I am straying off topic with this post into the world of gamebooks. Gamebooks rose to prominence, in the UK at least, in the early 1980s with the Fighting Fantasy series. For a period they enjoyed considerable success, but by the late 1990s had largely vanished. I have for some time wondered why they enjoyed such a brief life.
The consensual view is that they were killed off by video games. The curious implication of this is that gamebooks came to prominence at exactly the same time as the very thing that would cause their end. That seems incredibly unfortunate timing. Gamebooks could in principle have been invented and popularised at almost any time since the beginning of printing. Why did they only become common just before they became obsolete?
The history of gamebooks stretches back many years before the Fighting Fantasy books. There were the Choose Your Own Adventure books (starting with The Cave of Time, 1979), solo Tunnels & Trolls adventures (Buffalo Castle, 1976), and the Tracker series (Mission To Planet L, 1972). In fact, the first gamebooks date back to the late 1960s, when State of Emergency (1969) and Lucky Les (1967) were published.
Lucky Les (1967) by EW Hildick and State of Emergency (1969) by Dennis Guerrier and Joan Richards
Mission To Planet L (1972) by John Allen and Kenneth James, Buffalo Castle (1976) by Rick Loomis and The Cave of Time (1979) by Edward Packard
But, aside from a few early literary experiments, such as Jorge Luis Borges’ El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1942), the earliest application of branching-path books was not in entertainment, but in education. In the late 1950s programmatic learning books emerged, which used branching paths as a training mechanism. The TutorText series pioneered the technique. The interesting thing about the first TutorText book was that its subject was computing (The Arithmetic of Computers, 1958).
The Arithmetic of Computers by Norman A Crowder (1958)
The choice of subject matter points to a reason why gamebooks had not been invented sooner. The programmatic thinking behind them was derived from computing. There may have been no technological obstacles to publishing gamebooks much earlier in history, but there were conceptual obstacles to their creation. The insights required to write a gamebook were the product of the 20th-century revolution in programmatic thought and the birth of computing. The irony is, then, that the very thing that gave birth to gamebooks appears also to have been the thing that killed them off.
But were video games really the cause of gamebooks’ demise? Despite being widely articulated, this view has to my knowledge never been substantiated. It has generally been treated as self-evident. In my opinion it is far from that. There are, in fact, several reasons to doubt that video games killed the gamebook star.
First, analogy with other media suggests some caution in accepting the consensual account. Linear video did not end linear fiction. Books and film have coexisted for over a century. It is not self-evident that gamebooks and video games could not have co-existed in the same way.
Second, if gamebooks were displaced by video games, it should be expected that their sales should show an inverse correlation, but the exact opposite is true. The explosion in the popularity of gamebooks in the 1980s almost exactly coincided with the 8-bit microcomputer boom. Gamebooks competed with video games throughout this period, but were able to grow rapidly nonetheless. Moreover, gamebooks’ decline in the 1990s coincided with a decline in video games sales. Video games have enjoyed almost uninterrupted growth for their entire history, but the 1990s were a rare exception. Their sales fell in 1994 and 1995 and did not recover to the 1993 peak until 2000. The pattern of gamebook and computer games sales, therefore, is not obviously consistent with the hypothesis that the end of the former was caused by the latter.
Third, there are, in contrast, several other explanations which do fit the pattern of gamebooks’ decline.
Most gamebook series in English came to an end in a very short period. Nineteen series ceased publication in 1987 and 1988. It is not difficult to understand the reasons for the sudden extinction. It was preceded in 1985 and 1986 by an equally remarkable increase in series launches. In those two years twenty-one new gamebook lines appeared. None of them survived past 1988. It is clear that 1985 and 1986 saw an overexuberant boom. A rush of me-too titles appeared, but failed to achieve success. Even the better titles launched in those years struggled to distinguish themselves from the morass. The inevitable bust followed in 1987 and 1988.
