In a talk at the Independent Games Summit on Tuesday at GDC, Hothead's Vlad Ceraldi and Joel DeYoung (Penny Arcade Adventures) discussed episodic gaming, digital distribution, and their games in intriguing detail.
Firstly, Ceraldi discussed the history of the medium, and referenced VCRs and DVDs doing for movies as what digital distribution is currently doing for games, where access to the medium was "previously very limited".
But he quickly commented, there was some notable downside. He suggested forcefully: "The fact that we don't have a relatively uniform platform is really going to hurt our medium in the future", and went on to criticize the existing tightly-controlled console (XBLA, WiiWare, PSN)and PC (with Steam's current domination) platforms.
Particularly noted by Ceraldi, whose company has published Penny Arcade Adventures on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN - on these services, for the most part, you don't control pricing (he commented: "that's insane"), and you don't always control promotions and sales.
In addition, he noted forcefully, pricing structures are limited, with no bundles and a $20 limit. In addition, you can't pre-order on consoles, and for episodic games, that is "severely damaging" - you can't sell the whole season upfront. It's unclear if this commentary was aimed at particular hardware providers, but they are compelling examples.
DeYoung then went on to explain the history of the company, which now has 35 employees, 3 projects in developments, and the indie-focused Greenhouse digital distribution service, and has shipped two episodes of Penny Arcade Adventures.
Explaining the genesis of the Penny Arcade Adventures game, in which Hothead worked very closely with Gabe and Jerry from the popular webcomic, they mentioned that they were considering what genre to make the game in, and were concerned that "modern gamers might not appreciate a classic adventure". In polling Penny Arcade users, they realized RPG was high up the list of wants, so they decided on an RPG-adventure hybrid.
The good in creating this game, for Hothead, was that the relationship with Penny Arcade, who "speak it like it is", opened a lot of doors. Also, the game was well-received by critics and Penny Arcade fans, helping its launch significantly.
On the other hand, since they were self-publishing, Hothead has some issues with sales and marketing, since they were pure developers, and had to work out how to expand past the hardcore fanbase and target a wider market.
He also commented: "We didn't ask hard questions about how many people... are just going to sit down and buy this game", admitting: "We feel like we spent too much money making the episodes." The Hothead creators then announced that they are going to finish the Penny Arcade series, and are considering going into retail channels with bundled copies.
The duo also incuded a brief discussion on Swarm, which is an environmentally-themed AI learning game which won local government funding in Canada, and is still in the process of incubating - to the game's advantage, they claim.
Then to DeathSpank, which is designed by Ron Gilbert and is "in full production", and is described as "an RPG with Monkey Island humor", and apparently is a Diablo or Zelda-style action RPG. Ron came in with an engine to build DeathSpank, and is an updated SCUMM-style engine. So they now have two almost completely different engines in development - but it's still possible to work.
Hothead are also starting up indie partnerships, porting The Maw to PC and Braid to Mac, and are looking for more in the future, also adding an achievements SDK to Greenhouse.
Then Ceraldi returned and announced a markedly reduced emphasis on episodic gaming for Hothead, going forward. He did say: "We're not going to stop doing it entirely", but Hothead is not going "as full ahead with it" as they did before.
Hothead did think that, with episodic gaming, they thought that they could get revenue sooner, and could add good stuff to future episodes and remove bad.
But they ended up seeing a few problems - particularly that there's also a perception from users, according to Ceraldi, that you're perhaps trying to charge them over the odds, over an entire series, and so they could wait until the end and just pick up the whole season.
He did note that fellow episodic creators Telltale are doing a good job but he believes that "most of their sales have come from pre-sales of the whole season" - and you can't do pre-orders on consoles, of course.
In addition, putting out regular releases on consoles are difficult, he noted - adding "are you even going to get three or four [release] slots from the console guys" for all the episodes? He concluded: "Realistically, episodic is a... challenge", revealing that DeathSpank will not be an episodic game - though it may have some added DLC for fans.
The duo then stepped up and showed relative sales percentages (though not totals) for Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode One, revealing around 45% sales on Xbox Live Arcade, 15-20% on PSN, just over 25% on Greenhouse, and 10-15% on Steam, judging by the pie chart. They also showed a similar percentage breakdown for Episode Two but with what they described as one third the sales of Episode 1.
The duo also explained relative percentage sales on computers for the series, noting that Mac counted for 25%, PC for 70% of sales, and Linux for 5% of sales. They concluded: "if you can afford to do crossplatform, it's well worth the effort."