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Gamers love their games, many are addicted and are passionate about the experiences they are immersed in.
I think we'd all love to see more of that addictive behavior around books! In today's show, I interview Nathan Meunier, an author and game journalist, about what we can all learn from gaming.
In the intro I mention The Author's Guild fair contract initiative, the new Kindle for Kids Fire HD device and the interview about KDP Kids ebook creator, Thrillerfest in NYC in July. Plus, talking about Mark Dawson's Facebook Advertising for Authors course.
This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Nathan Meunier is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer who covers video games, technology, and geek culture. He's also an indie game developer and has non-fiction books on game journalism as well as indie publishing.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the video or read the notes and links below.
- Nathan had always been interested in entertainment writing and also writing books, and made the shift from journalism to freelance writing.
- The connections and also the differences between gaming and writing. And the opportunities that might be available in the near future to merge the worlds of books and games. And how he seeks out games for experiences he can't get with movies or books.
- The different types of games available that have narrative structure. And the opportunities available in gaming to make choices about different paths – or branches – in the story.
- The way that gaming companies work with writers, including approaching gaming companies as a freelance writer or being part of a creative team on a contractual basis. For gaming companies, writers can focus on character development, story, narrative, branching paths and world building.
- The parallels between large and small or indie companies that produces games, and the traditional and indie publishing worlds. Larger gaming companies often have a ‘self-publishing' option where they will allow developers to produce a game on their platform. Nathan compares this to Amazon KDP where they provide the platform, the writer provides the content and Amazon takes a cut from the sale.
- On Apps, freemium pricing, layers of micro-transactions and how the different platforms dictate the price people are willing to pay for the app.
- The broadening of the audience for gaming and how different types of games can connect with different types of people.
- On Twine, a free, downloadable program that lets you create your own choose-your-own-adventure style books. Nathan is experimenting with using Twine to combine game development, self-publishing and interactive fiction.
- On collaboration with creative partners. Choosing partners who are a good fit to work with. Providing critical feedback without causing problems. Creating unique projects and making sure the games and products produced are ones the market is hungry for.
- The future of gaming, including Virtual Reality. Different gaming experiences that might become available when combined with VR. And the fun at the heart of gaming.
- On taking a shorter approach to book publishing. Writing books in shorter lengths while still providing value to the reader. Books with shorter lengths allow Nathan to experiment more, pivot quickly and move in different directions.
You can find Nathan at www.NathanMeunier.com and on Twitter @NMeunier
Transcription of interview with Nathan Meunier
Joanna: Hi everyone I'm Joanna Penn from the TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm here with Nathan Meunier. Welcome, Nathan.
Nathan: Hi, thanks for having me on the show.
Joanna: I know, it's going to be super fun. Just a little introduction, Nathan is an award winning journalist and freelance writer, who covers video games, technology, and geek culture. He's also an indie game developer and has nonfiction books on game journalism as well as indie publishing. So, that's pretty exciting.
Nathan tell us just a little more about you and your writing and gaming background.
Nathan: Yeah, I'm a bit of a nerd, actually.
Joanna: We all are, we all are nerds.
Nathan: I started out writing about a decade ago. I was a journalist for a newspaper out of college. I got a gig just doing straight, regular world news in my community, and after doing that for a couple years I realized I needed a change and I wanted to do something else with my writing focus.
Because I've always been really interested in entertainment writing. I've always wanted to do book writing. And it's something that took me a while to get to that point where I felt ready to do that. I eventually shifted over from journalism to freelancing, and I started doing that part time as like a side hustle, just to get some money and get a feel for how to do it.
Back when I started I didn't really have a clue what I was doing, and the books were geared towards a different approach then the more technology driven way that we do it now. So, I shifted over to freelancing. I started freelancing full time, specifically covering video games and tech and geeky topics. So, I'd review video games, I would interview people and do journalism style work for publications, print magazines and websites. I've been doing that for a long time.
Then a couple years ago I kind of finally got comfortable enough to branch out into self-publishing. That's been a really exciting adventure. Right now I'm doing book writing a lot, I've got a few books out now.
I'm doing game development, which is sort of a newer thing I've been working on. And I'm still freelancing full time and I'm not doing as much traditional journalism style work, but I am freelancing more for companies and clients in the tech geeky space. Very much game focused and it's kind of nerdy, but I spend a lot of time doing entrepreneurial business development things on the side too.
Joanna: Why I wanted to talk to you, obviously, is about gaming. That's what we're going to talk about today. It's funny. There's a couple of really basic questions I wanted to talk about first. So, many authors are gamers and I know many of the listeners will be gamers, but there will be people who also are not gamers. And in fact, I hear many authors talk about gaming as a sort of competition for attention, and kind of scared of gaming and how it takes people away from reading. And children shouldn't be gaming, and all that type of thing.
What's your opinion of how gaming and reading and books fit together in a sort of milieu?
