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Random House Still Betting on Video Games, but Its Lives Are Running Low

Random House just inked a deal with game producer THQ Inc. in its fitful effort make itself a player in the gaming industry. The two companies will partner on original works such as novels, graphic novels and e-books in addition to online, console and mobile-phone games. THQ apparently thinks the collaboration will bring it a billion dollar payday -- when it fact it may well not work out for much of anyone, gamers included.
The Bertelsmann AG-owned publisher posted impressive growth in 2010 led by a 250 percent increase in e-book sales. Yet while blockbuster titles seem to spring regularly from RH, games (much less best-selling ones) have barely hit the radar since the publisher announced its first partnership a year ago. Back then, I suggested that Random House was deluding itself if it thought it could turn itself into a major game publisher at the drop of a hat.

It's starting to look like I was right, although it's not clear Random House has gotten the memo yet.

Buy the game, read the book! Or not
Last March, RH began working with Stardock Corp. on the production of Elemental: War of Magic, a $5 million game released in August. Stardock's CEO Brad Wardell also penned a novel, Elemental: Destiny's Embers, published just before the game hit the stores.

The book-game tie should have been in full effect at retail: customers who purchased the book had exclusive access to download a four stage game campaign based on the new title. But a quick peek at Amazon currently reveals that both the Destiny's Embers book and War of Magic game are at the bottom of the barrel in terms of rank and customer reviews.
To judge from those reviews, the game was rushed to market and barely even worked. The book, meanwhile, was apparently enjoyable to some fantasy fans, but atrociously written. On the game:

The list of bugs and quirks is quite long. Poor documentation. No coherent design.

This game constantly crashes, has terrible lag between turns, the animations are unwatchable due to terrible framerates, and there are massive glitches with the AI and game balance.

Stardock has spent the majority of its time fixing bugs. Like the dreaded blue screen of death/crashdump. You probably haven't seen one of these since Windows ME circa 2000. Get ready for one every 2-3 hours. And no, they still haven't fixed that. With all the time the developers have spent on crashdumps, they haven't yet gotten to the lower hanging fruit, so there are no instructions unless you want to delve through several strings of several forums.... There are more instructions for dealing with constant crashes (download the hotfix, which notably doesn't fix the problem) than there are for playing the game.

On the book:
The story we get here is familiar. It is cookie-cutter familiar. That's not bad, of itself, but it flags a recurring problem. There isn't a single original idea in the whole piece.

The story itself isn't super original, but like everything else about the book, isn't too bad either. If you like fantasy, you'll likely enjoy it.

As with most product tie in novels one can only expect so much in terms of quality, but this "novel" (and I use the term loosely it's more apt as kindling for a nice fire) is bland, often grammatically incorrect, and most of all mind numbing. I've seen children's books written with more respect to the English language and with a more engaging plot for that matter.

"The princess, and the boy, whose name, Nym now knew, was Xander, though he had no idea whatsoever who the lad actually was." This is an actual "sentence" from the book-- and there are many more like it. The author and his editor have collaborated to show off a callous disregard for conveying ideas in readable English.

Since then, the Random House group has created 15 intellectual properties for gaming without selling a single one to a leading game producer. Apparently, Random House isn't going to rush any game to market again.

Backing away
Indeed, the company now says it could take 18 months to three years to develop new book-game properties. THQ, however, may not have the luxury of time. The company saw its shares drop nearly 25 percent after trotting out its first Random House collaborative effort Homefront, set in an America occupied by a resurgent Korean enemy -- to largely mediocre reviews. RH published a book by the same name under its Del Rey imprint in January as a prequel to the game.

Though Homefront was eagerly anticipated (it was first announced in 2009), the game failed to appeal for a number of reasons, not the least of which was supposed to be its strength -- the storyline. Note this review from GamesRadar:

Homefront's dedication to story is great, but it's also one of its biggest problems. For much of its short campaign -â€" most players should be able to finish it in four to six hours -â€" Homefront feels like you're being walked through a museum exhibit.
Hollywood gets the vapors
But that isn't stopping Hollywood from sniffing around the action. That is, if and when RH and THQ get around to creating any. If so, the film capital may be more delusional than either publisher or producer. RH's Del Rey imprint failed to spur an immediate runaway hit with War of Magic, despite the imprint's deep roots in such game-related genres such as science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and horror, and its built-in audience.
But perhaps Hollywood doesn't care. It's historically worked backwards, tapping successful games to create what are usually dreadful, hackish films like Doom, which didn't even make back its $60 million production cost. Meanwhile, games based on Hollywood films are, if anything, even worse.

Taken together, Random House's collaborations appear lukewarm initiatives at best. At worst, they'll be money-losers for Hollywood, THQ and the publisher.

Image via THQ
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