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Episodes From Episodic Gaming

JGaskill
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Posted October 29, 2009 - By Jake Gaskill


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Episodes From Episodic Gaming

When you think about it, episodic gaming -- that is, releasing chunks of content more frequently as opposed to taking far longer to create full-on sequels or entirely new games -- hasn’t really come as far as many in the industry perhaps thought it would when the concept was introduced to gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The only real advancement has been from a technological standpoint, since now, broadband Internet speeds allow most gamers to more easily digest large files in a fraction of the time it used to take in the days when dial-up modems dominated.

Yet despite the technical leaps, games that are released episodically make up a tiny percentage of games being released today. However, there are a number of developers who have seen success adhering to the episodic release model, the most notable of which is Telltale Games, the developer behind such hits series as Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, and Tales of Monkey Island. And while other major developers have taken a stab at releasing games episodically -- most notably Valve and Rockstar Games -- Telltale has been the one that has managed to see the most success with it, primarily because that’s been the developer’s focus from the very beginning.

Rather than trying to form fit downloadable episodes to its games, Telltale has approached each title from an episodic perspective from day one. As Telltale’s Dave Grossman told 1UP.com back in 2007 regarding Sam & Max Season Two, “We spent almost two years proving out our engine and our production methods in situations that were less precarious before we actually started work on the tremendous overlapping effort that is Sam & Max.” What’s clear from Grossman’s statements is that Telltale is not only intimately familiar with the technical challenges that accompany releasing games episodically, but it also has a firm grasp on what types of games are best suited for this kind of release structure. And just what kinds of games meet those criteria?

Sam & Max

For starters, they typically won’t be graphical powerhouses in the vein of Crysis and Gears of War. However, the engines the developers employ will be strong enough to support the type of game that Telltale just so happens to make so well: narrative-driven adventure/puzzle games. Because Telltale puts such an emphasis on story and character development, the games don’t have to feature the latest and greatest temporal vector shaders or dynamic polygon refractors (those may or may not be actual graphics tools); they just have to fit with the tone and style of the story being told. So when players boot up an episode of Sam & Max or Tales of Monkey Island, they go in understanding that the “low tech” presentation is part of the experience, and as such, the developers can focus all of their attention on the elements that really matter: gameplay, story, dialogue, etc. But best of all, the “simplified” graphics have zero effect on the game’s quality or success as a piece of interactive entertainment.

For more “high-tech” focused developers like Valve, building games on cutting-edge technology plays a significant role in their development philosophies. This helps explain why it took Valve almost six years to the day of Half-Life's release to ship Half-Life 2 (counting the year and change the game was delayed because of a now infamous code leak). Similar to Telltale, and pretty much any developer that decides to build new a new engine before starting a new game, Valve sunk a serious amount of development time upfront to create a highly touted game engine, Source, which they then used to build Half-Life 2. At the same time, Valve developed the groundbreaking digital delivery system, Steam.

Clearly, Valve had quite a bit on its plate during HL2’s development, and this is still one of Valve’s “problems” today: having too many ambitious and resource-intensive projects in the works at one time. As such, it tends to take a bit longer between projects (Left 4 Dead 2 being the anomaly that will be addressed shortly), which has led to Valve’s “episodic” Half-Life 2 releases to have a bit more spacing between them than many gamers hoped they would.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2

In that same 1UP.com interview from 2007, Dave Grossman summed up the difference between Telltale and Valve, saying:

"[Not knowing when to stop] is easy for us to avoid; Telltale is just too small to be able to afford to keep the team on any particular game for very long. I imagine that a big house like Valve, conversely, might go well over the deadline because it can afford to do so. And, to be fair, that might be a perfectly rational decision for studios other than ours."

Not only has Valve earned the right to take their time, they also happen to have several killer franchises to oversee (Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, Portal, Left 4 Dead) -- any one of which a developer would be proud to call its own. Rockstar Games is fortunate enough to have a similar “problem,” but in their case, they have many different studios, each of which can focus squarely on a particular franchise. That results in more frequent additions to the release schedule. Valve is just Valve, and though they have a flexible structure that allows team members to transfer between projects, it still significantly limits the number of games -- or even "episodes" -- it can see through to completion at one time. And that brings us to Left 4 Dead.

Keen observers know that over the past two years Valve has shipped The Orange Box (HL2, HL2: Episode 1, HL2: Episode 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2), Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2. And yet despite this plethora of top-notch gaming, there are quite a few gamers who choose to either complain that HL2: Episode 3 is taking too long, or that L4D2 doesn’t contain enough significant leaps over the first to justify a $60 price tag. Sure, Valve might have oversold its ability to adhere to the kind of release schedule that “episodic content” tends to suggest when it came to Half-Life 2, but it’s not like Gabe Newell and company have been sitting around counting stacks of money and mocking the loyalty of their fans. And yet, by the generalized definition of “episodic content" one could make the argument that Valve has failed, as long as you’re willing to consider releasing five (and possibly six if L4D2 performs well) consecutive critical and commercial hits a failure.

Monkey Island

Telltale recently released the fourth installment in its five-part Tales of Monkey Island series. Since HL2: Episode 2 was released, Telltale has completed three episodic titles: Sam & Max Beyond Time and Space (five episodes), Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People (five episodes), Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventure (four episodes), and is one episode away from completing Tales of Monkey Island. When that is complete, Telltale will have shipped 14 episodes worth of content across four series. Not only does this demonstrate the tremendous level of talent of the folks over at Telltale, but it also shows how efficient the episodic content model can be when it’s part of developer’s strategy from the beginning. Of course, if you compare the sales numbers between Telltale and Valve, you’ll most likely see exactly why Valve is in no rush to make episodic releases a common and/or perfected practice.

To touch briefly on Rockstar, the mega-publisher/developer has managed to be quite successful in its attempts at episodic content, mainly thanks to its two downloadable episodes for Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost & Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Rockstar was able to release these episodes and thereby complete the GTA IV saga within approximately 18 months of GTA IV’s release. And, as is the case with Telltale, this ability to turn around content quickly comes down to the technology that’s in place to support it and the basic narrative/gameplay design of the game itself. Because of GTA IV’s open-world design, the mission structure (“Meet this person here, travel here, and kill/steal/chase something here”), and its open narrative, Rockstar was able to turn around the episodes rather quickly. Of course, this also goes back to Rockstar North being able to concentrate almost exclusively on the episodes, unlike Valve who has to tackle each new project by itself. Ultimately though, Rockstar’s success with episodic content comes down to having a game that is conducive to such a design model, both from a technical as well as from a creative standpoint.

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony

So where does that leave us? Well, episodic games, or at least games that receive significant amounts of content episodically, are still rare. However, for the developers who have tried their hands at it (Bethesda Softworks’ success with its Fallout 3 expansions is another great example), the results have been rather encouraging. While it certainly doesn’t work for every type of game, the technology has reached the point where if a developer wants to take a stab at episodic releases, and it makes sense for their game, it’s much less painful than it used to be. However, just like digital distribution, don’t expect to see the majority of developers choosing to release games episodically as opposed to sticking to traditional development cycles/publishing channels anytime soon. The story of episodic gaming is far from over, and the latest chapter has just begun.

Episodes From Episodic Gaming
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