Tin Man Games: A Series of Interesting Decisions

First, digital gamebooks were mostly about recreating old Fighting Fantasy-style gamebook experiences. Now the world of digital gamebooks is getting a lot more complicated -- and crowded.

Neil Rennison is leading me through The Arcade, a two-story building in central Melbourne where several Australian independent game developers share space. Some are individuals renting desks day-by-day, while others are studios with permanent offices, and it’s these he’s pointing out. He indicates an unassuming room full of people sitting at their computers. “That’s where Armello was made.” A similar unassuming room, where someone is eating a bowl of noodles. “Framed was made there.” Then, we come to a set of mysterious sealed doors. “Crossy Road,” is all he says.

Finally, we arrive at the room where the nine members of Rennison’s company Tin Man Games make choose-your-own-adventures like the Gamebook Adventures and Fighting Fantasy series. The founder and creative director of Tin Man Games is an Englishman who moved to Australia with his family -- the company’s name is the kind of reference to Oz that makes Australians roll our eyes -- after years of working as an art outsourcer in the UK, handling ports of Need For Speed games and the like.

Tin Man’s first release was an iOS fruit-picking game that didn’t do so well called Frootrees, but while Frootrees was floundering in the App Store he was writing a choose-your-own-adventure book as a hobby. “It was just a bit of fun,” he says. “I was getting into gamebooks again and I was doing it on the side and I thought, ‘This would work really well as an iPhone app.’ The iPad hadn’t even been announced yet.”

Like a lot of geeks of a certain age Rennison has fond memories of books from the 80s and 90s, like the Fighting Fantasy series, which combined pick-a-path story structure with elements of tabletop roleplaying games like character sheets, and dice-based skill tests, and combat. He found a whole community of adults like him dedicated to them, “a dark corner of the internet where all these thirtysomething-year-old men were sat amateur writing their own gamebooks based on Fighting Fantasy. I went onto it -- it was a YahooGroup -- and I put a message up there, ‘Hey, I’m looking for writers! Does anyone want to write?’”

He found five interested writers easily enough, but hit a hurdle when they asked him where to set their stories. Rennison had inquired after the Fighting Fantasy license but at the time it was with Big Blue Bubble, who were adapting the series in eBook form. He conceived Gamebook Adventures as homages, but they’d need their own fantasy world to take place in. Fortunately, Rennison had prepared one earlier, while playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. “I thought, ‘Wait there a second! I did this when I was about 13!’ I used to play AD&D second edition, I was the Dungeon Master, and I designed my own world, which was Orlandes. So I went to my parents’ loft in the UK, climbed up inside, pulled down a box, and all the original maps were there.”

And what did he think of the world he’d created as a teenager? “It was rubbish! It was really crap.”

But the writers took the map of Orlandes he scanned for them and ran with it, embellishing and adding details. A programmer named Ben Britten-Smith who would go on to become Tin Man’s technical director created an engine for the games that allowed hyperlinking so players could move from section to section through the story by tapping appropriate parts of the text, and physics-based dice that clattered across the screen as you shook it. They released their first gamebooks in 2010, including The Siege Of The Necromancer, based on the story Rennison had been writing as a hobby.

Gamebook Adventures sold better than Frootrees had, finding an appreciative audience who shared his nostalgia for the classic gamebooks. With his new portfolio, Rennison reached out to his contacts in the UK games industry and made a deal to create a gamebook based on Judge Dredd. Then he met with Ian Livingstone, co-creator of the original Fighting Fantasy books, who informed him that the licence was available again.

A screen from Appointment With F.E.A.R. A screen from Appointment With F.E.A.R.

Meeting Livingstone and his co-author Steve Jackson, both legendary figures within the British gaming scene, was obviously a highlight for Rennison. “I’ve actually had breakfast in Ian Livingstone’s kitchen!” he says excitedly. They were eager to revive the series, which had recently returned to print with a new entry, Blood Of The Zombies, which became Tin Man’s first adaptation.

Rennison’s aim with the Tin Man versions of the Fighting Fantasy books was to enhance them with music, full-color artwork, and digital character sheets. “We wanted to make each book feel like their own being, have the book pages not just be book pages. Like with Caverns Of The Snow Witch, it looks like there’s snow that’s landed on the page, sound effects and little animations and things.” Forest Of Doom came with a map that updated itself as players explored, Judge Dredd: Countdown Sector 106 featured combat barks in Dredd’s stern tones, and Trial Of The Clone (based on the book by Zach Weinersmith) was narrated by Wil Wheaton.

They made more drastic changes for 2014’s Appointment With F.E.A.R, the only full-blown superhero story in Fighting Fantasy’s library. It was the first test of Britten-Smith’s redesigned engine, and featured a character creation system allowing players to design their own superhero by choosing powers, a costume, and a ridiculous randomly generated name (Colorful Piledriver, The Nerdy Chaos, or The Indifferent Tree, for instance). Rather than turning pages, the story flowed like a comic book, broken up with art and BLAM KAPOW sound effects.

