6 lessons I’m learning about writing gamebooks

I recently released my fourth gamebook, and am currently working on my fifth. As I set to work on this one, it struck me that a lot of the unspoken rules I apply to myself now I’ve put in place specifically because I made mistakes in my first gamebooks.

As much as I like the alliteration of “made mistakes” – who doesn’t – perhaps “learned lessons”, also pleasingly alliterative, is a more positive way to look at it.

In other words: improvement is both iterative and alliterative.

It was a surprise therefore – a very pleasing one – when someone who picked up a copy of The Altimer, my first ever gamebook, described it as “possibly the best gamebook I’ve ever read.” To be honest, I find it difficult to see past the lack of experience, and compliments are always difficult to receive.

Anyway, here are some of the lessons I’m learning.

1. Gamebooks feel like they need pace and purpose.

About half of my first draft of The Altimer was essentially backstory. It felt important to me at the time, and I made the brave choice to throw away a big chunk of it, and I still don’t think I threw enough away. The action needs to start from section 1.

Now, if you’ve read Escape From Portsrood Forest, you’ll know that this doesn’t have much pace to it – there’s even an option in the rules to allow you to simply explore without being interrupted – but it does have purpose. For me, that’s enough – as a reader, I at least know what I’m looking for.

2. Choices need the illusion of intelligence and meaning.

When I first started writing gamebooks, a piece of advice I’d read or heard was that choices needed to mean something. “Do you turn left or right?” is an annoying choice, because the decision is being made essentially by the flip of a coin.

The truth is, though, that if you’re wandering in a fantasy dungeon, the choice to turn left or right actually is going to feel very arbitrary. And I don’t like the idea that there should be sufficient information in the text for a particularly switched-on reader to make the “best” choice every time – surely half the fun of a gamebook is exploring the less-than-ideal options? That said, the illusion of an intelligent choice does feel like a good thing.

Turning left or right is an entirely arbitrary choice, but when – as in The Altimer – the choice is to follow the blood trail left or head towards the escape pods right, it at least makes you feel like you’re choosing based on some logic. (HINT: a trail of blood probably means you’ll find the cause if you go left, and I do like to blow things up in space, so there’s a good chance either direction will lead you to a sticky end.)

Another piece of advice I picked up when I started was that choices should have consequences – positive or negative. I was quite strict on that in The Altimer and I think kept the same feel for the rest of the trilogy, but I’m not that bothered about it now – I don’t mind a choice having no effect other than experiencing a different narrative for a few sections, and I am a big fan of dropping in entirely useless clues and items…in The Altimer I think I may have even included codewords that were never referenced as a way of making the reader think that something important had just happened!

I don’t think I’d do that again.

3. Difficulty is a really important metric.

When I first wrote The Altimer, I thought it was easy. 300 sections, relatively linear…with the exception of one admittedly frustrating conversation that requires (I think) three consecutive right choices, my expectation was that a reader taking reasonable notes would complete on their second read through.

I’ll come back to why – and why I was wrong – in my next point.

The thing is that it turns out my books have apparently developed a bit of a reputation as being incredibly hard – not something I set out to achieve and not something I’m that proud about having achieved! I’ve seen several comments along the lines of: “I don’t think I’ve ever died so much in a gamebook”. I didn’t set out to make them hard, and I wonder if I tipped the balance between difficulty and reward a bit too far in the wrong direction in that trilogy…let’s see if I learn!

4. Readers shouldn’t have to cheat.

In my trilogy, my assumption was that the reader would cheat, in two important ways:

  • Fudge the initial stat rolls
  • Immediately flip back to the previous section when encountering an instadeath

As a result, the roll difficulty levels are essentially impossible for someone who has average – certainly minimum – stats, and there are instadeath sections all over the place – they’re fun to write, and I thought the reader would just skip back and choose the other option anyway. The Altimer doesn’t have any serious cheat detectors in it, and so my conclusion was that it’s therefore easy. Other people don’t read that way, and so it turns out it’s very punishing. (But, let’s face it, it’s incredibly unlikely you or I would survive if we really woke up in that setting, so maybe this is a lesson for all of us to learn about the nature of reality.)

Escape From Portsrood Forest, on the other hand, I know can be a pain. The route out can only be found through a sequence of hidden sections, but for some reason I feel that the balance is better here – you truly are rewarded for taking good notes (I think 7 sheets of A4 paper taped together is about right to enable you to draw the map as you’re exploring…I’ll send you a map of the forest if you’re stuck, by the way). My future books I hope will hit that sweet spot a bit more.

5. Formatting makes a big difference.

The independent book publishing world is full of novels that look like a Word document that happens to have been bound in a cover – I’m pleased to say that the gamebook world seems to have avoided that in the main – and I was keen to avoid doing that myself. Having recently (finally!) picked up the Steam Highwayman series, I can attest to the fact that part of the pleasure of picking them up is the fact that a lot of effort has clearly gone into the typesetting of it.

I’m still definitely learning about that, and hope to continually improve as the books keep coming…

6. I don’t know enough about marketing.

My launch for The Altimer looked precisely like this:

Literally not a single person in the world knew I was writing that until the day it appeared on Amazon. No build up, no hook, just: “Please buy this if you’d like to.”

Thankfully, people did – I was genuinely surprised!

I’ve since put more effort in, have created a Facebook page and a website, I’ve done unboxing videos, I’ve played with Facebook advertising (I think I lost about a month’s worth of royalties on that), Amazon advertising (that seems to be working much better!), and am generally actually telling people now. This is one I’m still learning about.