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Q&A: GameTap's Rick Sanchez Responds to Your Letters

Q&A: GameTap's Rick Sanchez Responds to Your Letters

February 22, 2007 | By Frank Cifaldi

February 22, 2007 | By Frank Cifaldi
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In early January, GameTap vice president of content Ricardo Sanchez wrote an editorial for Gamasutra, entitled 'Why Bother With Episodic Games?'

In it, Sanchez – who played a large role in GameTap's partnerships with both Telltale Games and 3000AD to deliver episodic games to its PC 'all you can eat' subscription-based game download service (Sam & Max: Season One and Galactic Command – Echo Squad, respectively), attempted to define exactly what an 'episodic' game is. Sanchez argued that true episodic content will not only inspire innovation in game design, but could very well be the future of game content delivery itself.

We received a number of responses to Sanchez's article and, not content with merely passing them on to the author, brought them with us to Las Vegas for the 2007 D.I.C.E. executive summit, where we sat down with Sanchez to get his reactions.

Gamasutra: Our first letter comes from Ian Schreiber. Ian writes,

While Rick does a wonderful job of highlighting the benefits of episodic content for developers, I was disappointed to see no mention of the potential negative audience reactions.

In particular, games are an investment of both time and money. If you're already committing to a 40-hour gameplay experience (whether it be in a "season" or not), you would not want to buy the first two "episodes" or the "pilot" only to find that you really like it but that the game is being canceled because it didn't get good ratings. Who wants to play through just the first two levels of Quake, if there's no guarantee that the rest will ever get released?

With a TV show, there's less of a commitment by viewers; a viewer is passive so there's less emotional attachment... and a viewer isn't paying cash per-show (pay-per-view aside -- but note that episodic content on PPV is rare).

I'm also skeptical of the claim that episodic gameplay allows greater chance for innovation. On the micro-level within a series, sure... but not drastic gameplay innovation that would require extra programming. If you're on an episodic schedule, there's far less development time for implementing new features, especially if those features might just be used for a single episode.

As a developer, I really hope episodic content becomes viable for all the reasons Rick mentions. As a gamer, I hope it falls flat on its face, because I'd never want to buy a game as individual component parts.

So, there you have it. Games aren't TV shows. Any responses to this, Rick?

Ricardo Sanchez: Well, let's start with Ian's "skepticism of the claim that episodic gameplay allows a greater chance for innovation." I just don't believe that's true. Episodic gameplay by its very nature means that within the engine, if the engine's capable of it, you can do something different. So if you've built a first-person shooter engine, and the game is a first-person shooter game, sure, it would be really tough to suddenly put in a puzzle title. Well…I don't know, maybe you can! What's a better example here…

GS: Adventure games?

RS: Sure, that's probably a better example. If you have built an episodic adventure game, it would be hard to use that engine for a first-person shooter. It doesn't mean you couldn't do very very different, radical, crazy things within the engine! It's really a matter of planning, it's not an impossibility. All game development is just a matter of writing code.

So if you want to do something interesting or innovative, you can do it, and if you use episodes to establish the characters, the environment, the world that they're living in, the experimentation might not be so much 'gee, I'm doing something that I've never done in an adventure game before,' but I'm doing something unique based on what I've got here. And I think that's important.

And [Schreiber's] idea that people don't form emotional attachment to TV shows…that's just wrong. Look at what happened when "Firefly" went off the air, right? The internet outrage on that was really powerful. I mean, mainstream press wrote about it. When "Futurama" got cancelled, fans brought it back. And that's happened more than once in television, there have been a lot of series that have been brought back by their fans. So to suggest that the emotional attachment you have to a TV show is less than the emotional attachment you have to a game…I don't necessarily think that's true.

The point of episodic, and the point that I've really been trying to get across, is the idea of a pilot isn't so much about audience as much as it's about 'is this any good,' right? You can invest a small amount of money doing it, and if it's good, and you like it, and somebody else likes it, then well, you've got a series.

One of my rules of episodics is that you give people a duration of episodes that they're going to get, guaranteeing somebody when they're going to get their next episode, and how many they're going to get. I think that's a very important thing, and so in that respect I think [Schreiber's] right. It's really hard to justify any time and money on an episode if you don't know when the next one is coming out, or indeed if the next one is coming out.

Look at SiN [Episodes]. I mean, come on man. Now that Ritual's a casual games developer, will we see SiN again? I hope so! But we don't know.

GS: I was going to turn it over to Derek Smart for comment at this point, but he's being dragged away to another interview…

Derek Smart: [laughs] Saved by the bell!

GS: Oh well. Let's move on to the next letter. This one is quite long, and comes from Wes Davis. Wes writes:

First off, I must say I absolutely love the idea of episodic gaming. As I get older and take on more responsibility, even without children or a wife, I find that I spend far less time playing games. I have a Wii, for example, about which I was terrifically excited, but I spend far less time playing the 50 dollar games I purchased, and far more with the easy to pick up and play, relatively cheap Virtual Console and flash games on the Opera browser.

There is just something so very satisfying about turning my Wii on, heading to orisinal.com or wiicade.com and playing a couple of quick games and then going about my day. So it only makes sense that playing a game that maybe takes me a week of playing a half hour or so a day to beat would be a very enticing option. I grow weary of games that run into the 30 hour mark and above, regardless of how good they are, and having actual end points within a series of short games would be very gratifying, and would likely keep me interested in said series for some time.

