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Q&A: GameTap's Sanchez On The Three Episodic Rules

Q&A: GameTap's Sanchez On The Three Episodic Rules

February 14, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander

February 14, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC

Following a recent Gamasutra column opining on the promising future of episodic game content, we caught up with GameTap content VP Ricardo Sanchez to get his thoughts.

The Turner-owned PC subscription gaming service has been a major advocate for episodic content since it started publishing Telltale's Sam & Max in episodic format - the popular adventure series is now on Season 2, with regular episode updates.

In addition, GameTap helped to fund episodic updates for the now-shuttered Myst Online, and the recently announced American McGee's Grimm looks to follow the same episodic format. (Sanchez discusses his other projects, including the now-canceled episodic Galactic Command, in a separate Gamasutra news article.)

"I agree with the basic premise that episodic content is an inevitability," Sanchez says, "As attention spans get shorter, as costs go up and as more engines and tools become available for the rapid development of content, episodic games are going to become much more common across all platforms -- not just PCs."

The Three Tenets Of Episodic Content

With GameTap being a division of Turner Broadcasting, Sanchez says he's learned that episodic content must always follow three basic parameters to be successful. So what are they?

First? The episodes must be short. "It's not a magnum opus," Sanchez points out. He says that an episode must be brief enough to be consumed relatively quickly.

Secondly, episodes need to stand alone. "An incomplete experience is just incomplete," Sanchez says. So while the episodes may need to be kept short, it must not be a game fragment; "It should be part of a bigger whole," Sanchez adds. "Something like Star Trek is the best example, or a show you can watch once in a while and still get, but if you watch all of them, you get a bigger sense of what's going on."

Thirdly -- and Sanchez thinks this might be the most important factor: episodes must be delivered regularly and within a defined period of time. "With TV, comics, and every other traditional form of episodic content, you know, for example, that the series has 13 episodes. You know when they're coming. A schedule is published in advance, and you get a sense of understanding when something is going to come out again."

These 3 things, Sanchez adds, are the key factors that differentiate what he calls true episodic content from something like an expansion pack or downloadable content.

Paradigm Shift?

Sanchez believes in the GameTap platform as a promising vehicle for episodic content. But does he think that episodic content might make its way in a similar format to consoles, and how might the paradigm shift?

"I think something like a season pass subscription to games could be done on consoles, but for episodic content to really work, people have to be able to experience the entire season without having to pay for them on an individual basis," he suggested. "Otherwise the effect is really nowhere near what it could be."

And what is that effect, the impact that episodic content has on a player base versus other formats? "What we've observed through our stats is that most people simply don’t have time to finish a 40 hour game or a 60, 80 hour game," Sanchez opined. "Most people probably put 15 to 20 hours into a title, then move on. It happens a lot."

And yet other short, bite-sized games don't necessarily offer a richer experience, Sanchez says. "Compare that to casual games that are largely puzzle-based, that have no story, no progression. They're primarily time killers. People play those, but they're rarely that deeply engaged by them. They’ll play them and might enjoy it -- but it's never passionate. People don’t start fansites about them."

Episodic content, then, is a happy medium, Sanchez says. "Episodic seems to fill the compelling aspect of traditional 40-hour games with a more casual game-like time commitment. You can experience the full roller coaster of the plot or story or gameplay in a shorter amount of time, and still get the same sense of satisfaction from having finished something casual.

And how is GameTap's audience responding? Though Sanchez can't comment on the subscriber base, "We're very pleased with the results of all our endeavors so far."

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