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Games vs Books

Sunday, January 17th, 2010 | Posted by Theo

I read in on a discussion led by a friend of mine who is an award-winning science fiction writer on his blog the other day.  He postulated that the relative decline of science fiction compared to fantasy is largely the fault of computer games.  After all, it’s hardly a secret that a) men buy far more computer games than women, b) women buy far more books than men, and c) women tend to prefer fantasy to science fiction.  It’s not my purpose to consider whether he is correct or not, but rather to go off on a tangential note.  After all, as a science fiction and fantasy writer as well as a game designer who has worked on both science fiction and fantasy games, I have no dog in this hunt.  Because, whether he is correct or not, there is another factor related to the two mediums that is likely to have even more significant ramifications. What I have noticed is that as book advances continue to decline, game budgets are exploding.  A triple-A console title runs between $15 and $20 million while a PC-based MMO will cost well over $100 million.  While the game industry has tended to denigrate the importance of concepts such as plot, characterization, dialogue, and grammar, mostly due to the widespread belief throughout the industry that anyone can write, that is changing.  While the involvement of David Brin with the Dreamcast version of Ecco the Dolphin was mostly fortuitous happenstance due to the impression that his novel Startide Rising had made on Ecco’s designer, this sort of thing is now commonplace in the industry.  Instead of assigning a low-level tester, an ambitious level designer, or an unoccupied programmer to writing duty, it is now normal for the producer to allocate a small percentage of the budget to writing.  There are even several companies that provide professional writing services to some well-known games.  And more importantly, what is a small amount of money by game development standards is a lot more than the average novelist receives for a novel.  And it’s a lot less work.

That is good news for game fans.  We can reasonably expect the quality of the writing-related aspects to continue to significantly improve as better writers gravitate towards seeing and hearing their words onscreen rather than on dead tree.  We can also expect the quality of the existing science fiction and fantasy to decline – I might even consider saying continue to decline – as the better writers pursue the more lucrative market and leave what has always been a literary ghetto to lesser talents.  (Hmmm… could it be that my time has come at last?)  And, as this process continues, game tie-in novels will likely become even more ubiquitous in the marketplace.  The difference, I expect, will be that they will gradually become more reputable and may even eventually become the dominant form of literary science fiction and fantasy.  Contrary to what this might lead one to conclude, I think it could be good news for niche magazines such as Black Gate, since writers remain writers and high salaries are unlikely to prevent good writers from jonesing to dash off the sorts of stories and ideas that have no place in vast, large-budgeted game worlds directed by someone else’s vision.  But regardless of what happens, one thing is certain.  Black Gate will almost surely be doing more game reviews in the future.

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