That said, it seems to me that there are certain hurdles that would need to be overcome with this format before it could revitalize the gaming market on PCs. If these episodes are to reach any sort of mass market appeal, they would certainly need to strike a middle ground in terms of processing power required. Sure, the American home is very fat with computers, but, gamers aside, how many people are there that have PCs that would perform well enough to play what the so-called hardcore gamer would accept?

That, in my estimate, is a far greater barrier to greater penetration in the home PC market than length of play time. The constant need for upgrading, while seemingly necessary, really hinders the sales potential of these games, especially when it comes to your average consumer, who is easily frustrated by such requirements.

And then there is the issue of digital distribution itself. While people are certainly becoming more computer-savvy, there are still loads of them that can barely install a program from a self-starting CD, much less downloading and installing games, seeking and installing patches, and even being able to figure out where they've saved their setup files to. I do tech support right now for a certain popular mp3 and computer manufacturer, and I'm amazed at the number of people who can't handle what I consider to be a very simple installation process, even when given detailed instructions on how to do so. It's extremely difficult, in some cases, for me to walk them through the steps, and god forbid there be an error message upon installation that requires deeper probing to correct the issue that caused it.

In the case of consoles, however, setup is extraordinarily easy. You've need only to get the console hooked up to the TV, and the rest is pie. Every game created for the platform works, and there is no lengthy time investment involved when it comes to playing the game for the first time. Nintendo, while having what some consumers will consider a high entry price, really seems to be on to something where the mass market is concerned. When looking at it from a regular gamer's point of view, sure, the controller can seem gimmicky and limited, but when you consider the things some people have been able to do with merely a mouse in flash, the point of the controller really begins to sink in.

Now that all the major new consoles have digital distribution ready, with the added convenience of no confusing setup, we could start seeing such episodic content being provided there, and if it happens, it will likely be more popular and take off much faster there than it ever could on the PC. When it comes down to it, convenience is key, and here the consoles shine.

So I think what Wes is getting at here is that episodic games could and should draw a more casual gaming audience, that the hardware restraints of PCs owned by casual users are themselves a roadblock, and that consoles are a better vehicle for them. Thoughts on this, Rick?

RS: Games on PCs are not as easy as games on consoles, that's true. Episodic games could fix some of that, but even if it doesn't, well, services like GameTap do. You install GameTap once, and then when you want to play, say, Sam & Max, it streams to your hard drive, and there's no installation. So it is a lot like experiencing games on a console. In fact, it's better than a console, because you don't have to swap discs.

GS: Okay, so that said, do you actually believe that the PC is the best delivery platform for episodic games?

RS: I think it is today. That doesn't mean it always will be, but with the Xbox 360 and the PS3 and the Wii, they're the gatekeepers. They make it very hard to put up content on their systems. I mean, arguably, Microsoft is trying to make it easier. But the PC is an open system, and it's an open market. It may or may not be in the hardware manufacturers' interests to see episodic. I don't know, it could be.

But on the PC, you can actually create a distribution channel for games, and it does work with episodic. The whole point of cable has always been, if you've got any content, you can probably get carried. It's not completely open, but it's close enough that if you have something good, someone will carry you. And PCs are a little bit more like that. So I think that's probably the place to start with episodic, although I don't necessarily think it's the only place.

GS: As something of a vocal champion of episodic content, at least on Gamasutra, what genres would you like to see explored in an episodic way? We have adventure games, we have space combat with Galactic Command…what would you like to see that you think would work well as an episodic game?

RS: That is a wide open question.

GS: Yes, it is!

RS: Any game can be episodic. A music-based puzzle game can be episodic, because every month you swap out the music. I don't think episodic is a story function in gaming, it's just a type of content delivery. So, anything. First-person shooters. Adventure games. Real-time strategy. Puzzle games. Board games. All those things can be delivered episodically, the main point being, you get content, close together, you get digestible chunks, and you know when you're getting your next episode.

GS: So by your definition, since you are putting yourself out there trying to canonically define 'episodic games,' would PlayStation 3's SingStar downloadable content be defined as an episodic game.

RS: I actually haven't seen that yet!

GS: You haven't. Okay, you're familiar with the SingStar franchise, right?

RS: Sure.

GS: The plan for the PlayStation 3's version of SingStar is to have individual songs purchasable online, with what I'd assume would be regular updates to the content. Is that episodic, by your definition?

RS: Well yeah! If you know when you're going to get your next one, and it comes out on a regular basis, then yeah. That seems episodic to me.

GS: So would we then call this the first truly episodic console game?

RS: No, no. I've been talking to a lot of people about episodic content, and someone told me about a Dreamcast game…gosh, what was it? I forget the title [Capcom's El Dorado Gate -Ed.], it came out episodically. I forget the duration, but it came out pretty consistently for about a year and a half. That probably fits the bill. Kuma Reality Games has been doing Kuma\War for years. That's probably the first one that fits all my criteria for being episodic. But there's probably others! Nothing's coming to mind…

[laughs] So, did all the letters just hate me?

GS: No way, look at the opening line of that last letter. "First off, I must say I absolutely love the idea of episodic gaming." See?

RS: Oh, yeah!

GS: And we did receive a short note from a Perry McDowell. I won't have you respond to the entire note [due to time constraints –ed.], but he does open by saying "I greatly enjoyed Rick Sanchez's article on episodic games."

RS: Ah. My mother.

GS: Possibly!

[Apologies to Zack Lengleuf, whose compelling response was lost in transit, and was unavailable at the time of our interview. Sorry, Zack!]



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