In Defense of Episodic Content, Again

Last week, the ever-outspoken Mark Rein (VP, Epic Games) publicly attacked the viability of episodic gaming. His arguments, while somewhat emotional, were nevertheless a bit different from those I’ve heard in the past, which leads me to write yet another defense of this emerging business model. The first of Rein’s arguments:

Customers are supposed to buy half a game for $20, then wait six months for an episode? When I put a game down, I want to try a new one. Episodic games that offer faster turnaround will inevitably be using a lot of recycled content, walking through the same environments and shooting the same enemies with the same weapons.

Where is the evidence to suggest that consumers won’t wait more than X days for new episodes? They wait months between television seasons. They wait years between new releases of game and movies franchises. Fans often fill the time gap between content episodes by replaying old content and by creating new content (fan fiction, art, mods — you name it.) Savvy game developers can take advantage of both the former and the latter.

The argument that consumers won’t tolerate “the same environments” also strikes me as a little odd. Ever seen a typical TV sitcom? The same characters, in the same extremely limited environments (the home, the coffee shop, etc) day after day. Of course, there are major differences between sitcoms and games (and what consumers expect of them), but my point is: the environment is not as important as what is happening within the environment. Nintendo has figured this out. Mark Rein hasn’t.

(By the way, some very popular AAA games feature some pretty monotonous environments and enemies. Remember the endless look-alike corridors in Halo? Or the relatively small variety of enemy types in FEAR?)

Furthermore, let’s say for argument’s sake that consumers really do demand new environments every three months. A well-funded developer could set up multiple teams (perhaps offshore) that would concurrently develop these environments — or at least, the assets for them.

Lastly, a little reminder: not every game is a 1st person shooter. Episodic gaming’s fate is not and should not be tied to a single genre.

They’re competing against massive marketing budgets. Distribution without marketing is worthless. You can’t buy retail marketing with a wholesale price of $15.

Mr. Rein hasn’t been keeping up with research studies that show how relatively ineffective most game marketing is (vs. word of mouth, which is profoundly important.) He also hasn’t internalized the lessons of the long tail. Digitally-distributed episodic games have the potential to build dedicated fan-bases that grow organically. Cutting out retailers may make it more difficult to reach a mass audience, but it also puts more dollars per unit into the developer’s pocket, which means fewer sales to breakeven. (BTW, I’m not totally dismissing the importance of marketing — just emphasizing the importance of buzz.)

But all of that is besides the point. This is a simple math problem. If publishers think they can create a viable episodic franchise that, over a two year period, will generate more dollars per hour of content than the typical game and expansion, then they absolutely can spend a large sum of money marketing the “pilot” episode. Isn’t this how new TV shows have been created for decades? And, if you want to be more conservative, you can kick off an episodic franchise with a full-price, full-sized game (ala Half Life), rather than a pilot episode.

Coincidentally, while I was writing this editorial, a friend of mine sent me an email questioning the price of Half-Life 2: Episode One (in relation to Oblivion, which offers far more hours of gameplay per dollar). Here’s what I wrote back:

“Utility” is more than hours of gameplay per dollar. It’s “satisfying moments” per hour per dollar (although even that can be misleading.

A fair number of consumers don’t have the time to enjoy a game like Oblivion (and especially a game like WoW) even if they want to. The age of the average gamer is now around 30. Plenty of people with young kids and hectic jobs. Some of them want to experience a good story and great gameplay in the short period of time they have available, and they’ll pay for it. And some people (regardless of their age or free-time) will pay just because they’re hooked on the franchise.

I pay $11 to see a two-hour movie. Why wouldn’t I pay less than twice that for a five hour video game, if that game is great, and if I’m hooked into the story (as many people are in the case of Half Life?)

That said, I’d agree that $20 seems excessive. I would have paid $14.99 more readily. I wonder if Valve did sufficient market testing? (If anyone from Valve is reading this, I’d love to chat about what sort of market research you performed, in general!)

PS. My usual disclaimer: I can’t say for certain that episodic gaming will ultimately prove viable and/or popular. I’m simply unconvinced by naysayers who as of yet have failed to make a compelling case against the model. Why not withhold judgement till after a few more serious attempts have been made?

Update: a friend just sent me a link with a complete transcript of Mark Rein’s comments, plus quotes from Q&A afterwards. It makes him sound more reasonable, though I still disagree with him.

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