Random House To Donate Free Story Ideas To Poor Struggling Game Developers, Get Piece of the Action Button
I'm glad to see that our devoted readers at Random House have decided to take our previous article seriously by getting into the video game business. From the WSJ article:

Publishers are hungry for new ways to generate sales as they cut back on the number of book titles published annually. Economic pressure is likely to grow in coming years as the sale of electronic books, now an estimated 3% to 5% of total book sales, becomes increasingly significant. E-books are expected to generate less revenue per unit compared with hardcover titles.

"We need new revenue streams," said Gina Centrello, publisher of the Random House Publishing Group.

In recent years the videogame industry, whose fans stretch across a wide age group, has attracted greater interest from traditional entertainment companies. Book publishers have so far focused on publishing books based on the games. But as demand for more-sophisticated games has grown, the focus has shifted to improving the games themselves.

"There is increasing emphasis on storytelling in the videogame business, on building new worlds from the ground up," said Keith Clayton, Random House's director of creative development, who is heading the unit with Mikita Labanok, director of business development.

I really appreciate that Random House is looking out for video game designers here, that it's not turning its eyes with hatred and fear away from the feeble, stunted little chicken limbs that video game developers have previously decided to call "stories." Most people wouldn't give video games the time of day, but not Random House! Random House is a bigger person than that. Random House kinda likes those little video games; they're scrappers. Random House is going to take video games under its wing, show it a few things about life. It'll loan some of its cool clothes, you know, the ones it doesn't really wear so much anymore, to video games, introduce video games to a couple girls, get people to quit picking on video games all the time, you know? Teach it to have some confidence, be a man. Look, the little guy's learning — he's starting to talk like me, guys — isn't video games just the cutest little thing you've ever seen? And all video games have to do in return is do Random House's homework for it for the year [read: provide Random House multi-millions of lucrative video-game dollars in "new revenue streams."]

So what's so bad about this? Wasn't I just talking about how video games needed to be better? Wouldn't it help to have some real-deal novelists, of RANDOM HOUSE!!-brand quality, turned loose on a video game or two? Wouldn't that help get some realism and human pathos in everyone's favorite corrupter of our nation's youth?

Have you ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald's movie treatment for his own Tender is the Night? It ends with Dick Diver pulling himself together to perform delicate brain surgery on Nicole Diver.

In the quiet, mechanical smoothness of the operating room, in the midst of his delicate work — with the newness and mystery of this particular operation — and the burning sensation that he is trying to save Nicole for another man, Dick's nerve fails. But Nicole, deep in the oblivion of the anaesthetic, murmurs once "Dick" and his hand does not falter after that."

They end up together, music swells, big happy Hollywood ending.

Do you want to know why Fitzgerald was crap at writing for the movies? It isn't because the movies are inherently evil. It's because Fitzgerald believed that the movies were inherently evil — or more to the point, that working on them was beneath him.

You do not produce good work by approaching it with contempt and cynicism. You produce good work by loving a thing and wanting it to do better, to be able to argue for its own existence on its own terms. You do not improve the quality of work by sensing blood in the water and moving in to help offset the fact that you aren't actually publishing independent voices anymore and thus your publishing business is slowly failing.

Random House does not need video games; it needs to publish fiction that people care about again.

Do you know why it was called Random House to begin with? Because Bennett Cerf was making all of his money off of the Modern Library cheap reprint series, and decided that "at random," he and Donald Klopfer would publish two or three books a year that they really enjoyed. They would take risks on writers they liked because they could afford to, and they would take the writers who caught on and funnel them into the Modern Library, which people were buying like crazy because they were bringing out-of-print writers back into wide availability by selling cheaply-printed and priced books. The Modern Library and Vintage are still around to perform the bread-and-butter function--except that somewhere along the line, the idea of printing books "at random," i.e. with an attitude of risk and experimentation, got completely lost. And that's why you're failing, Random House: because your Obergruppenfuhrern back at Bertelsmann will be making slightly less money if you bet long odds on humanity, and if you're not going forward you're falling behind, amirite??