Nathan: Yeah, it's interesting because I think they're very different, but they all kind of connect in different ways. As far as the time thing, games can be very time consuming. We're now in the digital age where we're always buried in our cell phones or we've got Kindle books up or we're reading or we're playing games or watching movies or there's streaming internet television now.
So, there's so many different things that can take our time and attention, and gaming is a really interesting way to interact with stories and characters and worlds, these fictional worlds that people build. You can't get that in the same way from reading a book, but I also think there's things that you can get from reading a book that you just can't get from playing a game. Especially as the game industry is sort of evolving and the games are becoming more elaborate, more visual, there's a lot of opportunities, I think, for more story telling to happen.
Some of the characters in the games of today can be a little bit one dimensional and maybe some of the people that are making them aren't always writer focused or story driven focused, they're coming from a design perspective and a technical standpoint. But there's some cool opportunities to bridge that gap with more enriched narrative, deeper characters. I think in the future there's a lot of opportunities for games and books to merge in a way that benefits creative people, on both sides of the fence, really.
So, whether you're a fiction writer or looking to consider expanding into getting characters into a game or creates a project that is game like alongside your series. Maybe you're a game developer that wants to do more story driven content.
I think it's really some interesting parallels between the games industry and the self publishing and writing industry, and I think there's some really cool ways that it's going to merge, in a positive way I think for writers and people. So, it can be time consuming, you can spend 80 hours playing a game, but I think some people like to disconnect and not be plugged in and constantly wired in, so having the ability to sit and read a book, or even if it's on a Kindle, kind of detach and be mobile and read. I spend a lot of time reading and I am a nerdy gamer person.
Joanna: That's really what I wanted to know.
You read, you game, you're a writer. From a psychological perspective, when do you want to game and what does that give you emotionally or psychologically? Then when do you want to read? Can you break it down like that?
Nathan: Well, for me, I'm a little bit different because I take pleasure out of writing and working and creating things, so a lot of my free time is spent writing books or working on game projects. So, I have less time now to actually play games just for fun, and I'm spending more time building them and writing about them.
I think there are times where I just need to turn my work creative brain off and just experience and be sort of immersed in a world, an interactive space. And not feel like I have to be thinking, “Okay, well, I've got to work on this and let me polish that and let me put this out.” It can be overwhelming when you're doing a lot of different things like that. That's how my brain works.
Sometimes just unplugging from work and actually be able to sit and play a game on my iPad or fire up my Xbox and play, being able to experience that sort of artistic creation that game developers are doing is interesting. It's a different way. So, as far as like my time spent, I don't spend as much time gaming now, but I seek out games that are the kinds of experiences I can't get from watching a movie or reading a book.
Most of the games I gravitate towards are very unusual, they're artistic, they're typically made by smaller indie studios. They're going out of the box in terms of what they're building. These developers will create very unusual, very interesting products that you don't see very often from the bigger AAA games and the more high profile studios. I seek out the quirkier, weird type games that fulfill me on a different level than what I would get in other kinds of content.
Joanna: Can you give us an example? Because all I can think of is first person shooter type games, but I know it's much more nuanced than that.
Nathan: I think a lot of people think that. There's lots of very typical you're playing a game, you're shooting people. Some of the games, I'm trying to think of titles off the top of my head.
Most of the games I enjoy are from small studios because they have that flexibility to be creative and have more control over what they're doing.
Speaking of like games in a narrative sense, there's a game called Portal, which not necessarily an indie project, but it's a game where you're first person gamer exploring, some shooting, some times you're solving puzzles in a space. You're kind of progressing through this infrastructure of this building.
But what makes the game interesting beyond the puzzles is that there's this sort of dark narrative that's happening along all the while, where there's this artificial robotic AI that is talking to you over the intercom. It starts off very matter of fact, but as you play there's a personality that starts to develop from this robotic character that's talking to you. You don't see it for a very long time, and it gets very passive aggressive, and it's almost like this dark humor that sort of creeps in.
For me, that makes that game so much more interesting. It's maybe a game you could play in a couple hours, and it's very popular, there's a sequel that came out. But that kind of interaction, where you don't know what you're getting when you go in. You start playing and it unravels into this dark, warped, interesting experience. That's a good example of a kind of game that makes me want to play more games and make that time for that.
Joanna: It's so interesting, because when you think about a book, when someone reads a book, the book is done, there isn't an interaction. You are consuming what the author has written, similarly with TV and film. But is the big difference with gaming, what you choose, so you are acting on the environment and then things happen because of the choices you make.
Is it more empowering to play a game?
Nathan: It's very cause and effect for sure. When you're developing a game, the idea is. . .There's a lot of these if this happens, then that happens. So, there's this cause and effect you're creating, and you're making these branching options that people can explore as a player.
And from a player standpoint, not knowing exactly how things are going to. . .Having that control with this fictional world in a way that you can cause this to happen or progress the story this way, there's all these branching paths.
I think that's sort of what makes game design, and game play as a player perspective, interesting because there's not necessarily a finite A to B to C to D experience. There's these branching paths that you can explore. Even though a lot of games take you on a very linear track, there's a lot of opportunities to experience different kind of things depending on your personality as a player, how you like to play.
