Publishers appreciate that a good story starts at the beginning. Games publishers often do not, though recent offerings suggest this view is changing. Could Hachette’s purchase of Neon Play last week help accelerate this trend, with added benefits?
In the games industry, writers are all too often brought in late in the production cycle to tidy up glitches rather than build the fundamentals. The multi-platform writer Rhianna Pratchett calls herself a “narrative paramedic” and has lamented that “writers are considered to be the ones who just do the ‘word bits’, a part of [game] development that is wrongly considered to be cheap, easy and can be slotted in at some future date.”
Fortunately, the popularity of quality interactive writing is on the rise and has driven the success of recent indie games such as Her Story, Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture and Firewatch (which has grossed almost £10M). “Narrative games” are being welcomed by audiences, and we are drawn into the more nuanced and mysterious characters. The gameplay is about getting to know the characters as much as moving around the world.
This is good news for authors and publishers who are able to extend their editorial infrastructure, creativity and storytelling skills from books to interactive media. Neon Play’s specialty is as a casual games studio focusing on mobile platforms. The mobile games market in the UK alone grew 21% from 2013 to 2014 with revenues of £548m, which makes sense of the logic behind CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson’s view that the acquisition will “lead to substantial revenues”.
However the cross-cutting benefits of the deal are clear, with Hachette keen to get as many insights as possible. Publishing interactive content is a complex, ever-fluid and achingly innovative space. Naturally, Hely Hutchinson sees “the acquisition as taking us several steps forward in various parallel relevant directions”.
Personally, I am interested in the flow of knowledge in the other direction as well. How will Neon Play learn about good story and increase the depth to their games?
Hely Hutchinson has mentioned discussing games rights with authors and agents “from scratch”. This would open up the opportunity for authors and game designers to be paired together as a creative team from the outset. Games I have produced that have involved writing teams from the beginning have produced better results faster, and for lower budgets. Importantly, these writers also enjoy taking their characters into a new digital world, giving them a more intimate way of communicating with the audience through messages, images, video, music and interactive games as well as text.
The creative opportunities are certainly there, but they bring equal challenges as well. Hely Hutchinson says that: “What people are really looking for with the digital world is more interactivity. So communicating with each other on social networks and playing games, you’re not just looking at something, you’re directly involved. And that’s where we want to be”.
Given publishing’s proximity to the genesis of the story itself, it makes sense for a publisher to be at the centre of conversations with audiences, managing the intelligent development of stories across multiple platforms. However, the challenge will be how to transform a traditionally one-way industry into one where interactivity is embraced, where the audience is listened to, where the products change dynamically, and where new revenue streams pop up and then disappear on a monthly basis. This involves building a new form of business, story up.
Neon Play will provide insight into future publishing models, and could open up new revenue streams alongside the growth in narrative-driven games.
The digital transformation that is rolling round the media sector globally inspires new forms of television, games, movie and stories that audiences are starting to see as standard. While this trend will continue to present challenges for years to come, being a part of the game makes them easier to overcome than being on the sidelines.