie-ins quite difficult to produce – and, to my knowledge, there haven’t been any ‘Fortnite’ novels yet.”

But single-player narratives with deep, fleshed-out worlds could be due for a resurgence. Piscatella points to the surprising success of “Elden Ring” – in which “A Game of Thrones” author George RR Martin contributed to its lore – as a sign that the literary world could still play an important role in the future of the Game.

“There will be a lot of lessons to be learned from this game, and one of them will be this: Your worldbuilding needs to be super clean, polished, and have a guiding narrative,” he said. “And who better to tell these kinds of stories than real storytellers, right?”

As for Evenson, he’s optimistic that game developers will see the value that literature could bring to new franchises, and that the success of recent TV adaptations could even breathe new life into tie-in novels. He notes that each type of media — whether it’s a game, book, or TV show — can bring different elements to the table, and he hopes some people in the game will step up and recognize these opportunities early on when designing new IP addresses.

“We’ve seen it happen piecemeal, always after the fact,” he said. “The game is great, so let’s quickly make a novel or a TV show. But we’re going to reach a point where people are creating all of these things at once – and that could very well change the way we think about storytelling. The potential here, I believe, is still huge.

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