There's the other option of this idea of unlockables and achievements, you're making progress towards something. I think that's very interesting in a way that makes you want to come back and keep playing a game beyond just experiencing it from a start to finish story type perspective.
Joanna: I find that so interesting, because that's kind of how we write a story. If this happens to this character then we'll behave that way. It doesn't sound like that much difference, except you have to have a whole load of options. You can't write one way through you have to write multiple ways through. Which to me, sounds like more creative.
Gaming companies employ writers, but what do they actually do there? You mentioned design aspects. How does a gaming company or a small indie company work in that way with creators?
Nathan: I don't have as much hands on experience from a writer, usually what I'm writing about is about games instead of for them. More recently I've been branching off and doing that with my own indie studio.
Developers will work on a game and features and game play, but something that can really inform that is the story, and the characters. I think in general a lot of the work that a writer could do for a game can form how the rest of the game can play out, in terms of how it's designed and built.
I've heard of writers developing these, like, bibles for a game, where it's this entire world and back story that never gets seen by the players, but it sets up the team to get their head in the game as far as how this is going to play out from a designer' perspective.
So, maybe there's elements that you don't even know about that inform how the characters are developed or how the story and the game world, where the game takes place, is created. So, I think on one level you're doing some of that to an extent with some projects.
On another level you're doing character development and dialog, creating dialog and branching trees. That's the big difference between straight fiction and game development is you have these branching paths. Someone has to write all these different things and scenarios that could play out. While it's interesting to do it from a game design perspective, I think the games are going to be more interesting when you have someone who has skill to write the story and characters.
Sometimes you'll see games that have a very one dimensional character and it's just big meathead guy with a gun, like pew, pew, pew, right? That's fun on a certain level, but the characters that are deeper than that, that show the kind of stuff you would see in a more elaborate evolved fictional universe, where there's emotion and feeling and narrative and conflict. The things that make a story interesting. Those are the kind of things that need to be injected into a game to make that click for a lot of people.
Some people just want a casual experience where they're just running around shooting things, but a lot of people that want more for their games, especially people that are into the different kinds of games that are not traditional shooter or whatever. They benefit and they look for games that have that.
So, at a writer perspective you're going to do be doing a lot of, depending on the project you're working on, a lot of character development, a lot of story, narrative, branching paths and then world building in general. That can also inform the design of the other aspects of the game.
Joanna: It's so interesting and also to me it sounds so obvious for people to want to get into. If one had a series of books that one might want to have developed into a game or work with gamers.
How can authors can get their books or their stories to gaming companies? Are there agents specifically for gaming? How does that work?
Nathan: Yeah, it's a little bit tricky because there's some different ways. . .I think, the way that a lot of writers interact with the game companies is on a freelancer basis, as a contract worker. If you are an author who is familiar with freelancing and do freelancing already, that sets you up to be in a good position to make that shift.
Often times I would even just recommend reaching out to companies to see maybe they have projects in the pipeline where you could connect. I think a lot of the big companies would need writers. Even smaller studios can benefit from having writers. The industry, there's oftentimes a lot of people on board to create the stuff themselves, but there's opportunities there to kind of become part of a team or on a contract basis, contribute. I think one of the best ways to probably start doing that is to think of it as a freelance contract type work and reach out to studios.
If you have gaming experience that's great. If you don't you might want to spend some time kind of thinking about that and getting familiar with games and the narratives and how things work. That kind of sets you up to reach out and make those connections.
Oftentimes, I think, if you can connect with the right people, the right studios that are interested in those types of things, building a world and building a game that's more evolved story wise and character wise, it wouldn't be hard to pitch, say you've got a series of books. If you just wanted to get involved in their project level, getting those first couple project under your belt before you try to do your own thing. That might be a better idea.
From an indie game development perspective, you can do it on your own and get started. This is where you have to learn some new skill sets potentially or find a small creative team that has the interest in working with a writer. You could either pitch your world, like I've got this series and check out my books, and they can see that you have quality writing that might endear them to saying, “Oh this is great, let's see what we can do to build a project around this.” Or you can get involved and create a project with them as a thing.
Joanna: It's about relationships.
Nathan: It is. You have to kind of build those relationships. It would probably be easier to get involved with a smaller indie studio team. If you're thinking on a creative standpoint that might be the best way to go. There might not be a lot of income initially in that approach, but if you already have books and you want to branch out and explore that, you have to get that ball rolling.
Joanna: I think it's the same as film and TV and everything. Relationships make such a difference. Before we get into the collaboration side, you talked about indie studios and stuff.
Is it like publishing, as in you've got the mega, mega Sony and stuff and then you've got indie studios. Is it the same as the publishing industry in that way?
Nathan: There's so many interesting parallels between creating games and publishing games and the industry, and creating self-published books and traditional published books.
From a game development standpoint, it's a little bit more integrated. There's indie studios, which are essentially small teams, oftentimes small teams, of a couple people or one person creating games.