“Normally it’s like walls of text,” Rennison explains. “We had to break that down into bite-sized chunks of comic book panels; that’s how we wanted to emulate the comic book feel.” In hindsight, he says, it would have been better if they’d diverged even further from the original, making more dramatic changes to a structure that, underneath the flash presentation, remained old-fashioned.

The new format found a better expression in a surprise hit -- a re-telling of Hamlet called To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure by webcomic author Ryan North. While regular gamebooks have one happy ending and a multitude of terrible ones (the blog You Chose Wrong collects the best of these), To Be Or Not To Be flipped that format, because the real ending of Hamlet -- spoiler alert -- is the tragic one. When you wander away from the plot, saying screw you to Shakespeare, the endings are much happier. You hunt for the weirdest of many hilarious alternatives, like one in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father chooses to live at the bottom of the sea cataloguing fish, or Ophelia invents central heating and alters the history of Denmark.

Tin Man haven’t been alone in pushing digital gamebooks forward. The Choice Of Games series models sweeping decisions over the lives of their characters, Fallen London allows players to enter each other’s stories, the re-released King Of Dragon Pass marries “gamebook and management sim,” as Rennison puts it, and Twine stories like The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo have experimented with new possibilities like the deliberate insertion of glitches. Then there’s Inkle.

“The market has really changed. Four, five years ago we could release a gamebook app with physical dice and ‘turn the pages and fight’ and that was great and people bought into that and it was brilliant. We had a few imitators. Over the last couple of years people’s expectations of book-reading games have really changed. There’s been a few big releases that have done that. The Inkle guys with Sorcery! and 80 Days is a key marker but you’ve also got things like [Simogo's] Device 6, another text-based game that did really well.”

The Sorcery! series began as print spin-offs of the original Fighting Fantasy books, but Inkle’s adaptations expanded each one significantly and presented them in a much more game-like format. Players move a character across a map to visit new locations, encounter minigames for combat and gambling, and cast spells by plucking letters from the sky to spell magic words. It’s an ambitious reinvention of the form. “They’re kind of our archrivals,” Rennison says with a smile.

When the two studios had stands next to each other at London’s Fighting Fantasy Fest 2014, he jokingly compared them feuding Britpop bands Oasis and Blur. “We have a friendly rivalry but we keep in touch. For example, I got in touch with Jon [Ingold, co-founder of Inkle] because I wanted to get his advice on something and he replied back in a couple of days gave me advice, and he’s done the same with me. They were going to Steam and they wanted some advice about Steam. Happy to help really. They outsell us quite significantly.”

Rennison says that 80 Days in particular has “transcended everything.” Inkle’s steampunk retelling of the Jules Verne novel earned numerous accolades for the quality of its writing and the openness of its design. Players’ expectations have changed. “We’ve noticed a big shift in what sells and what doesn’t and I don’t think we can rely on just creating another Gamebook Adventures title, selling it for six dollars, and expecting the same sales figures as we could four years ago. It just doesn’t happen; it’s not even close. We’re having to innovate, do things differently.”

That means going even further than they did with Appointment With F.E.A.R. and To Be Or Not To Be. Their forthcoming adaptation of the first Fighting Fantasy book, Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, will be presented in 3D. A Kickstarter campaign to raise the money they needed for additional art met its target in two days and has gone on to make $54,676 Australian, so their fans seem pleased with the new direction. Players will be able to choose from a cast of new characters, each of whom will experience different versions of the story, and they’ve devised a new combat system based on simultaneous actions.

They’re also releasing a serial on iPhone called Choices: And The Sun Went Out. Players pay for a subscription, and receive new chapters unfolding the mystery at regular intervals. As you play Choices you’re guided by an AI companion named Moti who appears on your smartwatch, if you’ve got one. The same idea might show up in other games like their forthcoming adaptation of GrailQuest, another popular gamebook series from the 80s, which feature Merlin as your guide. “He tells you off a lot. He’s a very grumpy wizard and he leads you through this story, it’s very funny, very well-written -- Herbie Brennan, the writer, is a genius.”

Repeating the same formula that worked for their first releases isn’t an option. Rennison restates something he jokes should be my story’s “tagline,” that “Basically, our premium model of selling our apps at six dollars doesn’t really work any more.” At the same time as games like FTL: Faster Than Light, Pillars Of Eternity, Sunless Sea, and Hand Of Fate are incorporating pick-a-path decisions and becoming more book-like, choose-your-own-adventures are becoming more game-like.

Sid Meier has said that a good game is “a series of interesting decisions,” and the best gamebooks are as close to that description as it’s possible to imagine -- literally all players do is make decisions, one after the other. There’s a purity to them that’s worth keeping even as they evolve, although it would be nice to do without the endings that send you back to the start if you took a wrong turn 50 pages ago.