Forget Movies – Games Now Have Far More in Common with Books

Video games industry analysts are fond of comparing the games industry with film: both are splashy, highly visual and visceral, both cost a lot to create/market/distribute, and both compete for people’s entertainment dollars and time. When news hit a few years ago that the video game industry had overtaken the film industry in revenues, we gleefully paraded that news through the streets like we had an ousted dictator’s head on a stick. But with digital distribution and a temporary disruption in the games publishing ecosystem, business has changed dramatically. Those looking to get ahead would be far better served to study publishing, rather than film, to inform a sound strategy.

Let’s look … in a bookOH GOD WHY IS HE READING THAT?

A Year on Your Rear

With a staunch amount of dedication and a very comfy couch, you can conceivably watch an entire year’s film output. Wikipedia lists the major film releases of 2012 at about two hundred and sixty flicks. Games are a different story. As of Q4 2012, there were over twelve thousand games in the Apple App Store alone. Divide that by the three years the store had existed, and that’s a rate of about four thousand games released per year (although, to be fair, annual App Store growth is not so evenly distributed). Movies may average two hours, but how long does a game take to play? AAA titles can run anywhere from twenty to one hundred hours, and many mobile titles are designed for endless play. If Joe Average Canadian were to spend his 5.5 daily leisure hours exclusively playing iOS games for the entire year, he could only spend half an hour on each one.

And tell me: who could spend only half an hour on Trucker Parking 3D?

That’s four thousand games accounted for, but the iOS App Store is only one unique marketplace of many; add to that the yearly throughput of Steam, Android, the three home consoles and the wider PC market, and i wouldn’t be surprised if the total number of games in existence after these forty years outnumbered the total number of films released in the past century. While Joe Average Canadian could watch all the movies released in a year, he could never, ever play all the games.

(but not for lack of trying)

Getting Lit

Joe Average Canadian would have even more trouble finding the time to read all of the books released in a year. Wikipedia claims that the total number of books released in a single year in the United States alone is 328,259! Books are priced similarly to games, with big-ticket bestselling hardcover tomes coming in at $40-50, down to cheapie legacy or fan fiction one-offs being digitally distributed for a buck. Books require a similar time commitment as games; the the amount of time i spent playing Skyrim is probably on par with the time i spent trying to muscle through George R. R. Martin’s Game of Holy Shit – 924 Pages??. And owing to mobile devices, games have been freed from their specialized locations; just as film escaped theatres to living rooms, so too did games escape arcades to those same living rooms, and now travel with us everywhere in our pockets. We’ve long been able to enjoy a book under a tree in some isolated meadow, and now we can enjoy video games in the same setting.

Uh … yes. An isolated meadow. (shifty eyes)

Lately, i’ve been freaked out about the overwhelming number of games that have been flooding the marketplace. The Internet, which brought digital distribution, has been our printing press. Fairly newbie-friendly development tools like Flash, GameMaker and Unity are our desktop publishing. Open stores like XBLiG, the iOS App Store and the Android Marketplace are our print-on-demand.

Episodic Nancy Drew games are our episodic Nancy Drew novels.


Teeth clenched and hair turning rapidly white from stress, i’ve been repeating the mantra “nobody needs another video game”. And frankly, they don’t. We have enough video games to keep us busy for a good long time. The inevitable response to my Chicken Littling has been to say “well the world doesn’t need another movie, and people keep making and watching movies”. But that’s not the best comparison. For a true understanding of what’s happening with games, we need to look at books. At an output of over a quarter of a million new books a year from the US, people really don’t need another book. But we still buy books.

The reason why you buy one book, and read an Amazon review summary of another, is likely the same reason why you play one game, and watch a YouTube Let’s Play video of another. Figuring out that reason could be one secret to increased success selling games.

Any indie game developer, then, would be well-served to closely study how the book publishing industry functions if he wants to make a go of things. What role do publishers play? Some may give authors advances against royalties (our version of project-level development funding), but i assume that many more book publishers serve as marketing machines, ensuring that book stores and marketplaces stock your title, and that your title gets seen above all others.

How do book stores help customers find what they’re looking for, amidst a fresh dumping of 328,259 new titles a year? Market intelligence on book stores states that the vast number of customers browsing through a physical store don’t know what they’re looking for. A book store’s shelf layouts, end aisles promotions, search kiosks and friendly staff serve to ensure customers leave happy, with interesting products in-hand.

Book store staff went from selling content, to selling e-readers that can read content. Perhaps the role of an Apple Store staffer will transition from selling content readers like iPhones and iPads, to selling content like apps and games.

Games may look like movies, but they act like books. And increasingly, the games industry more closely resembles book publishing than it does the film industry. What lessons can we learn from books, with their dramatically more dire supply and demand problem, that we can apply to our own industry?

Don’t ask me. i’m only a game developer.

6 thoughts on “Forget Movies – Games Now Have Far More in Common with Books

  1. Jake

    What fascinates me about books is that they somehow, overall, remain profitable. I don’t just mean in the age of more bombastic entertainment or free reading materials available instantly through the World Wide Web. I mean, yes, that’s incredible, but libraries, man. Libraries. The public library has existed for, what? Thousands of years? And I know the Library of Alexandria or whatever was nothing compared to libraries in an era with cheap and efficient printing and widespread literacy and the Dewey decimal system, but still. For as long as everybody on Earth today has been alive, books have been available for free, and books are profitable. That boggles the mind.

    I don’t know much about book publishing, but the vast majority of books have to lose money, right? Publishers are profitable, but almost any given book lost money, right? If you look at the tripe that makes it to shelves – like, publishers must be good at pricing and projections, but they can’t be that good. No way. Most of these books can’t make a profit. Just like most games don’t make a profit, but GAMES, in aggregate, make money.

    So what keeps the machine in motion? Is it just such a personal goal, such a prestigious accomplishment, to get published that people will dig into their own pockets to make it happen, regardless of profitability, or possibly supported by the delusional belief that they can really make it?

    And while you’re right that fewer features get wide releases, I don’t think it’s right to disregard other forms of video. Just as you have disc-based games and iOS games and browser-based Flash games, you have cinematic features and TV shows and YouTube videos and 30-second commercial spots all being produced and published by people who have something to say or love the process of working in their medium or theink their the ones who are gonna make the big bucks.

    I’m rambling and drawing my sentences out longer than any sentence should be drawn, but I think, yeah, it’s a mistake to broadly say games are like movies, but any form of entertainment/art/media is comparable to any other. I sometimes consume games in the same way I consume books, just as I sometimes consume games as I do songs or full albums or movies or YouTube videos. Games really are splintering into all these different things, and if developers and publishers don’t acknowledge that, they’re going to make their jobs much more difficult.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      They’ve been free, but inconvenient. And they’ve had other peoples’ smells and fingerprints on them. Their use has been time-limited. And gross homeless people hang out at the library. Lots of reasons to buy, rather than borrow, if you have the means.

      (anyway, i’m not convinced public libraries are long for this world … )

      1. Jake

        As long as I can peel the pages apart and make out at least 90% of the words through the Chee-tos dust, I’m good.

          1. Andrew Traviss

            Really? Toronto’s libraries are pretty amazing, in my experience. We’ve used the system extensively.

  2. Andrew Traviss

    Indie games are definitely like books, but I think different types of games find better parallels with different types of media. AAA games are not like books, they are like films. There’s relatively few of them, from a small number of large, risk-averse studios and they get released in clusters around particular times of year for a pretty high price relative to their time length.


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