There's an opportunity to self-publish through different channels. Steam is a big one for on PC, and there's a process to get on to that. Also, there's App Store for iOS, for your iPhone and whatnot. Those are a little bit more independent friendly. So, you can get on those without having to go through too many different gate keepers.
If you want to create games for the Xbox or Nintendo Wii or Sony, there's a little bit more of an involved process. We've been going through that with some of our own teams. When you do make that connection with those bigger companies, oftentimes they have a sort of self-publishing option. So, they might say we want to take you under our wing and produce your game and whatnot, but most times they're saying we're going to allow you to produce on our platform and we're going to let you do your own thing, but we want to just approve it before it comes on.
I don't have the specifics of the cut and everything in terms of money wise. You can sort of think of it Amazon KDP where you've got their providing the audience and the service and the platform, you're providing the content, they take a chunk of it. That's very similar in how it works, I think for a lot of places.
There's also avenues to do a completely DIY, completely do it yourself and experiment in that way.
Joanna: And customers also don't care where their games come from, as in most readers don't even know who published a book. Is it the same, or do people tend to a specific platform?
Nathan: I think because there's so many different platforms, there's a lot of options. Some people will only buy a PC game if it's on Steam, so there's a little bit of that. I think a lot of people when they're looking for a certain kind of experience or they're intrigued by a particular game, they will throw down some money for it and get it wherever they can.
Sometimes they will buy it in multiple places because they want it in a certain format. There's a couple games. . .Minecraft is a good example, where it's a building game and a sort of blocky world. It's very popular and it was an indie project. I own that game on like five or six different devices, because I got it on one device and oh I can play it on my mobile phone now or oh I can play it in here. People will be dedicated enough to search out the content they want and then pay additional to be able to experience in the way a la carte that they want to do it. It's very similar in that way with self-publishing too.
Joanna: On pricing, you mentioned these $0.99 apps, have they affected the pricing of products in the same way that Amazon has kind of changed pricing of books?
Nathan: Yeah, it's been a little bit disruptive in some interesting ways. The App Store has mirrored Amazon a little bit in that there's a certain amount that people are expecting to pay on the App Store. So, if you start charging $4 or $5 or $6 people are a little bit less inclined to do that, even though there are studios that are doing that and they're finding success.
Now there's this whole freemium thing, where you get the game for free but then they throw on these layers of microtransactions that you may or may not want to get. A lot of people like that. A lot of people don't like that. It's sort of polarizing. It's definitely disrupting the industry in an interesting way.
So it's creating different approaches people have to follow to find success from that particular platform. But people still will spend money on different platforms, different formats. The platform sort of dictates what the pricing scale tends to be. So, what is the average or norm for PC versus Playstation game versus whatever.
Joanna: Minecraft is interesting, obviously, because I think the top books last year were actually Minecraft books. It's actually crossed the other way, right?
Is it common to cross into books from gaming?
Nathan: A little bit, there's definitely a whole series of different books that tie into the games industry. A big self-publishing section of the game world, where there's tutorials on how to program and code.
One thing I was noticing that in the games category in Amazon, it's dominated by Minecraft books, and a lot of them are written by younger folks, I want to say, that are like children's stories. They're these sort of fan fiction stories built in the Minecraft universe. It's just wild. I was looking at that and it's like there's so many books. There's a whole niche of just Minecraft books.
I think because the game got so popular that all the kids and everywhere talking about it. At a certain age, at a certain grade area that I remember hearing from friends who had kids that were just like, “All my kid can talk about is Minecraft.” So they found a demand, and kids want to learn more about Minecraft. They want tips, they want this and that, they want to have stories built around the characters. So, people started writing books and it's become this weird niche. I thought about delving into that myself, but I thought, “No that's not where I quite want to be writing.”
Joanna: From what I've seen, and I've only seen my young nieces and nephews playing it, you know the kids, and they're amazing, they're like 8, 9, 12 years old, but they just love it.
And Minecraft is very creative, isn't it?
Nathan: It's a very big sandbox kind of world. Where you can just explore and do whatever you feel like.
Joanna: So, actually it's completely different to what a lot of older folks, you know I'm 40, what we think of gaming. Actually Minecraft is more of a creative exploration type of thing.
I think changing the opinion of games is really important. Has there been a shift, do you think?
Nathan: I think so. Gaming has sort of gone from being you're a hard core gamer to a more broader type audience.
There's definitely different types of folks that are finding. . .Like my wife played games when she was a kid and then stopped playing a long time ago, and she's gotten back into them. She's plays almost entirely on the iPad. She'll play like these crazy games. I'll look over her shoulder and say, “What are you doing?” and I'm like, “Woah that's cool you're building a farm then you're building whatever, farming vegetables and creating pies and whatnot.” I mean there not all farming games, she plays some other stuff too.
It's just interesting to see how different kinds of games can connect with different types of players. There's such a broader range of experiences now that you find the type of game or the type of focus that you like to play.
