The bulk of GameTap's business model deals with allowing subscription-based access to classic PC and emulated console games, but the company has also been the most visible proponent of the fledgling episodic model of game distribution.
Telltale Games' Sam & Max series is in part distributed through GameTap, and American McGee's Shanghai-based studio Spicy Horse is debuting American McGee's Grimm on the 31st of this month.
Grimm, a typically McGee-esque fractured fairy tale affair, pushes the episodic model further than has the monthly Sam & Max. Episodes, which are designed to occupy half an hour of gameplay when rushed or an hour and half when explored more fully, will be released weekly. Each will be available freely via GameTap's site for 24 hours, after which point dollars are required.
I was recently able to check out the first episode of the series, A Boy Learns What Fear Is, and surprised by what exactly it was. Each episode tells one of Grimm's Fairy Tales, first in Disney-esque happy-go-lucky style, then in darker, more psychologically-tinted form.
In between those tellings is an unexpectedly gameplay-driven experience that is reminiscent of Katamari Damacy in its dynamic - except, instead of rolling a ball around, you are (apparently) peeing on things and filling the world with filth. In an adorable sort of way.
Like Katamari, it succeeds in continually allowing you to ratchet up your influence on the world - the more grime you spread, the more you are able to spread your grime. It's a mechanic that would be difficult to sustain for eight hours on end, but seems well-suited to the bite-sized episodes.
After the gameplay demo, I chatted with GameTap's Ric Sanchez about the TV-like distribution model, the genesis of the idea, and how Grimm is the "first casual game for hardcore gamers made in a next-gen engine."
This is an unusual distribution model. How exactly does it work?
Ric Sanchez: The games are going to be distributed in three volumes of eight; 24 episodes total. The first volume is going to start on July 31st. Each game will appear on a Thursday and be available for 24 hours completely free, so when it premieres we're going to drive as much traffic as we can to the website, and you can play it free, and if you like it you can subscribe and play the other episodes individually.
Just to be really clear, by each episode being free for 24 hours, I mean each episode is free one time for 24 hours. It's much like a TV network - Battlestar Galactica is on the network Friday night. If you missed it, you can buy it from iTunes or something like that, but you can't access it on TV again.
After the first group of eight runs, there will be a hiatus. We don't know the exact date the second will start, but it will be in the fall, and we know by Halloween you'll be playing Grimm again, which we think is an appropriate time frame given Grimm.
There still aren't a lot of people doing that kind of thing. Why are you one of them?
The reason we went with episodic, and American pushed for episodic, is that one of the needs GameTap fills is a gaming population that is getting older and has less time to play. Right now the average age for gamers is about 33. It used to be 28 just a few years ago.
The 33-year-old gamer has a career and kids and a spouse. He doesn't necessarily have time to invest forty, eighty, whatever hours into the games, but does really enjoy core gaming. They want something that isn't for kids, or isn't for soccer moms.
By delivering content episodically we're able to fill that desire, fill that need, without necessarily wasting a lot of developing time on content they'll never see. There's been research lately that has shown people will buy a 40-hour game and play the first ten hours and be done.
With episodic, every dollar we spend on development actually goes into content that people will play through, and because they're broken up into groups of eight, the idea of spending an hour and a half once a week for eight weeks really doesn't seem like that much of a time commitment compared to sitting down and playing through [something longer].
Grimm seems to be pushing the episodic content much harder than with Sam & Max, which was the first step in that direction. Was that an explicit goal, to more closely mirror the television model?
RS: In part, yeah. By offering episodes for free, we have the opportunity to make ad revenue up front, to make sponsorships and things like that, which we didn't with Sam & Max. We learned a lot with Sam & Max.
I don't think we made any mistakes, necessarily, doing a four- to six-hour episode once a month. That was fine, but in this particular instance we have a game that really lends itself to the model. It's just a difference in terms of content.
I think with Sam & Max it would have been difficult to create an experience that you can finish in half an hour that would actually leave anyone satisfied, because of what kind of game it is.
Yeah, Sam & Max has a lot of dialogue and so on, it's more content-driven than gameplay-driven.
RS: Yeah. This one is like Katamari [Damacy] meets [American McGee's] Alice. If you want to play through it start to finish in half an hour, you get a pretty good experience, but like I said, most people are going to spend an hour and a half. And it's a very satisfying hour and a half. In that amount of time, you're done, and you get a nice resolution at the end.
You feel satisfied, in a way I don't really feel satisfied after beating a single mission in Call of Duty, because there I know there's more - there's more I didn't get to. With this, there might be stuff I missed, but I feel good about completing that experience.
Did you approach American McGee and Spicy Horse, or did they pitch it to you?
RS: American knew we were interested in episodic. He was interested in what we were doing there. Grimm was a project he wanted to do, and what he wanted to do fit in really nicely with the way we want to distribute and present content.
One of the things American is really interested in is really any way to change the system. He's very interested in exploring and trying new things. The idea of delivering via subscription, free ad-sponsored up front, weekly episodes - all this seemed really interesting to him, so that was something he was very keen of.
You know, I've been talking about episodic for a couple years, and when he read what I'd written on episodic, he thought it makes a lot of sense. It's an interesting model to develop in, and he wanted to try it. It was just really a happy coming-together of a distribution team that wanted something like this, and a development team who wanted to build something like this.
And Spicy Horse is using Unreal 3?
RS: Yes, it's built in the Unreal 3 Engine, which is just a little ironic because once you see the graphics, it is not the stereotypical high-gloss, high-polygon graphics you're accustomed to seeing in UE3 titles. It is very stylistic and different from the average UE3 title.
American jokes it is the "first casual game for hardcore gamers made in a next-gen engine." Which technically is true; all of that is true.