Why Bother With Episodic Games?

By Rick Sanchez

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:

  1. Each episode stands alone but is part of a larger whole.
  2. Each episode has a relatively short duration of play.
  3. Episodes are delivered on a regular schedule over a defined, and relatively brief, period of time that makes up a season.

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:

  1. Changing consumer behaviors as a result of digital delivery
  2. The opportunity for innovation in game design
  3. The increasingly challenging model for traditional shrinkwrapped PC content

Ritual's Sin Episodes - episodic content, or single-game installments?

The Digital Consumer

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.


Room to Experiment

Game critics have been bemoaning a dearth of innovation in console and PC gaming for years. But game developers -- like movie studios -- invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars into a game, so you pretty much need to be sure that what you produce will sell. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to try new things and experiment with gameplay.

Ultimately, the budget for an episodic game series could be as much, or more, than traditional shrink wrapped games, but episodic games have a built in feedback loop that a 40 or 60 hour game doesn’t, so episodic games can get better as they’re made.

In the world of television, my favorite example of this is a show like "Malcolm in the Middle." I loved the early episodes, but my wife hated them. As the show evolved, the writers and actors developed a better sense of what the show was about, what jokes made sense and what you could do with the characters. That evolution won my wife over. Episodic games have this same opportunity.

Let’s look at the first episode in the new Sam & Max series. Most reviews are very positive, but there are still aspects of the game that some players or journalists don’t like. Complaints about the gameplay duration aside (some folks just don’t "get" that it is an episode), the developers at Telltale Games can take that feedback and use it as they develop new puzzles and interaction in future installments.

More importantly, they can throw in more offbeat puzzles and gameplay, and take a risk, because the exposure in any given episode is relatively low. Even if a single game episode is a dud, as long as the quality of the series is high, the dud episode becomes a footnote. If the experiment is a success, and the audience embraces it, the experiment can have an impact on later episodes.


The improvements made to the second episode of Telltale's Sam & Max, "Situation: Comedy," could only have been implemented with the feedback loop of true episodic gaming.

Traditional game development does have a feedback loop, but with years between results. Betting the studio that the design decisions made for a sequel were the right ones can be disastrous if you were wrong.

With short iteration cycles, gameplay mechanics that an audience responds to can be used to turn a moderate performer into a hit. This model still needs to be vetted out in the video game world, but it works in every other form of media that we consume, so there’s no reason to think it won’t work for games.

As more and more episodic games are developed, a “pilot” friendly environment will likely also develop. Today, too many small studios make a pilot for an episodic game that is really just the first two hours of what was intended to be a forty hour title. That’s not a pilot. That’s a demo, and it feels like one.

TV networks have developed a good model for developing content that allows independents to be a part of the system. The networks screen or produce a ton of pilot episodes for shows, most of which never make it past the first viewing by a network exec, but the system allows content creators to try out ideas on relatively small budgets. If the idea works, you order six episodes and air them. If those six episodes get ratings, you order a season. There’s no reason that a similar model can’t be applied to the game industry with the same benefits: reduced risk for publishers and developers, and more opportunity to try out new ideas.

It is debatable whether a truly small studio can create an episodic series that achieves a quality bar that most gamers expect, but a small studio can create one really polished episode and a series of game design documents for more episodes and build out a team to create a season if it gets picked up by a publisher.

The promise of episodic is that as consumers of games, we might get more interesting games to play and we might get them more frequently.


The Biggest is the Smallest

There are over 230 million PCs in use in the United States alone, and PCs are present in 78% of homes according to the Computer Industry Almanac. There are 100 million video game consoles in U.S. households according to The NPD group, with a penetration of 40%. So the PC is, bar none, the most pervasive system on which to play games.

Odd, then, that PC game revenue at retail is estimated at $1.0 billion in 2005, while console game revenue hit $4.6 billion. Even adding in the money generated by digital distribution (MMOs, downloads, etc.), estimated at about $720M in 2005 (and rapidly growing), console games still make nearly three times the revenue.

I doubt that the PS3 and Wii are going to do much to help the picture for PC game software, but perhaps episodic games can. This is especially true if you believe that digital era consumers are looking for bite-sized entertainment, and that less up front time and money commitment on the part of the game developer will result in more risk taking.

To look at it another way, perhaps episodic gameplay affords PC developers a blue ocean opportunity. For two years we have been listening to Nintendo talk about broadening the games market. Their solution for this in the living room is a next gen platform with last gen features with a gimmicky controller that is less expensive than other next gen systems. All their rhetoric about broadening the market feels more like a justification for a product that competes with the PS2 for quality but loses to it for catalog of games and price.


The Wii, Nintendo's 'blue ocean' strategy.

To be honest, I like my Wii. Wii Sports is fun, and there are a lot of Wii games I’m looking forward to. But at the end of the day, Nintendo is still selling $40 dollar-plus software that requires a fairly expensive piece of consumer electronics to run it. I’m not sure how much that does to help the industry.

Buying any next gen (or last gen for that matter) platform isn’t cheap, and game software ranges from $40 to $70. The vast majority of American households already have a computer, and a game episode can cost as little as $8.95. Any console requires a dev kit and certification and first party approval, PC development requires none of the above. On top of that, the proliferation of digital distribution outlets is making it easier to find places to market PC titles, and the ongoing cost dive for bandwidth makes it possible to create direct sales channels like Telltalegames.com or Legacygames.com.

I'm not suggesting that episodic is the silver bullet to save the PC games industry. The truth is, episodic development is still an unproven way to create content. There also aren't nearly enough distribution vehicles designed to take advantage of the strengths of delivering content episodically. The effort to create and deliver episodic games is still in its infancy, but when you look at the strengths of the PC and the episodic format, this model seems like a pretty solid blue ocean opportunity.

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