Such a retrenchment, however, did not necessarily entail the end of gamebooks. The video games market experienced a similar crash in 1983-1984, after a surge of releases in 1982. CCGs saw the same pattern in 1995-1996. In both cases the industries recovered and survived. The gamebook crash of 1987-1988 did not necessarily have to mean the end of gamebooks.
Number of UK gamebook series launches 1972-1999
Number of UK gamebook series terminations 1972-1999
In the 1990s, however, a number of other factors impacted sales. In the early part of the decade western economies suffered a severe contraction. The UK in particular was in recession from 1991 to 1993. It was the country’s longest recession since the Great Depression. That this should have had an adverse effect on gamebook sales seems obvious. It also is a plausible explanation for the sales declines seen at the time in other entertainment forms, including video games.
Another relevant factor in the decline of gamebook sales was the advent of CCGs. Magic: the Gathering was launched in 1993, and over the next two years inspired a boom in copycat games. In 1995 no fewer than thirty-eight new CCGs were launched. Yet this glut of new launches came just as CCG sales began to decline. Wizards of the Coast was forced into a round of redundancies in 1995. By 1996 TSR’s misadventures with Spellfire and Dragon Dice had left it in acute financial distress. The arrival of a new type of paper-based fantasy game, and a surfeit of often discounted products, must have taken sales away from gamebooks.
Magic: the Gathering alpha starter deck (1993)
Finally, gamebook publishers failed to deliver attractive products. By 1992, when Puffin first planned to end the Fighting Fantasy range, the series’ headline authors had long been absent. Steve Jackson’s last contribution had been Creature of Havoc (book 24, 1986), and Ian Livingstone’s Armies of Death (book 36, 1988). It is telling that Livingstone’s return for the planned finale, Return to Firetop Mountain (book 50, 1992), was so successful a swansong that Puffin decided to extend the series for a further ten books. However, without Livingston and Jackson, only nine more were actually published.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (1982) and Curse of the Mummy by Jonathan Green (1995), the first and last Fighting Fantasy gamebooks
There was also a lack of innovation in the leading series. Although Fighting Fantasy had tried a set of more advanced rules and a campaign structure in the Sorcery! series in 1983-1985, it did not repeat the experiment. The remaining books departed only modestly from the original formula. They adhered to largely the same mechanics, and persisted with unconnected stories. Gamers were not offered any meaningful progression.
In those rare cases where there was substantial innovation, such as in the Fabled Lands series, there apparently remained a market for gamebooks well into the 1990s.
I think they probably didn’t charge enough for the books…. When they actually gave us the sales figures, Jamie was saying “These are great sale figures!”, and they said, “Yes, but it isn’t making us enough money.”, and he said “Just charge an extra couple of quid.”. They said, “Oh, people wouldn’t buy them.”. They certainly would…. They had got something like 25,000 actual players, which was respectable sales figures.
– Dave Morris, The Grognard Files, episode 45
It seems that too often gamebooks were treated by publishers as throwaway titles. There was limited investment in continuity of setting and narrative, or in developing the genre with more sophisticated systems and gameplay. The books were treated as mass-market commodities, rather than high-value niche products.
The War-Torn Kingdom (1995) by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson, the first Fabled Lands gamebook
The overproliferation of titles, economic recession, competition from CCGs and a lack of innovation and quality better explain the decline of gamebooks than the impact of video games. In reality, computers’ relationship with gamebooks may well have been more that of midwife than murderer.
Timeline of notable branching-path series published in the UK 1958-1999
* The Fighting Fantasy series was originally projected to end with Return to Firetop Mountain (1992), but was then extended until Curse of the Mummy (1995).
** The Lone Wolf series continued in reduced volumes after Voyage of the Moonstone (1994) until it ended with The Hunger of Sejanoz (1998).
Title art by Christos Achilleos. Internal art by Roger Knights, Liz Danforth, Paul Granger, Peter Barrett, Peter Andrew Jones, Martin McKenna and Kevin Jenkins. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.