Similarly, video games do not need Random House coming along to give them a helping hand. They do not need to have Random House authors help design werewolves for them.

Screen shot from Random House's proposed adventure game, "Ulysses Gaiden II: Quest for the Crystals of Erin"

They need genre maturity, a diversity of voices, a community of artists who can learn from one another and share insights, and the ability to experiment and publish their experiments without having to care about being a viable revenue stream for a bunch of German financiers. What they do not need is another "fantasy adventure" or "horror thriller," or a game called "Eternal: War of Magic."

What they do not need is stuff published by these guys: a former OS/2 developer forced to switch to Windows, largely known for their knockoff real-time strategy games and bogus sim titles. (This game by them looks pretty cool though.) It's nice that Random House thinks that they can help Stardock out by fixing up their dialogue a little, and then the game is good to go. It's still a boring, committee-developed title about galactic warfare and the wholesale slaughter of civilizations, undertaken for fun, in the most half-assed fantasy universe ever. Storytelling in comics is not about picking a better class of novels to adapt — it's about telling the stories (Maus, Asterios Polyp, Watchmen, From Hell) that only comics can legitimately tell. Similarly, storytelling in video games is not about fixing up the dialogue — it's about finding a way to tell the story through the gameplay itself, something which I'm pretty willing to bet Random House authors have exactly zero experience with.

The last thing we need is a corporation that is too fat, bloated, and multinational to be able to reasonably and consistently take economic risks on new voices getting involved in a medium which is starved for new developers and new voices. The last thing we need is for a "high culture" institution to pretend that it is helping raise the cultural standards of a "low culture" institution by producing work that is trash, and whose perceived status as "better" work actually serves to suppress and eliminate the work being done underground which actually is better.

But I don't like to point out problems without also providing the solutions, even for the corporate overlords who have almost singlehandedly turned publishing into a business that can apparently no longer profitably survive by finding good writers, printing them, and promoting them to the reading public, and that now needs to also produce video games to make rent. Therefore, here are some other businesses to which Random House should apply its storytelling skills in order to save itself from extinction:

The music industry. For too long now writers have focused on writing books about songs — books such as Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, You Don't Love Me Yet, or the collected works of Thomas Pynchon — but now, with the number of new titles published every year drying up, Random House needs to start opening up some new revenue veins. KISS's Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are already at the negotiating table, ready to start talks with Gina Centrello and Keith Clayton. Lyrics to be provided by Terry Goodkind, with assists from Lou Reed.

Used car sales. Why not put the storytelling skills you somehow have — despite being in theory an organization devoted to assessing, improving, and selling books, rather than directly telling stories — to work for you in a business that's heavily dependent on fiction, and that's a guaranteed moneymaker? You could institute a system of bonuses, where for every 1,000 units moved by a given Random House previously-owned vehicles franchise in any of the 48 contiguous US states, your sales leader will get a free twelve-month spicy Joyce Carol Oates calendar, as well as a written-to-order hard-hitting novel dedicated to the slow crumbling of his marriage due to the tedium of suburban conformity, and of the price paid for pursuing his American dream.

Basic survival needs. The Jonathan Swift Memorial Factory Farm will be opening anticipated 2012, with the debeaking machines and force-feed lots staffed and maintained by real Random House writers who have not managed to sell enough copies to make back their advances, as well as Jonathan Safran Foer once Bertelsmann's enforcement group persuades him to "come to his senses." Soon all the food you eat will come from Random House, whose packaging of chicken parts and fat cuts of steak will be exquisite, making your food purchases into beautiful objects in and of themselves. Some animals are going to get hurt, but it's all because you shopped at the secondhand book store instead of getting an Amazon account like a real human being — and really anything that's good for big publishers must logically be good for literature.

In conclusion, this is how we feel about Random House:

Posted by future on Mon, 01 Mar 2010 20:08:20 -0500 -- permanent link

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