This whole concept of "Episodic Gaming" seems to have taken rather a turn into the mainstream of late, so maybe it's time we take a look at the reasons for it's success, the ways it fails and the ways it could be improved. In recent years we have seen the undeniable success (and justifiably so) of the Sam and Max series by Telltale Games, the upcoming Strong Bad series and of course the recently started Penny Arcade Adventures series. Of course these are far from the first games to use the concept of episodic delivery, they are among the first to popularise the genre (if one could call it that) outside of a niche market. The success of the Episodic gaming model brings forward a number of important questions though: Do they provide value for the consumer? Do they fulfill a real market need? Are they as fulfilling an experience?
The Great Value Hunt
When Telltale released the first episode of Sam and Max back in '06, they were building it on top of two important pillars:
- The relative success of the Bone games and the fact that this engine was conducive to episodic delivery.
- The value and recognition of the Sam and Max brand.
With these pillars in place, they had an obvious success on their hands. A lot of the work that goes into an episodic series like Sam and Max goes into to the first episode. Think how many times, and in how many episodes have we looked at the same street and the same office in this series? When all this work goes into the first
game, are all of the following games worth as much? Why do we keep paying for the same things which have been copied and pasted into each following game?
The answer is simple, and we have seen this as true with the release of the two series since then, and especially the release of these games on the Wii. Developers make the first episodes of these games at a loss. They spend much the same amount of time developing the first episodes of these games as many triple A commercial titles, so they have to hook as many gamers as possible and keep them buying the following games in order to actually make a profit. This
is why these games are real value
. The developers of these games know that you could stop buying these games at any time, so they have to give you a consistently rewarding experience every time you play. In the case of the Sam and Max series, the relative simplicity of the gaming mechanics is more than made up for by the incredibly well written dialogue and sight gags. This is of course doubly true of Rainslick Precipice, which combines the off the wall humour of both Penny Arcade and the legendary Ron Gilbert with gameplay mechanics which would not be out of place in a full retail game.
Sure there have been ups and downs in this trend, some of the Sam and Max episodes were less than satisfying but for the price you pay, you never feel ripped off. How often have you payed in excess of $50 for the latest and greatest at your local gamestop only to find that you're bored of it after three hours? I'm pretty sure it's happened to everyone at least once, so even the worst 3 hour episodic game is worthwhile at less than $10 dollars. Unfortunatley, this brings us on to the awkward case of Penny Arcade Adventures, and it's $20 price tag. None of us mind paying for a quality game (which it is, in leaps and bounds), but there's no way that this game is worth its 2000 MS point price tag. Especially considering that we may well be buying one of these every couple of months! Rainslick Precipice isn't that much
longer than the Sam and Max episodes, and while I can see the effort which went into the gameplay mechanics, it's just not that much better than so many other episodic games already out there. Of course, PA are lucky here in that they are widely recognised as the undisputable kings of the webcomic world, so they hardly need to look very far afield for a pre-installed market (myself included).
Mind the Gap
So is there a real market gap for these games? In a world where Ubisoft thinks it can get away with putting out any shit it wants to
, I think it's obvious that there is. Take for example my own case: I have always taken pride in finishing games (if only to get the full value of my purchases) and I still do, but since I've started working nights I have a lot less time on my hands. For god sakes, I've been playing Final Fantasy 12 for the last week (yes, I only bought it last week) and I'm only just on that flying island place! I'd love to spend a single evening gaming and go to work with that satisfied feeling that I have just finished an entire game. Of course I will still play Final Fantasy 12 or whatever else as well, but it's that short term satisfaction which only short games like episodic games (or Portal) can provide.
The Sam and Max series fits into this niche rather cleverly. Not only are they completely finishable in a single evening (unlike Penny Arcade or god forbid the behemoth Half Life: Episode 2), but the property automatically attracts gamers of a more advanced working age. The type of gamers who palyed Sam and Max: Hit the Road all those years ago are now in there thirties, and they (like me and many others) just don't have the time to finish a full game every weekend or even every other weekend. This is the perfect niche for these games. It's the same kind of gamer who logs onto the sims for an hour just to check up on things and maybe buy a new suite of furniture, the same kind of gamer who plays online flash games and the same kind of gamer who enjoyed Portal as a complete, satisfying experience.
Not only is there a gap at the consumer level, but even more wide openly so at the developers level. How many developers make these kinds of games today? Hothead, Telltale, Valve? (though you could hardly call those "Episodic" considering their production cycle). The market is literally wide open! Of course I'm not advocating a flood of copycat developers, eager for the next cash cow (Ubisoft and EA, I'm looking at you), but this market certainly does lend itself to smaller independant companies. Just look at the delivery methods, sure we might get the odd season box set from Telltale (and I'm sure the others will follow suit), but in general these products are best suited to download services like Steam, Xbox Live and PSN among others. But are developers limiting themselves? Telltale's Sam and Max has yet to hit the Xbox marketplace or PSN (if it ever will) and Rainslick Precipice doesn't seem very likely to hit the PSN store, despite it's apparent platform-agnosticism. Whether these are development issues or financial ones are not yet known, but either way, these developers are both depriving themselves of huge prospective markets.
I can't get no Satisfaction?
So far the episodic gaming market has been dominated by the adventure/rpg and point and click genres, but there is undoubtably a whole world of untapped potential. How about a Hitman mission every month? Or a new Spyro series, a level a week? It looks like the Ratchet and Clank series is already headed this direction with the rumour of an upcoming Clank series on the PSN. The problem with this diversification within the market is the problem of cross polination with one of the hardcore gamers greatest hates: micro-transaction? Are we going to be charged $10 a month for a sub-standard Clank level? That could add up to triple the cost of simply buying a retail Ratchet and Clank game with the same number of levels! It's a worst case scenario, but it'd be enough to give Episodic games a bad rap nonetheless. read