Joanna: I think you mentioned that, my husband does the Clash of Clans thing, and he does it entirely free, the free version and he's kind of proud of doing it for free. But he's been doing it for ages, and everyday there's like you login and do a little bit of something moving things around. I'm just like, “This is addictive,” and I look at this and I'm like…
“How can we make our books as addictive as these games?” That's a totally difficult question. Would you like to answer that?
Nathan: It is. Oh gosh, I don't know. There is sort of, sorry I want to jump the gun this is something I want to talk about a little bit, there are ways to build these intersections. Interactive fiction being one way. You can make your book, that's more of a book like experience, and kind of tie it into games in a way.
I remember in the previous episode you mentioned ARGs, alternative reality games. The opportunity to create kind of secret games and to puzzles within your books. Choose your own adventures of the days past. Where it's like you're reading a book then “Do you want to do this, go to page 37,” then you go to page 37 and it's like “You've died, go back to the beginning.” So there's different options to weave unique puzzle, game like elements into your books. Which I think a lot of people probably don't think about when they're doing it. That might be one way to do it. I don't know that's a really tough question.
Joanna: And of course, if we knew that we'd all be making bazillions of pounds. Tell us about that.
You're actually doing this aren't you? Is it on Twine? Nobody will have heard of that, so tell us about that.
Nathan: Yeah, Twine is a really interesting thing. It's a free program that you can download. And what it lets you do is create, essentially, choose-your-own-adventure style books, or virtual digital books.
So, if you think of choose-your-own-adventures, where you're flipping from different options, there's a story happening that you can click this to see what happens next, and there's branching paths. This tool is entirely free, and it lets you create interactive fiction in a really natural way. It creates it in sort of a game like form, that's based on HTML.
The final product of the game, well you can make a version that's specifically on PCs, it's creates an HTML website that you can actually upload and then have people play. The way that you build these stories in this game is, there's little cards. If you're actually outlining and using index cards it's very similar to that. You can sit down and you can design little cards called passages and you create little bits of text. Then you can actually create little bits of code in HTML, say if someone clicks this they'll go to the next card or go to a different card, or different things happen.
On the very basic level, there's not a lot of coding involved. You can do it very intuitively. But if you want to take things a step further, if you know HTML, if you know CSS, cascading style sheets, a little bit more of like web design type stuff, you can really take things to a different level, where it becomes more of a game.
You can use variables and functions and nerdy stuff, that probably most folks listening aren't super familiar with, to create things. Like, if a player has a specific item and they click on this passage something different will happen, maybe they can use that item.
I'm sort of using Twine as an experiment that I'm working, that sort of combines game development and self publishing and interactive fiction in this weird experiment that I'm trying. I'm creating a book called This Book is a Dungeon. Where, essentially it's a game that can be launched into a Kindle book. You'll buy the book on Kindle and then at the end of the book there will be a link to get the game to play the game for free.
The idea is to try to use Kindle as a platform to provide a gaming experience that's also familiar in that it's a story. But the book itself is also a product separate from that. That's a vehicle for the game, but I'm also creating a diary of the entire process, the game design, the ideas I'm coming up with, the challenges I'm running through day to day as I'm working on building this game, and also focusing on the self publishing experiment side of it. So I'm writing about how this applies to fiction writers. So it's sort of a weird project. I'm using Twine, I'm creating a book, and I'm creating an experiment all rolled into one thing, to see what happens.
Joanna: No, it sounds awesome.
The thing that you're doing to document to the process, will that also be another book, because the audience would be slightly different, or is that more like you're doing your web posts or something?
Nathan: Potentially, right now, the game will be sold within the book, and the book is sort of an add on. In buying the book you get the entire diary of the entire process. So, people, if they don't care about the game, might be interested in just reading the book and seeing what happens, and they can click the game, or they can play the game first then read the book, or not.
The whole part of launching on Kindle, is just an experiment to see what happens. Will someone buy a game on Kindle? I don't think a lot of people have tried that. It's an experiment to see if that's doable. And I'm also creating a book so people will want to read the book, it's more than just a game on Kindle. There's a whole thing to it.
It's interesting because I don't think people sell their Twine games very often. Usually they'll just put them up for free on their website, but some folks do. I think this is an experiment to see, is Kindle an option to do that. Also, a self-publishing type experiment to see, pushing the envelope, and seeing what could happen. I love experiments, so this is sort of a weird one.
Joanna: That's awesome. So, let's talk about your indie game design company Touch Fight Games, which is lovely. Can you talk about. . .Because one of the biggest things that I am trying to learn at the moment, as in I have started to learn it and I need to learn it more, is collaboration. So, doing projects together, because so much of the time as indies we do stuff alone, but I am learning more and more that two heads don't just equal two, you can equal more than two, or more than that.
How do you collaborate with your other people, and how do you pick collaborative partners?
Nathan: That's a good question. With Touch Fight Games, there's three people in the studio, and there's two local brothers that I made friends with a couple years ago when I moved to this area where I'm in. And they were kindred spirits, just into the same kind of stuff, similar humor, familiar with games, familiar with. . .they're artists and musicians.
