In Defense of Episodic Content

Gamasutra has reprinted an analysis by Jason Kraft and Chris Kwak that challenges the merits of an episodic model for AAA games. Jason and Chris ask some good questions, but I disagree with much of their analysis. Let me quote their key arguments and assumptions, tackle each as best I can, and see where that leads us:

“Subsequent episodes attract smaller audiences.”

This is a significant (and very possibly incorrect) assumption. Successful TV shows (which represent the best analogy to successful episodic AAA games) typically build audiences over time – at least for a while. The episodic model is designed to hook people in; to make content consumption a cherished part of a person’s routine. The episodic model always leaves you with multiple reasons to “tune in next time.”

Traditional AAA games, on the other hand, are generally expected to end more… conclusively. There may be more to the franchise story, but at least this portion of it has certainly terminated. That ending may be emotional for consumers, but it also gives them a psychological opportunity to break from the franchise if they weren’t sufficiently thrilled by the experience of it.

Of course, a successful episodic game will plateau, and eventually start to lose its audience (just like successful TV shows do.) When that happens, you wrap things up with a fantastic conclusion and go out with a bang.

“If [an episodic] game has one serious bug, it could be over.”

Yes, if the first episode of a new franchise contains a “serious” bug, that certainly could kill the franchise. But show-stopper bugs are never OK, and in fact can wreck sales for traditional AAA titles too (reviewers generally don’t treat that sort of thing kindly!) Furthermore, a bug is not a permanent thing; a nimble team can and will roll out patches when necessary.

Theoretically, the episodic model might even make consumers more tolerant of bugs, as long as they occur after the first episode. After all, I know that I (and many other people) tolerate significantly more bugginess from MMORPGs than from other titles…

“Games, like movies, have lots of assets that need to be established pre-development.”

Nitpicking. Yes, development costs are front-loaded. Yes, if you chop a game in three, the first episode costs much more than the second and third. It still costs far less than an entire AAA game. And that means if the project fails, the developer and publisher aren’t quite so screwed.

“Do the profits exceed or even match a AAA title?”

Today’s AAA game market is almost entirely hit-driven. If an episodic model enables you to cut your losses on underwhelming titles sooner, you’ve got more time and money left over to gamble on the next potential hit. You have fewer employees embittered by the two years (or more) they spent making a game that didn’t sell. You have more innovation.

This is not a trivial point. If developer A and developer B each make games of approximately the same quality, but developer B manages to produce three games for every two produced by developer A, who wins in a hit-driven market? The developer with more chances to land the hit.

Now, there are a few cases in which my logic doesn’t apply. An incredibly stable, popular franchise probably doesn’t need to go episodic, because its installations are already assured of success. A super-franchise is episodic by its very nature. Chris and Jason also question whether racing and sports titles (etc) could ever be made episodic. I agree — those probably can’t. But there’s a heck of a lot more to gaming than just racing and sports. (In fact, the proportional success of those genres is partially due to the fact that the traditional AAA model entails too much risk!)

And as I said earlier, an episodic model may keep consumers around longer (shelling out more bucks) because it hooks them in. And they probably won’t even mind, because they aren’t being forced to pay $60 up front for a potentially unsatisfying experience! They’re paying more over time, but at least they know that their time will be well-spent.

Episodic content may not be as satisfying, even in aggregate.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I basically consume much of my game content in an episodic fashion right now. I play through a stage of Half Life 2, then I save, rest, and play some other time. I see no reason why this should degrade the quality of the experience. Isn’t it possible that anticipation between episodes would actually increase enjoyment of gameplay? Sometimes people like being made to wait … as long as they aren’t kept waiting for too long.

“Is a third of a movie at a third of the price equally attractive?”

A third of a movie implies a kind of incompleteness which just isn’t analogous. I’m willing to watch a third of a trilogy. I’m willing to watch an episode of a TV series. I’m willing to read, one day at a time, a ten-comic story in the newspaper. People tolerate and even appreciate episodic content, as long as the episodes are interesting in-and-of themselves.

Suffice to say, I think there’s still room for debate. Episodic games could be really great if developed and marketed correctly. Or perhaps the model will prove more trouble than it is worth. I can’t say for certain, but I can say (with conviction!) that it is still too early to begin naysaying the model.

PS. Some of you may dislike TV analogies, since most people don’t pay for individual episodes of the TV shows they watch. But the pay-per-episode TV distribution model has arrived. And this isn’t the first time in history that consumers have been asked to pay for something in chunks. Remember serialized novels? Or, for a more modern example, how about comic books? Comics often force you to buy (at the very least) several issues in a series if you want to experience a meaningful part of the overall story. People don’t feel “ripped off” because comics don’t arrive in a single $50 package (and consumers who do prefer a package can simply wait until a compilation is released.)

