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Black Crown brings free-to-play to narrative gaming through a book publisher

By on June 12, 2013

This is a guest post by Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Random House.

When we launched Black Crown  at the end of May it was widely billed as Random House’s first foray into gaming, and received a level of coverage in the gaming press I didn’t expect. Publishers tend to beat themselves up about their lack of consumer brand recognition, but the interest around this project indicated that the company has a reputation significant enough within its field to merit attention as it moved into another.

I thought a book publisher creating a narrative gaming experience like this would be acknowledged slyly by the gaming community as Emperor’s New Clothes, since the gaming world has increasingly deployed long-form narrative and character development alongside more overt long-form, novelistic genre structures in recent titles like Heavy Rain and LA Noire.

I think that what differs for us most is the way in which a publisher puts a writer (and necessarily the reader) front and centre of a publication. This platform has been developed with Failbetter Games to realize the creative vision of debut author Rob Sherman. It has been a highly collaborative process, with Failbetter providing structure, editorial support, art and design, in tandem with Popleaf, the developer responsible for the incredible Miasma shards and objects, all under Rob’s steerage and my position as editor/publisher/impresario in all this.

Ultimately, it’s (literally) a platform for launching a new writer, publishing him for gaming, SF and progressive audiences in a targeted manner, albeit in an unconventional framework. At the same time Black Crown seeks to answer the question: what else can a publisher create for readers in the digital environment at a time when digital growth in book publishing is stabilizing at 20-25% of our revenues?

What is also interesting is the business model. I’ve watched with interest as the games industry has embraced the free-to-play business model and how it has been covered by sites like Gamesbrief. Nicholas Lovell is convinced that The Curve will bend all to its will – that content wants to be free, a problem that the publishing industry must face up to. I take his point – as an industry we’ve experienced some rampant discounting when Sony ran a series of 20p promotions earlier this year − but I’ve also seen some fascinating data published by Smashwords, that shows that $3.99 is yielding better sales results than $2.99 for self-published writers. As ebook growth slows slightly and the midlist starts to turn over consistently, it is looking good for the value proposition of (e)books.

Still, we need to explore new models. Black Crown uses a free-to-play business model, that is to say that a user can go from start to finish without paying a penny, with opportunities for eager users to make micropayments to unlock story strands, expedite the narrative, and acquire items and status within the world. The basic user experience presents chunks of text (‘storylets’) to readers, with branch choices and a limited number of actions to play which refresh in stages, or under payment.

But this isn’t choose-your-own-adventure – you do not die, there aren’t multiple endings. It’s choose-your-own on steroids and psychedelics. This is more like a river down which you flow, which bows out if you choose to enrich the experience, or head towards its mouth faster, with the chance to hop onto the islets and explore territory around its banks.

There are targets around the ‘stickiness’ of the audience (recurring users), average revenue per user and hard revenue yields over the two phases of the project we are committed to in its first four months. And we expect a very small proportion of its users to monetize heavily, and in doing so conform closely to the free-to-play curve – Fallen London (Failbetter’s other story game) sees 30% of its revenue from unlocking story branches and 70% from refreshing actions.

The currency used across all of its StoryNexus platform is Nex − 1 Nex equivalent to 12p/17c roughly and most branches in Black Crown cost 5 Nex or less − we didn’t want to alienate their userbase by introducing a new in-game currency. To play through the first month’s worth of content we don’t expect users to pay more than the price of 2-3 paperbacks if they do choose to go for the full paid experience.

I pitched the project to our publishing strategy meeting last July, an hour after the first week sales of FIFTY SHADES took off. No better time to sell an experimental business model for fiction to senior executives than when the money is rolling right in. I really hope this particular river floods rather than dries up!

About Dan Franklin

Dan Franklin is a digital publisher at Random House, with a reputation for innovation in storytelling for interactive platforms.