Our lead artist is actually a fiction writer, he writes kids books right now, and he actually just got a publishing deal which is really exciting. So we're all sort of these creative spirits, and finding people that share your passions and interests, on a creative level, is really important, when you're build a team to do something or collaborate, whether it's a game or a book or some other type of project.
We quickly became friends, and knew we should do something together, and the idea for doing a game came up, and we're like “Woah, this is great let's do it.” Then that spun into doing multiple games, and creating a company, and all of that. Picking your partners is really important, because if you do that with someone who's not going to click with you creatively or someone who maybe doesn't work the same way. You have to find that cohesion that makes it work, because that can cause problems down the road.
Then in terms of actual collaborating, it's a very fluid process, where finding the right people that you can work with that you can take and give critical feedback to in a way that doesn't hurt feelings. You sort of build that understanding of, “I'm going to tell you if this sucks, because I want to push you to do better and vice versa,” or “Let's try this idea instead of that,” or “Let's reign everything in and not get too. . .”
It's very easy to go off the deep end with these projects, like let's add this and add that, and do this. Then suddenly you're working on a game that takes a couple months, and it ends up being a five year project that in the end no one wants to buy, because it's too crazy or too whatever.
Building those creative relationships is important, and then finding a way to work together as a team, so that you can complement each others abilities, I think finding people who are complementary to your own skill sets, that maybe bridge the gap and can do things that you can't, but also have similar knowledge of what you can do. That's really important as a team.
We all have our own skill sets that are specific to different roles we play, but we also do things together as a team, and all have overlapping skills that help round out the team. That's really useful if you're doing any kind of project, to have someone that can complete you creatively and do things like that.
Joanna: No, it's something I'm really interested in. You said that, and I find this quite the same, there's so many parallels and you come up with an idea and then what if you waste five months on it and people don't want to but it.
How do you decide on the game ideas to build?
Nathan: It's tough, because being a self-publisher and a game developer I have my sights in both worlds, so it makes it easier for me to use the skills I would use in self-publishing and apply that to games.
Oftentimes, there's a bit of marketing research involved, like what's happening in the industry? What games are doing well?
From a game development standpoint, for me it's more of a creative thing. We run it as a business and we want to make money from it, but I don't want to be making games that I'm not interested in making. Just like you wouldn't want to be writing books that you're not really interested in. You don't write a book if you're not into the topic.
You have to do a little bit of that initial exploring, we come up with a prototype, then we check it out and say, “This is interesting, what can we do with this?” and “Is there market for it?” Maybe, maybe not. “Has it been done too many times? Is there a unique spin we can put on it to make it different?”
That's a big problem in the games industry is there's so many games out now, just like there's so many Kindle books on Amazon, that it's easy to find things that are too similar, and get lost in the overall wash of everything that's happening in the industry. You have to find those elements that make your project unique, your book, your game, whatever. That's a big part of our process is, “Hey this is a great idea to do game X” and then think about it and say “Oh that's been done a million times how can we make it different?” or do it in a different way, or put our unique, creative spin on it. That's really important, I think, for what we do, and I think, whether you're an author or a developer, that's something to think about researching, weighing out things, seeing how you can stand out and be a unique voice or unique creative, compared to what's out there already.
Joanna: And then are you guys taking that forward once you have a product? What have you learned about marketing games that authors might find useful?
Nathan: This is something, that in my self-publishing world, I don't pay a dollar for marketing. I do all of my own marketing, very DIY focused, so I will put in the hustle to reach out to people to get contacts and do social work, social media and whatnot. A lot of that applies to the games industry.
Being a writer in the freelancing industry I know a lot of contacts at different publications, that does help a little bit. I'll create a launch plan for a game when we have it. The same way I do for a book, I'll make lists of who to reach out to, what are ways we can promote this, what's our unique spin, our angle on this game that we can sell it.
Because you want to make people interested not just playing with it, but you want the press to want to write about your project, and you want players to be interested in it, too. So there's that whole battle planning perspective that happens with both books and games. I apply a lot of my self-publishing experience and experiments to see how things work, and I use that for the game development side of things, too.
Joanna: Yeah, that's super interesting. I really feel like now going into narrative development with games and actually understanding that. Because I think one of the problems with telling stories as an author, you often tend to pick just one way of twisting a story. Whereas, I think gamers must think about lots of ways, and that's something that we can definitely learn from. We had the virtual reality discussion a few shows ago I think by the time this comes out, but…
What do you think is the future? What are we looking at in the next couple of years of gaming, and what are you excited about?
Nathan: Man, that's a big question. I think virtual reality is something I'm really, I'm a little bit skeptical of it, but I'm also interested in it, too, at the same time. I think we have a ways to go before the technology is quite, before I mentioned about the holodeck, that's sort of like the ultimate dream of being able to walk in a room and experience.
Joanna: Of geeks everywhere.
Nathan: We've got a ways to go before we get to that point. I am curious to see, because there's a lot of smaller studios and indie developers latching on to VR as like a focus. Which is really cool to see, because you've got these big companies building the hardware and whatnot.
