'We are reinventing the storytelling process'

'We are reinventing the storytelling process'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

March 29th 2016 at 12:50PM

Book publisher Hachette is breaking into the development industry with a completely new kind of game, and has teamed up with Insight Studios to utilise its BAFTA-winning New Star Soccer franchise for its first title. Hachette brand development director Damian Horner and Insight MD Martyn Brown discuss their 'novel' approach to development

Why launch the gamebook?

Damian Horner, brand development director, Hachette (pictured, right): To date, publishers have largely used digital technology to replicate printed books on other platforms. At best they have maybe added a few ‘extra bits’ such as interviews with the author, but have done little to truly embrace the advantages that digital technology can deliver.

These gamebooks are one of a number of initiatives Hachette is taking to reinvent the storytelling process, alongside our hugely successful print and e-book publishing.

Our gamebooks are special because they are a ‘digital first’ concept – meaning that they didn’t begin with the notion of trying to transfer printed content onto a screen – they began with an idea that could only ever work digitally.

There is no print equivalent of this concept. So we have something very unique: a fusion of the best of gameplay with the best of storytelling.

It is an entirely new kind of product and we are very excited about its potential.

How closely did you work with Insight on this project? Did you have any input on the balance between gameplay and reading sections?

Horner: We worked hand in glove with Insight.

At every stage of the concept and story development we met up and discussed ideas, designs, plot, pacing, choices, options and endings.

We each bring different skills and ideas to the process.

Frankly, it has only been by working in this way that we have been able to create a proper fusion of gameplay and storytelling.

We’ve also had a real laugh doing it.

Martyn Brown, MD, Insight Studios (pictured, left): We were approached by Damian, who is a great fan of New Star Soccer and he’d had a bit of a brainwave about developing interactive books and felt New Star Soccer was a match made in heaven. We met a few times and it was clear that there was a great opportunity to build something. As they say, the rest is history.

Obviously we were bringing a lot to the table in terms of our experience with New Star Soccer and its audience/community and we’ve also been working on a major update to the original New Star title over the last year. The gamebook has benefited from all of the new art, animation and other visual flourishes compared to the original game

It’s been a great experience working with the people at Hachette, who have been passionate about the project given it’s a very interesting new direction for them given their traditional book publishing background.

What are you looking for in other development partners? Do they need an established IP, or are you open to new properties?

Horner: We want genuine partners – not developers for hire.

We want to keep pushing the boundaries of this new product area and keep exploring everything from structure to revenue models.

We want to have fun and be excited.

Ideally, our development partners will have established IP because to cut through in the crowded app market we need to be able to leverage the existing relationship people have with a game.

The hope is that we enrich and reward fans by giving them a new way to enjoy and experience their favourite games. Everyone should win in this.

"We want to look at first-person shooters for the gamebook format, as it has huge potential for wrapping thrilling storytelling around good gameplay."

Damian Horner, Hachette

How can developers get involved? How will you support them if they do secure a partnership?

Horner: The best thing to do is email me and tell me about the games they think could work within this new treatment.

If we both like the idea of something - we are open to all sorts of relationships and revenue models.

Underpinning everything, though, will be a spirit of trying to build something together.

How did you go about translating the gameplay of New Star Soccer into the gamebook format?

Brown: We feel that most of the mini-games of New Star Soccer transfer really well to the title, whereas the role-playing elements and lifestyle management of the title didn’t really have a place.

Development-wise, it’s somewhat of a departure for us in terms of our other projects, the biggest difference being that obviously this is a full-fledged book with action at key points in the narrative, rather than a traditional game as such.

The biggest challenge wasn’t especially technical, but more the case of blending both items together so it felt right, looked right and we believe that it works really well. Given it’s a book, the story-writing was also key and that’s especially where Hachette came in, hooking the two Steves [Barlow and Skidmore] into the project to write the story.

In the game, the story is written by the player’s actions, whereas in the gamebook the player is led by the narrative and the results of their actions. The story itself has well over 150,000 words, which is larger than most novels.

The game is balanced between having the story flow, setting up key ‘Hollywood moments' where the player is called upon to take a set piece, make a pass and so on.

The success or otherwise of the action leads the player down different narrative branches, so it’s always interesting to see the story develop and replay the game differently and experience different results.

“I wonder what would have happened had I scored that free kick?” now becomes a possibility with a dynamic narrative. You can understand how our book publishing friends are excited, as it opens up a whole new world of exciting opportunities.

If I’ve advice for developers making this kind of title, they have to really know the audience and also have to get the narrative and gameplay mix right. It also relies on a great story which very likely means getting writers in rather than thinking you’re up to it yourself. You also would have to think of localisation costs, which suddenly get very expensive.

What is the long-term roadmap for the gamebooks? Where do you see them going in the next few years?

Horner: The first step is to make a success of New Star Soccer Story.

If that works, then we want to very quickly develop other sports-based gamebooks – ideally with broad international appeal. Motor racing, NFL, Basketball and tennis are high on my list.

We also want to look at first-person shooters, as this has huge potential for wrapping thrilling storytelling around good gameplay. And I think VR is ripe for this kind of treatment, too.

But this is early days in a brand new product space, so it would be wrong for me to define the roadmap too tightly.

We have our own ideas but we are open to the thinking of others. By its very nature this is a collaborative process – so who knows where we will end up taking it? That’s the joy of it.