13 responses to “In Defense of Episodic Content

  1. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I basically consume much of my game content in an episodic fashion right now. I play through a stage of Half Life 2, then I save, rest, and play some other time.”

    The SIG report specifically addresses this issue. (Top of Page 3)

    Perhaps what the SIG report was getting at, in terms of a decrease in quality of episodic gaming, is the same decrease we see in TV as opposed to cinema (again the TV comparison…I apologize!). It’s the age-old quality vs. quantity. Movies may be crap these days but a random surf through TV will produce much worse.

  2. > The SIG report specifically addresses this issue.

    It doesn’t really “address” this, so much as it brieftly mentions it, then wanders off to other (somewhat contradictory) topics. I think that our clear willingness to consume content episodically hasn’t fully been appreciated by naysayers of the model, in general.

    > Movies may be crap these days but a random surf through TV will
    > produce much worse.

    I have to admit that I’m not a huge consumer of TV programming, but I will say this: I know several media scholars who believe that TV is entering a renaissance of sorts. Shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” are significantly more complex (and have significantly higher production values) than shows in the past. Anyway, that’s somewhat of a tangent. I think that, if handled correctly, episodic games can actually have higher quality, because developers have more time/space to react to customer demand. You can see in real time what aspects of your game your customers are most enjoying, and build on those.

  3. What surprised me about the SIG report is that authors fixate on the idea of breaking a traditional AAA
    title into pieces and calling the results “episodic.”

    But how about developing a property from the ground up to be episodic? What I have in mind goes beyond
    today’s mainstream game genres (which, IMO, are becoming stale in the eyes of consumers). Think about an
    interactive sitcom, or a character-driven, playable version of “Lost.” Adapting this type of content to
    video games would require new game mechanics — e.g., you need to be able to “talk” to characters in a
    deeper way — but these are in development.

    Of course, interactive episodes can easily be distributed today to consumers with broadband
    connections to their PCs or hard-drive-equipped game consoles. “Pilots” can also be floated to
    consumer before publishers commit to a full “season” of episodes.

    Incidentally, I agree that TV is in the midst of a renaissance period. To me, much of the episodic
    programming I see on HBO is more innovative and compelling that what I see at the local multiplex. And
    yes, I’m paying for HBO.

  4. Episodic game content will only have value if it’s linked with gameplay. Each episode should give us unique new environments, opponents, skills, and so forth. If it’s just used to push a storyline, it will fail.

  5. “Episodic game content will only have value if it’s linked with gameplay. Each episode should give us unique new environments, opponents, skills, and so forth. If it’s just used to push a storyline, it will fail.”

    I completely disagree. While new environments or other elements of gameplay may complement the development of a story line in an episodic title, I think the narrative is really the key.

  6. A good narrative is a big plus, but hardly what will make or break a title. Show me one big seller that was successful primarily because of the story.

  7. By no means am I trying to imply that narrative is the most important element to gaming as a whole. What I am trying to say is that narrative is the key when it comes to episodic gaming–if different episodes of an episodic title contain different gameplay, graphics, etc. then the episodic nature of the title is rendered useless. It becomes a series of different titles that each require substantial invenstment; the larger initial investment followed by lesser investment for subsequent episodes becomes impossible in a different gameplay/graphics scenario, because you are investing alkl over again for these expensive elements.

  8. I read ‘something’ like this in one of the Sin developer interviews..

    Some people don’t have the time to finish the games they buy. Buying a game is not only a dollar commitment, but also a time commitment.

    I fit exactly in that category. I am pretty much a demo-holic now and rarely buy games anymore. It is not because I don’t have the money, it’s that I don’t have the time. The idea of an episode that I can finish in a single (reasonable) sitting very much appeals to me.

  9. I think most of the older LucasArts titles were big sellers that were successful primarily because of their stories (and characters). They certainly weren’t banking on the game mechanics, even though they did a good job with those too.

    On the other hand, it’s not always hard to introduce gameplay episodically. It’s been remarked that in an FPS, the guns are the stars of the game. From Doom through Half-Life 2, linear FPSes have always been punctuated with “Sweet! A new gun!” moments. It’s assumed that in a good FPS, a new gun means a new way to play. (I think Unreal Tournament is a very good example of this.) A new FPS episode could certainly both include new story elements… and a new cool gun.

  10. I believe episodic gaming is the future. This debate reminds me of movie directors in the twenties nay saying “Talking” pictures. It’s a new way to make games, and as such, will still need to be tailored and trimmed until it fits the audience.

    Offering bite size content that you can easily access is the key to hitting the masses. Will level 60 WOW players be as excited about these games… maybe not? But in the grand scheme of a world wide marketplace, hard core (i.e. spend my life playing games) users is not that big of an audience share.

    The whole game market NEEDs to reach out and find a wider audience, and I think this is a great start.

  11. ‘Publishers will have to decide which model is more beneficial for them’.

