I talk a lot about episodic games, and every time I do I encounter a wide range of opinions on what “episodic” actually means. I recently wrote an opinion piece that promulgated GameTap’s perspective on what it takes to call a game episodic and it boils down to this:
This is in contrast to the approach taken by Ritual and Valve with their titles, which I would describe as more like installments in a single game rather than episodes in a series.
If you can buy into these three tenets as defining rules for an episodic game series, it begs the question: why bother making episodic games at all?
The answer is not an obvious one when you consider that this content model presents a lot of challenges for an industry that, historically, has not been good at producing quality content in the studio-like TV show model that episodic game development would demand. The fact that the development model for episodic games probably requires the industry to re-educate consumers on how long games should last, or even what level of visual quality to expect, is another burden. Traditional boxed software still sells, so, again, why bother with episodic games?
For now, I will give you just three reasons, although there are dozens more:
Digital distribution has been around in some form for decades. Anyone remember downloading Doom on a 14.4 modem? Or getting files from BBS services like CompuServe? The culmination of the consumer shift to digital content, and the thing that really changed consumer behavior, wasn’t the ability to get movies or music or games digitally. It was the ability to cherry pick.
Napster, and products like TiVo and the iTunes Store, made it easy for consumers to get only the tracks on an album, or the episodes in a TV series, that they wanted to experience. Coupled with an entertainment landscape that spawns new cable and online networks almost daily, and media consumption habits start looking pretty ADD-induced.
Layer on top of all of this media glut a boom in games designed to be played during downtime, like a round of Bejeweled on your laptop between meetings or Doom RPG on your phone while you commute to work, and the end result is a consumer with a predisposition to experience smaller chunks of content with more entertainment options than at any time in history.
The lesson here for game developers is that a growing percentage of your potential audience might be more inclined to buy your product if they know the commitment is smaller, and if they like it, there is more where that came from. This may seem simplistic, but it can actually have a meaningful impact on the way people think about your games.
The time and money commitment by the game player for a single episode in a series is small, so the hurdle to purchase is much lower than a $60 SKU. Build into your game the release schedule for future episodes or teasers for previously released episodes, and after you sell one episode to a consumer, you have a built in viral marketing tool and a shot at getting them to buy again.
Music downloads trained the consumer to focus on tracks instead of albums, and that trend ultimately led the consumer to focus on TV episodes rather than seasons. It isn’t a huge leap to turn that trend around and get people to focus on buying additional episodes in a game series if we provide them the opportunity. You never have a gamer more excited to buy more of your games than after he or she has just finished one.
Consumer demands for content are changing and episodic games present an opportunity to take advantage of that change.