Random House describe Black Crown as their first move into gaming. It is a move that reflects the publisher recognising digital trends and looking for new platforms to share stories on.
According to Wikipedia, Random House had revenues last year of €2.142 billion. That’s about US $2.7 billion and it means a significant new publisher entering the game market somewhere between the computer game and tabletop game space.
Black Crown, written by debut author Rob Sherman, could be described as gamified interactive fiction.
It is a choose your own adventure in the style of Fighting Fantasy in that you’re given a chunk of Sherman’s rich and quirky prose to digest and then a number of options as to what you might do next. Just like the solo adventures of the paperback era you have a number of stats that these decisions influence.
There is no wrong choice, though. A traditional roleplaying born ‘choose your own’ might have you turn to page 13 whenever you fall in a trap and die or fail to roll dice well enough to defeat the plague carrying cultists. Black Crown is different; this is a story first and foremost. It does not finish before the end. There is choice and breadth but not as much as in a tabletop RPG.
The result? I suspect people will react to “immortality” differently. Some will be reassured that there is no risk of having to start again and re-reading chunks of the books. I think others will be disappointed, wonder whether this is much of a game and miss the feeling of danger and reward.
The result for me was that I made the decisions that seemed to hint at the most interesting story. Sometimes this meant steering events and my agent in a way he would not have enjoyed and in ways that if this had been a RPG with victory conditions I would have avoided.
Steering events as the reader in Black Crown is the business model behind Black Crown. The gamified story is free to read online. Some of the most interesting options, though, cost money. In other words, you have to pay to unlock some of the book.
At the launch event at Random House, London, Sherman was asked about this. Is it possible to read the full book without paying?
The pay to unlock options, says Sherman, are best thought you of as world expansions and early hints as to what might become next. The comparison was made to buying extra scenes when you spend that extra amount on a blu-ray boxset. Yes, you can experience full story, one version of it, without paying.
It is an interesting world to explore. Reader-players begin as clerks of the Widsith Institute who use diseases to enhance their abilities as great explorers. The story unfolds as the character begins to find out what happened in an isolated town called Loss, a down that was visited by a mysterious entity known as the Miasma Eremite.
Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Random House Group, described the project;
“Black Crown represents Random House’s ambition to push the boundaries in online storytelling, experiment with new business models and launch a debut author in a groundbreaking way,”
There are certainly some nice touches to the experience. Reader-players can tweet the pages they read. The platform is designed to enable rather than discourage external communities forming around the project.
StoryNexus is still in beta release for most of us. This illustrates just how ahead of the curve Random House are being with Black Crown. It does mean Black Crown is already part of an ecosystem too. StoryNexus is strictly a platform, can be used by anyone for their own interactive stories and those stories have some overlap.
Nex, the currency that Failbetter has already announced will be universal across StoryNexus games, is used by Black Crown. Nex is the unit of money you pay when you decide to unlock and locked story path. It’s a good idea that a single unit is shared between all the gamified stories on the platform because it means if you buy loads of Nex with real money but end up taking a dislike to any particular story that you can still safely spend it to unlock others.
For Black Crown, Random House brought on additional help with additional features for the Miasma being created by the tiny Cambridged based Popleaf.
In some ways Black Crown feels like a gamble. Random House are testing the waters in an emerging market very early on. If they succeed then they’ll help create a category. If they fail, however, they’ll still have discovered Rob Sherman as a new author but may feel a little burnt on the digital frontier.
If Random House, one of the big six publishers, do help develop this new style of interactive story then it’s easy to imagine the attention of many tabletop publishers turning towards StoryNexus and alternatives. After all, plenty of RPG publishers are now dabbling with imprint titles and there is the appetite to do more fiction. The gamified interactive fiction that Black Crown represents could be a new, growing, market for RPG publishers.
Black Crown goes public today. I’ve had the luxury to explore a little way through it already and it’s quite fun. It’s fun in a dystopian, slightly dreamy, slightly nightmareish sort of way.