But I almost think that the indie development scene is going to be what drives these initial experiences. Which is good for gamers, and people will want to play VR because they're going to be more unique and unusual experiences. There's a game I was watching a video of, a small studio, and it's a two player game where just one person wears the VR goggles and they have to diffuse a bomb. So there's a bomb and it's a first person experience where they're kind of tinkering and moving the bomb around to see the wires and everything, but they only way they know how to diffuse it is with the second person, who's not seeing the screen or anything, who has to read from a manual. The game comes with a giant binder of all these different instructions. They're like “Okay well what's the code, the wire X, what's the number on this screen?” and they're frantically going through trying to decipher what's happening on the game play without seeing it.
Joanna: And it's just counting down?
Nathan: Yeah, the person who's playing is actually telling them, “Okay, this is what's happening,” and they're trying things, “Press this button, then hit this wire, then hit this code on here,” and if you fail, you blow up. It's a very unusual, hilarious thing to watch.
So, that's the kind of example of things that could happen with the VR world. It might be really fun, and you might not be able to get from another kind of gaming experience. It's exciting to see what people can do with that, and what they will do with that. I think indie developers will be leading the charge, because I know of a lot of studios that are working on projects that are specific to VR. I think they see it as an emerging market that will be a great opportunity to stand out and set themselves apart in, because there's so many games out there that are flooding the traditional channels and traditional approaches to games. Hey let's do something different, and why not?
Joanna: I'd listen to that and go really cool. I would really enjoy that. And that to me, is not what most people would think of as a game.
Joanna: I also like about gamers, it's more about fun. I think authors of novels, especially in some genres, take themselves super seriously and I am so guilty of this I take myself very seriously. And I see that this is, basically people want entertainment. It's one of the first things you said, it's about entertainment. So I'm kind of hoping that there's more crossover around the fun side.
Is fun at heart of what gaming is about?
Nathan: Absolutely, I think it's really about creating experiences that people are just having fun. It's very cliche to say hey this game is fun, and as a game reviewer that's what you don't want to say. You're writing a critique of a game and you're like, “Well, that was fun”, it's very subjective. That is sort of the quest, to find these experiences that are different and fun.
When you do the same kind of thing and read the same kind of book all the time, maybe you get tired and you want something new and exciting. The quest for fun, and different kinds of fun is what makes the game development world exciting in how it's evolving, much like publishing and whatnot.
I think there's so many great opportunities for cross over between games, interactive fiction, and the whole two different worlds colliding. It'll be interesting to see what kinds of things are possible, through VR, through interactive fiction, through writers jumping the fence into game type development and vice versa.
Joanna: I don't have a physical book handy, but to me everyone's been so obsessed for so long about the book as a physical object, that's the important thing. But as we're saying, and what I love doing on this show is talking to people who are taking ideas and turning them into multiple things, or the fact the story doesn't have to be contained within a book looking object, it can be a game. So that imagination.
I mentioned my 12 year old niece playing Minecraft; to me that's what that generation is going to be doing. I was taught with physical books in a library, and they're being taught in this kind of way.
I feel like being older I need to expand my mind more, because I'm behind the ball as such, do you know what I mean?
Nathan: I feel like that too. I feel like I'm getting older, and being in the industry for a long time you get sort of jaded, and you've experienced all these things that you're just like all right well, so when something really new comes it's like oh that's interesting. But it's interesting to see how fast things are changing, both for publishing and game development, and the entertainment industries. It's an exciting world, and who knows what will happen in 10, 15, 20 years down the line.
Joanna: I hope it will be two years or five years.
Nathan: Yeah, right.
Joanna: I'm pretty impatient. I'm super impatient. I want to go to CES, that's one of my. . .it's in Vegas, right, it's in Vegas every year?
Joanna: And it's a big tech show basically, isn't it, for people who might not know.
Joanna: So, one of my goals is to go to CES, and take my husband, because he'll really appreciate that. He is a gamer.
CES is where you get all the cutting edge technology isn't it? Where you can see all the latest stuff.
Nathan: Yea, that's the big tech show. There's other ones, but that's sort of the biggest one. I think you'd probably have a blast. I haven't been personally, I've been to other different kinds of trade conventions. But that one is very much technology, and it covers the whole spectrum of entertainment. So, it's not just games, it's all kinds of weird stuff.
Joanna: I'm such a geek as well. So you're also an indie author as you mentioned, and you put out a few short books to help people with self-publishing. Obviously, this is more of an advanced show.
Is there anything that you've learned recently with your own experience that might be useful to the listeners?
Nathan: Yeah, I think one thing that changed my whole perspective on publishing was taking a shorter approach.
My first book was a really long how to guide on writing in the games industry. It was like 60,000, 70,000 words for a nonfiction book, that about traditional published length or so, but I wish I had thought to break it down into smaller bits and make it a series. Because writing for books you can get a lot more done in a short period of time.
