Thursday, July 13, 2006

Concerning Episodic Content

I just started reading a thread on the Penny-Arcade Games & Tech forum about episodic content in games, with a recent example being the Half-Life 2 epidodes.

Contrary to most of the posters on that thread, I'm all for episodic content. Let's go through my reasons, shall we?

1- Plot fatigue in full games

How many times have I read reviews that complained that a game with a really intriguing and compelling plot fell apart around the mid-point, where plot became sparse, level design became less inspired, and common clich├ęd filler was used ("throw more and more baddies at the player", "backtrack all the way to the beginning to find that damn key", that sort of thing.)

The reason for this is simple: most AAA games go into crunch mode a few months before release, and at that point, the first half of the game or so has been designed, filled-in, scripted, and often tested extensively, but the latter part of a game is often just at the stage of vague notes in a document somewhere, or the level design has just barely started, and the designers are tired and quickly become less inspired.

As an aside, I remember reading somewhere that Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's star game designer and creator of Mario and Zelda, will often create the last levels of a game first, since he can put everything in those levels and make them as hard as he wants. By working his way backwards, when he gets to the first few levels, he knows which mechanics to introduce, and in which order, and he's in a better position to design easy, elegant and fun "tutorial" levels. I don't know if he does that with all his games, but it makes a lot of sense to me. And it also means that the end part of a game is much more likely to remain exciting.

So we have a lot of games where the plot becomes uninspired around the mid-point, because the designers aren't as inspired. Episodic content is one solution.

Episodic TV is often written by different writers for each episode, with staff writers and producers making sure that everything fits. (I know, I know, most of Babylon 5 was written by just one guy, and it kicked ass, but that's a rare exception in the field.) That's already very similar to how things work in games: levels will be divided up between a bunch of designers, although sometimes the story text and plot is all written in advance, often by one person (which can be one of the causes for plot fatigue...)

The problem comes from the fact that everybody has to crunch, at the end, so cool bits of plot get cut because they require too much scripting or the voice acting budget got cut, or a bunch of other reasons.

With episodic content, each designer, each writer can get a different deadline. Keep a few designers on the side that can move from episode to episode and help out when an episode is not moving fast enough. Give yourself at least a month's lead time between the scheduled completion date of each episode and its "airdate" where it can be thoroughly tested, balanced and evaluated.

That would result in a more consistenly compelling experience.

2- Price comparisons

"I don't want to pay 20$ for 3-4 hours of gameplay when I can find a much better and longer game in the bargain bins for the same price!"

Most of the people against episodic content came back with variations on this. My answer is this: you're right. 20$ is way too much for episodic content. Why is it that Hollywood movies with bigger budgets than AAA video games sell for about 15-20$ on DVD, but video games have to sell for 50-60$?

I think most video games should sell for about 30$, and episodic content should go for amounts closer to 5$ an episode.

Psychologically, if you spend 5$ on an episode and you don't like it, well, that was just 5$. You can't easily find a good game for 5$. Actually, you can't buy much else that's really compelling for 5$. So losing that 5$ doesn't hurt as much as the current 20$/episode.

Also, at 5$ per episode, each episode could be only about 2 hours long for players who just plow through (with maybe 4 hours total for the players who like to look everywhere and find everything.) That's a lot less content to develop. Weekly or semi-weekly episodes somehow become feasible.

3- I want the full game, NOW!

That one makes me laugh. That's so childish, when you think about it. Well, you can always wait for the compilation. That's what many people have done with TV shows such as 24 or the new Battlestar Galactica: instead of watching the show on a weekly basis, they waited until the season was over, and watched the whole season in very quick succession. That way, you can get the "full game" experience.

However, that requires special pricing. The compilation shouldn't sell for more than the price of a full game.

4- I'm not going to wait 6 months for the next episode!

If it takes 6 months between episodes 1 and 2, there's something wrong. Monthly episodes are just about as long an interval as I believe can be accepted by gamers. With one exception: the gap between "seasons". Clearly, for years, people have been able to wait all summer between seasons. Let's see, seasons tend to end in early May, and often don't start up again until late September or even October. That's almost 5 months!

So, as long as gamers get a full season (at least 20 short weekly episodes or 10 bi-weekly episodes) with some sort of compelling reason to await the next season (cliffhanger, unanswered questions, etc.) they will gladly wait 4-5 months for a new batch of episodes, while the design team hammers out what they want to do in the next season (and take a month or two off on vacation!)

It's clear that, with the changes I suggested (lower price, more frequent but shorter episodes, TV series-like structure) episodic games sound like an appealing change of pace from monolithic big games. For one thing, it means a somewhat steadier revenue stream, in an industry where, if your game doesn't make a splash during the first month or so of its release, it gets quickly moved off the shelf, consigned either to the bargain bin or (gasp!) oblivion. Engines can get updated between seasons, to keep up with technology, and the story can progress in ways that big one-off games (even if they're sequels) can't.

The depth which can be attained with a TV series just can't be reached by a Hollywood movie. The same will likely apply to games. The two distribution formats will eventually turn into two separate media.

Most current game companies can't afford to create episodic games, because their whole structure is based on building one big game after another. Kind of like the part of Hollywood that makes all the big movies.

Episodic content is where indie studios can shine. Creating a pilot and a few sample episodes should cost a lot less than creating one full AAA title. And the episodic content means that online distribution almost becomes a requirement, thereby bypassing the whole physical distribution model that couldn't really accomodate the indies anyway.

We've seen many episodic action-adventure games (for example, all the Source engine-based content up on Steam) but other genres could definitely benefit: strategy games (either turn-based or real-time) could work great. RPGs are naturals as well, they're the most story-based gaming genre of all, so that cutting up the story into episode chunks should be easy enough.

The more I read the opinions of hardcore gamers on forums, the more I realize that Nintendo is right in targeting current non-gamers and casual gamers with its DS and upcoming Wii. The hardcore gamers are so set in their ways that most of them can't see that episodic games are soon going to be a big part of the gaming landscape in a few years. Especially with all of the main consoles in the next generation being built from the ground up with Internet connectivity and online distribution of content in mind.