We need more romance novelists making games.
I recently picked up To Tempt a Scotsman by Victoria Dahl, an up-and-coming U.S. romance writer. It has kilts. It has duels. It has a lot of women seducing men and men grabbing women. It has a Happily Ever After ending, apparently a key component of the romance formula. The whole thing is immensely silly, which shouldn’t obscure the fact that a) Ms. Dahl is a superb writer, and b) Romance novels account for over 50 percent of paperback fiction sales in North America.
You read that right: over 50 percent. Romance quietly outsells nearly everything else in the Western book biz. People laugh at romance novels and the people who read them – not unlike the sneers many still direct at videogames and gamers. But along with the raw sales, consider the business model: Leading publisher Harlequin releases more than 120 titles per month, going for addictive quantity as a selling point. Many romance readers buy several books a week. Authors have rabid followings and hook fans with episodic series. Romance publishers are also leading the charge into e-books, adapting faster and more successfully than mainstream companies.
So you have high output with frequent, addictive variations on the same theme. You have episodic content. You have buyer lock-in. You have nimble adaptation to changing technology. Sound like the wet-dream fantasies of any industry we know? And to sweeten the deal, most romance readers are women. If videogame publishers want to extend their reach beyond the standard 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, they might want to form development teams with fewer gamers and more romance novelists.
Actually, they (sort of) already have – in Japan. Developers there have long injected strong romance elements into RPGs (Grandia), simulations (Harvest Moon), anime-related games and titles like those of the Angelique series. Many of these go well beyond the norms of “relationship stuff” in most Western games, and as with Japanese manga, their willingness to incorporate a diversity of genres attracts a wider audience to the medium.
The Japanese refusal to say that anything can’t be in a videogame should be an example to Western developers. Mixing up the creative gene pool only helps gaming’s evolution: Trying Weird Shit™ can be a great antidote to the waves of derivative titles that choke store shelves every sales season. The problem is that evolution’s a cast-iron bitch to deal with in terms of risk management. Bringing in outside catalysts for change is great for an industry too used to navel-gazing, but the price for innovation can be high. New steps forward are often gained through expense and failure.
Take the Nintendo DS. With its emphasis on new types of gameplay and control mechanisms that appeal to a broader audience than the usual hardcore gamer demographic, it’s a poster child for fruitful experimentation. The DS has everything from cooking, surgery, detective stories, library management and sailing to breath-based interaction and, yes, romance. People who wouldn’t otherwise touch videogames love their DSs. But the DS’s diverse game library was born from an awful lot of trying and failing. I remember meeting with a Nintendo sales rep a few years ago to play some first-generation DS titles. They were unusual. They were interesting. Nine out of ten were god-awful. It’s easy to forget that, like the Wii, the DS was a huge, unwieldy risk at a time when the evolution of gaming meant little more than better sports games and shooters.
The DS is proof that it’s still possible to find the next evolutionary leap in games – something totally unexpected, from far left field, that will bring whole new audiences to gaming and make vast amounts of money.
So who will be the next to step up?
Imagine, for instance, a serious effort to bring romance novels into Western videogames on a AAA scale. It wouldn’t be easy: Romance novels have highly-developed creative formulae that celebrate passion and commitment. Spreadsheet-based monster slaying and laser rifles wouldn’t exactly cut it. Nor would cobbling together a team of traditional developers and romance authors – the many failures of cross-media gaming mash-ups show that throwing creative processes together and demanding instant results is foolish. So, dropping Victoria Dahl into a development team would likely result in a very bad videogame. The next attempt wouldn’t be much better. But over time, if the conditions were right, something new would emerge that could never have been created by either side alone. Gaming would take a step forward, reach a vast new audience of avid romance fans and make money hand over fist.
The Western games industry already has successful studios accustomed to bringing in outside influences. It’s no coincidence that Bethesda Softworks was founded by someone with a background that combined virtual reality work and broadcast news production. Or that BioShock, one of the most thematically unique AAA titles in recent memory, was helmed by a former screenwriter and playwright who didn’t play games growing up. Even designers steeped in the traditions of the industry can successfully forge into new territory, as evidenced by Peter Molyneux’s Fable 2, where marriage is a key component of the gameplay. Bioware has also been extremely successful in taking Japanese-style relationship elements into their own RPGs. But such experiments are still the exception. Far more typical are those studios too dominated by the industry norm: young men with comp. sci or design degrees, raised on similar games and other media, who create solid but repetitive titles with mild variations on the Same Old Thing. These creative monocultures produce faster results and quicker profits, but in the long haul, they could be fatal.
So, how can the industry avoid this kind of creative stagnation? I believe part of the answer lies in focusing on creative diversity in its own right. We need the equivalent of open-skies tech research funding to help foster new creative cultures. Studios should try to attract waves of people from backgrounds other than videogame development, the weirder the better. Romance novelists would only be the start: I’m talking educators, aerospace engineers, urban designers, public policy experts, you name it. Throw in some Broadway producers. Take a gamble on a forestry ranger. Go right off the grid to the still-untapped creative hotbeds in places like central Africa or the Pacific Islands, places even the film industry hasn’t fully marked out.
It’d be a disaster – initially. But with enough patience and tolerance for failure, these new teams would eventually get beyond the rough patches. Technical implementation skills and new creative possibilities would start to reinforce each other rather than clash. Then and only then would the real money start flowing.
This is essentially the same process that fueled the DS’s expansion and keeps Bioware’s RPGs so interesting, just on a grander scale. The problem, of course, is that patience and tolerance for failure are two of the toughest things for the industry to stomach right now. It’s hard to imagine a publisher releasing three boundary-pushing AAA games to an unenthusiastic public and allowing the developer to make a fourth. Smaller developers don’t have the resources for a long-term push towards creative diversity, and the major outfits famous for their factory approach likely wouldn’t dare to embrace a project that would take years to pay dividends. Why go weird when there’s plenty of money still to be made inside the box?
Because real evolution is all about taking weird steps into the unknown. Especially in tough times, staying narrowly focused on what already works is a soft form of suicide. “Safe” industries from newspapers to scientific publishing to major-label music are feeling the effects of this as we speak – why would videogame publishers want to join them? There are thousands of creative mother lodes out there waiting to be mined. Those 100 million DS units with their strange-ass game library are the result of a relatively short leap of faith on Nintendo’s part; think of the rewards that lie further afield if only someone will take on the risk of finding them.
I’ve got my kilt and Scottish accent all ready – I await the first romance novelist delivery with glee. A deeper, more diverse creative gene pool for videogames would be a fantastic thing to see. I, for one, am ready to Try Weird Shit™.
Colin Rowsell is a Wellington, New Zealand-based writer. Talk to him on twitter.com/maantren or firstname.lastname@example.org.