I'm launching a book almost every other month this year, which is a little bit crazy. But what I'm doing is, I've built out several series. Most of the books I'm writing, because on Kindle you can only charge a couple bucks, really. Providing, because I'm mostly a nonfiction writer, it's all about writing value, and having a good takeaway for readers so they feel like they're getting their money's worth. You can do that in 10,000 to 20,000 words.
So most of my books since I've had this shift, have been within that range. And writing shorter books, I'm able to experiment more, and be a little bit more risky with what I. . .I wrote a book and it maybe takes me a month to write and a couple months to work on, and polish, and edit. You can work so much faster that way, and kind of pivot, and go in different directions.
So writing shorter books I think, if you're doing nonfiction, or fiction actually you can do serials, which is really cool, I like that. The guys at The Self-Publishing Podcast, they are champions of that and have really been choosing how they've gone with that. You're doing serials, doing series if you write nonfiction books, writing multiple books in a series and linking them together. That's all really useful stuff, that's what I've been building my self-publishing world on, this past couple years since I've started.
Where can people find you, and your books and everything online?
Nathan: Sure. If people want to check out the Twine project I was talking about, with the book game hybrid, I actually setup a pre-order page if they want to check that out. They can go to thisbookisadungeon.com and that's the page that tells you more about the project.
Joanna: This is not erotica, is it?
Nathan: That's sort of the newest project thing I'm working on. If you're interested in my self-publishing how to books, I have a manifesto called Write Short Kindle Books, and a couple of other things in the works, and you can find all those at www.indieauthorsuccess.com. I'm on Twitter you can find me at @NMeunier, M-E-U-N-I-E-R, and I love to connect with writers. I love to help folks out, share advice, chit-chat. I'm a nerd for the shop talk when it comes to writing. So definitely, please, get in touch if you want to know more about game stuff, or writing or whatever. I'm generally pretty friendly. I like to chit-chat with folks. That's where you can find me, mostly book related wise.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time Nathan, that was great.
Nathan: Thank you so much for having me on. It's been really fun. I love the podcast, it's really an honor to be able to talk with you today.
Joanna: All right, have a great day.
Nathan: Take care.
James Thoenes says
When I think of games, I think of the million dollar productions that take years (Half-Life 2). I like the idea of indie gaming that Nathan talks about. I’ll be taking a look at his Twine book and Twine itself.
I do think a good book can be just as addictive as a game. Also, making your book addictive might be the goal to aim at.
Joanna Penn says
Especially with the new KDP Select page views – people are going to need to invest in making people turn the pages to read more 🙂
thomas greanias says
This is a great intro to gaming for writers, Joanna, and there’s a lot more to gaming you can still mine.
As someone involved with the launch of Google’s Ingress augmented reality game, which features characters from my novels, and who launched Google’s first ever line of fiction in association with it, I’d be happy to share insights on a follow-up podcast if you’d
Currently there are 10 million players around the world playing Ingress, and growing. But more than the numbers, it’s the intense ENGAGEMENT that Nathan alluded to that really counts and in essence is what great fiction in narrative prose is really all about.
And that’s something we can all aspire to, with or without an associated game.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks so much Thomas, I’m not taking submissions for the show at the moment, but I will certainly consider coming back to gaming. It’s fascinating!
Henry Hyde says
Video games are addictive because you end up failing repeatedly and have to try over and over again, against opposition, to reach the next level. It’s the thrill of possible failure and overcoming it from a first-person perspective that produces an adrenaline rush. This is as true with boardgames and tabletop games (I’m a wargamer) as it is with video games, although the experience is more intense with computer gaming and the experience is usually more immersive.
I was hooked on World of Warcraft and Medal of Honor for some time several years ago, until I realised how grossly unhealthy the experience was. I also began to suffer from dreadful mood swings and grew to understand that the experience was certainly addictive – but not in a good way, so I stopped, I’ve never gone back and, just like when I quit smoking, I’ve never regretted it for a second.
I’m still a wargamer, but with miniatures. The experience is immersive, but in a more rounded way, as it includes many aspects such as background reading and research, collecting, painting, making scenery for the games and a ‘live’ gaming opponent with whom one uses proper social skills to interact. The pace is also usually somewhat more leisurely, though the intensity of competition is still there and the thrill of gaming using dice and chance. I’m putting as much in to the experience as I’m getting out of it – it’s a truly creative process.
Do I want what I read to be addictive in the way that gaming is? Not exactly, no. But great work *is* addictive if it has great characters embroiled in a great plot. I happen to like fantasy literature and historical fiction, and what keeps the fans addicted to trilogies and multiple stories is the creation of unputdownable plot and people we can believe in, feeling *as if we were there*. Writers like Bernard Cornwell, J K Rowling and George R R Martin, amongst others, already have the skill to do this. They make us love the characters, believe in the situations (however fantastical) and invest in them, so that when they reappear in a new adventure, we want to accompany them on that journey.
That’s as much addiction as I need, for sure!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for the considered comment, Henry. I can envision you with the miniature wargames. I must say I fancy painting some of those mini figures 🙂