    What does episodic gaming have to do with publishers? This is a game developers decision. The reality of episodic gaming will force the market share shift toward the teams creating the content.

    An assumption, but opinion appears to forget that running a development studio requires additional business acumen beyond the reliance on a publisher. If considered, such acumen will force a change. STEAM/Valve alone cannot do this due to the distribution via STEAM being on PC only, and a dose of consumer confusion because they gave their download system a public brand. The name simply mystified the process.

    Episodic gaming does have a future. Those interested in the business side will appreciate its not developers who need convincing. Development teams are problem solvers; given the correct business support, episodic gaming will become prolific. How else do developers continue to survive the five year hardware evolution thrust upon developers?

    Realising episodic game development makes the idea of game development more attractive to investors. How? Episodic development, on the surface, carries less risk. If you don’t want to touch venture capital, there are R&D grants or Business start-up funds; both require a resolute business model which single product development does not offer.

    It all sounds somewhat perfect for developers so here is the spanner. Episodic game development can only be achieved in a stable technical environment; which, for most studio’s requires a greater reliance on external game rendering engines, physics, and some library content. The emphasis will be on game design and innovation. In fact, this is almost an inevitable path if you want to secure non-publisher funding to retain control of market share and IP. Reduced or manageable risk is what makes business enterprise appealing.

    And marketing? Consider two types of consumers, digital and non-digital. Digital consumers are easy to reach for developers; set-up a website, release video’s, concept art, screenshots and develop a consumer inclusive strategy to creation and exposure. To reach the non-digital you outsource; utilise PR and advertising agencies. They are competitive markets, use them to your advantage. Why marketing remains in contracts is beyond me; there is more evidence of terrible publishers marketing campaigns than there are success’.

    Ideology suggest the demands will require improved quality across game development. Code practices will demand stability, design will demand innovation and improved implementation, production will demand efficient internal practice and large outsourcing networks.

    Where gaps need to be filled, industries can flourish – User testing, code testing, game specific marketing, game engines, digital distribution models, retailer P.O.S. strategy, not excluding a healthy game equivalent of the DVD/Graphic Novel product.

    Is this death to the publishers? Not at all; but they will need to adapt. They will need to offer alternate funding solutions; some could break the business up to offer product solutions which a developer may or may not sign into. They can develop the retail relationship to support the new direction. They can invest in developer technology, as opposed to stealing it via way of contract.

    These are raw thoughts, an overview to encourage further discussion; however, on the surface, Episodic is not going away.

  12. Pingback: Shane Neville - Media Pusher and Addict - » Teh Hotness - Thoughts on Episodic Gaming Content

  13. I believe that consumers want episodic game content and I agree with the Great British Producer – it’s not going away. It’s how most people play their games already. When they buy it in one big chunk, they’ll play it episode by episode/level by level/quest by quest.

    I believe that the true success stories in episodic gaming will be story and character driven, not technology driven. Emotions will drive consumers to play the new episodes. Yes, there are other factors, but when it comes to episodic content, story is king.

    I also agree completely that diminishing returns is a huge problem facing episodic content. In almost all past releases of pay-per-episode content (comics, serialized novels, etc.) ‘issue #1′ always sells more than subsequent episodes. People want to stick their toes in and see if they like it. If they do like it, they’ll keep going until they stop liking it. If they love it, they’ll tell their friends and sales might pick up around episode 5 or so.

    In gaming, I believe that it’s too risky to go forward with a straight pay-per-episode plan. We all know it’s a hit driven business. With a standard release, even a terrible game can make some of it’s money back during the first week of sales at retail – as long as there’s enough promotion behind it. The $50.00 price point makes it’ possible. When that first release has a price tag of $10.00 and costs the publisher almost as much as the full game, it’s going to be hard to get the exec’s to approve the game.

    In order to make episodic content less risky for the publisher and consumer, I see two potential solutions in the to the episodic puzzle: subscription and in-game advertising.

    A subscription model means that it’s likely you will stick around if there’s ‘One Bad Episode’ and also let’s new users enjoy the previous episodes for free, allowing them an easy way to join in on the narrative. By it’s very nature, subscriptions also help build communities around the content that will result in the evangelism that episodic content needs to be truly successful.

    A subscription model allows publishers to adopt the role of television network: “Subscribe to EA Games for all of your sports gaming needs.” as a family of content is more likely to attract subscribers than a solitary title.

    As an added perk to the subscription model – people often forget to cancel subscriptions. How many of us realized two months too late that we were still paying for an MMO we stopped playing three months ago.

    While in-game advertising is still relatively new, it’s definitely possible that a premiere single player episodic game could be supported with advertising, allowing the user to play games in the same way they surf the web and watch broadcast television – for free.

    Of course, there’s always plan C, an episodic gaming business model that nobody has thought of yet and that has no relevant comparison in the industry today.

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