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.)

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