Thursday, May 6, 2010

Episodic Content - Pros and Cons

I talked a bit about "episodic content" in my last batch of mini-reviews (specifically concerning the Penny Arcade Adventures series). It's a business model that's really catching on in the video game world, so I thought I'd share some of my thoughts about the positives and negatives inherent to this system.

For the uninitiated, episodic content is the release of shorter, more focused games that build on each other to form an overarching narrative. If a full retail game is like a 3 hour epic movie, then episodic games are like a television miniseries. The episodic style originated on the PC, where downloading smaller games over a network and storing them on a hard drive was a feasible alternative to buying them in a store. However, the shift in console gaming to an "online all the time" model has opened that possibility for the Xbox 360 and PS3 as well.

Episodic gaming has distinct advantages over the full retail model:

It's cheaper for gamers - A retail game is usually 60 dollars. But if you broke the game into four episodes and only charged 10 bucks each, the customer saves substantially. Plus they feel like they got four games for less than the price of one. On top of all that, a gamer can use the first episode like an extended demo. If you buy the 60 dollar game and decide you hate it after a couple hours, there's not much you can do about it. But if you hate Episode One, you just don't buy any more. Now you're only out 10 bucks!

It's more flexible for developers - Again, the 60 dollar game has to be all-encompassing. It needs all the code to run the game, all the graphics drawn, all the story written, all the voice-acting finished, etc. If something is done wrong, or fans complain that some part of the game doesn't work well, all the developers can do is try harder for the sequel. With episodic gaming, the code to run the game is largely finished for the first episode. But after that, the developers can lean on that code for future installments, allowing them to focus on storytelling and presentation. Does the fanbase hate some part of the game? You can probably change or eliminate it in future episodes. Is the game super popular? Then do six episodes instead of three as you originally planned. As long as people are buying them, what's to stop the developer from cranking out more games in the series and printing money forever?

However, episodic gaming has its dark side as well. Here are some of the cons:

Narrative momentum is an issue - Braveheart is certainly an epic tale. But imagine if Braveheart was broken into 10 little episodes and you had to wait six months, a year, or maybe even longer between each one. I'm willing to bet that it would really change how people felt about the movie. Whatever suspense was built in one episode would have long dissipated by the time the next was available. It's the same way with games. One of the long running jokes in the video game industry these days is about Valve and their endless quest to avoid making Half Life Episode 3. Understand that I LOVED the first two episodes, and yet by this point I can barely remember what happened in them. That's the risk you take when you wait for years to give the conclusion to a story, no matter how interesting it might be.

Story structure needs to be altered - For episodic gaming to work, each game in the series needs to be largely self-contained. Much like a TV show, each episode needs to work on its own or else people will feel like they're being coerced into experiencing future content. But again, that changes the way a story is told. The plot needs to be written in such a way that there can be a beginning, middle, and climax to each episode (almost like vignettes). Despite that, you don't want your customers to get the impression that you're telling boring little mini-stories, so there will probably be a larger overarching plot to tie everything together. After all, that's what keeps them coming back for more. But that leads to the biggest problem...

The video game industry is not terribly stable - It seems like such a good idea at the time. "Hey, rather than doing one big game, let's do episodic games so we can keep the story going for years and years!" Great, but is your company even going to exist in a couple years? Who will be running it then? The current CEO might love your series of games, but will he work there forever. What if you get bought by a larger company, or at least get tied to a big time publisher? What I'm getting at here is, will you be able to finish what you started? I really enjoyed the first two Penny Arcade games. Solid gameplay with some new tweaks, great art style, engaging story, and tons of humor...what's not to like? But now it's been announced that there won't be any more, and I find myself two games into a series that just croaked, invested in a story that will likely never be finished. Now, I don't blame the developers (or the guys who do Penny Arcade). This is a business and they shouldn't be forced to make games that aren't selling. But it makes one wonder whether episodic gaming is a trustworthy business model in the first place. If enough people get burned halfway into a series, will they swear off these games forever? Once you buy your Mass Effect disc, you can play it beginning to end as much as you want.

I know that episodic gaming appeals to developers and publishers because it offers flexibility (as well as a way to cut retailers, renters, and the used games market out of the picture), but it will be interesting to see how it develops over the coming years.

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