Should video games be more like TV shows?

Luke O’Brian over at Slate talks about episodic gaming:

Should video games be more like TV shows?
I’m old now, and I’ve got to work and pay bills. I’m not alone. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is now 33 years old, an age at which marathon gaming sessions are (usually) impossible. But today’s games are deeper and more complex than ever. Some can take 40So, how should game companies appeal to older players? And what should aging gamers do to get their fix without having to play 40 hours a week? One possible answer is episodic gaming.

The idea behind episodic games is to release content in small batches, like episodes of a TV show. This concept has been around for a decade, but every attempt so far has flopped.

I hear you Luke. We’re all getting old! It is my old-person opinion that most new games these days tend to narrow the market, focusing on more and more hard-core dynamics and game players. It’s a sort of tail-eating conundrum for game publishers and developers. They’ve created a customer who is forever seeking a more powerful drug – a continuation of game concepts that further distill, streamline, and improve on the original high. Eventually Namco will have to release “Ridge Racer” in an intravenous drip.

While this is a good thing for the core gamer, I feel this narrowing of focus works to limit the growth of the gamer demographic as a whole. Bill Gates was once quoted as saying, “If General Motors had kept up with the technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.” I’d say that if GM had “kept up” with technology like the gaming industry has, we would all be driving $60 cars that exploded the moment you got behind the wheel – unless of course you were “hard core”.

But you can’t really blame publishers. Budgets increase. Schedules grow longer. The stakes get higher. In a difficult market you can lose it all trying to invent “New Coke”, but sticking with “Classic” is a pretty safe bet. What’s an industry to do?

Enter episodic gaming. Smaller games, shorter productions, and lower budgets. Possibly the solution aging gamers have been looking for?

If developers want to win big with episodic gaming, they need to do more than merely dice up pre-existing genres. They need to think episodically from the start. In short, they need to become more like TV producers.

Recent big-budget stabs at episodic games have met with so-so success. Both Valve’s “Half-Life Episode 1” and Ritual’s “Sin – Episodes” both tried to bridge the gap between a full-blown “feature” (to borrow a film term) game and a television-style episodic game. From what I understand, in both cases, the teams simply built “too much”. Ritual’s production lasted 12+ months, yielding 5+ hours of game play. Consumers will have to wait another 6+ months before a new episode is released.

To me, these early attempts look like they tried, but didn’t go far enough to embrace the true nature of episodic. I sense that for consumers to really connect with episodic game content the game size, price, and frequency of release will all have to come down to an equivalent of grabbing an episode of “South Park” from iTunes at 1.99 every week.

Such as…

October 17th release of Sam & Max: Season 1 on GameTap
The first episode of Sam & Max, the episodic adventure game, will debut on GameTap on October 17th, followed by the international release on November 1st. After the initial episode, Telltale will release one new episode per month for five months, starting in December and running through April. More details on the game’s release and price structure can be found in our recent news item.

Cool! Will be interesting to see where this one goes.


8 responses to “Should video games be more like TV shows?”

  1. I’m not going to spend ten bucks apiece for twelve episodes that only yield 1-2 hours worth of linear gameplay each, when I could spend fifty to sixty bucks for a product with sandbox/emergent gameplay with borderline-infinite replay value.

    Developers will have to set sensible prices if they want to get anywhere with episodic gaming.

    Sam and Max sounds interesting though. Might be worth checking out if the prices are right.

  2. I don’t think the “Classic game” and “Episodic game” are incompatible at all. We should not doubt (Episodic game) this form because of our habit. Yes, to me It’s just a new form in game.

    Just like the difference between the Tea-Restaurant(A Kind of simple dining-room in HK, Macao or other citys in Guangdong Province PRC)and luxury hotel like Shangri-la. They both have
    their customer. So the “Classic game” and “Episodic game” are the same I believe.

    Maybe this comparison is not suitable exactly, but you know-that’s my opinion. The key is the game instead of the form.

    Of caurse, for the “Episodic game”, we do have to consider much more such as you mentioned in your words from game size, price, and frequency of release, etc. Anyway, your article makes me think about more about the “Episodic game”. 🙂

  3. I’m really disappointed with the idea of episodic gaming, especially since it seems to be catching on. All it really is is a method of getting more money for less gameplay. People have already noted that you’d be getting less for your money, but there’s also the issue of breaking the flow of the game. In order to have a game fit into a more episodic format, you have to chop the story down into smaller parts, which loses the plot flow.
    Not only that, but there’s a longer amount of waiting time between game episodes than with something like a TV show, because games take more time to put together. So gamers end up forgetting the salient points of the plot and that further reduces enjoyment.

    But the really annoying thing is that it continues the recent focus on the storyline in a game. Sure having a good story in a game helps immerse the player, but that doesn’t mean that a good game NEEDS to have a storyline. There are plenty of amazing games out there that don’t rely on plot, and yet they’re just as fun as those with plot.

    So with episodic content, we continue to focus on plot in a game, and that results in turning gaming into a sort of “comic book” deal, with a focus more on storytelling. (And poor storytelling at that. About how many times has each Xman died by now anyway?)

    People have also mentioned that this would reduce games from their non-linear gameplay back to linear gameplay in order to accomodate the release of content. Can you imagine playing an episodic version of Fallout or Oblivion? Oh the horror . . .

    I can see why developers would want to go the episodic route though. Less risk and more profit potential. But then, why do games cost so much to make nowadays? Graphics seem to be the primary issue, as well as all the other glitzy things, such as ingame physics, monumental music scores, voice acting by Hollywood stars, etc. Remember the days where a few developers could make a game that many would love, despite the lack of pretty graphics and physics and all that? And now that we have all kinds of great tools at our disposal that makes it all the easier to program games. We don’t need to write in assembly to get speed. We can afford to waste space on writing object-oriented code.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing games with last-years graphics engine as long as they had some great gameplay in them.

    Anyway, I’m sort of wandering off topic here, but I’ll excuse it on account of me being really tired. Suffice it to say that I’m honestly hoping that another gaming crash comes around. That should get things back to square one, I think . . .

  4. Speaking of the game and TV/movie connection, Mr. McGee is working with the Alice (2007) movie project base on his game. There is much debate going on at the imdb over some details of the movie and the original game. I am wondering if Mr. McGee would be so kind as to answer two questions:

    1) Although in the Alice books by Lewis Carroll there is plenty of evidence that suggest the “book” Alice is meant to be Alice Pleasance Liddell (especially given the final poem of the series), however I am curious to know what Mr. McGee had/has in mind for who exactly is Alice in the game/movie to be?

    2) What age is Alice meant to be in the game/future movie?

  5. Kevin Bruner (Telltale’s CTO) is always worth a listen if you get a chance.

    The major thing that Kevin uses, and I absolutely agree, are comparisons to non-interactive media. There is a very wide variety of non-interactive media and no one talks about how one is better than another like people talk about “classic gaming” versus “episodic gaming”. The difference is the same as between movies and television and television didn’t kill the movie industry.

    I think episodic content is something of a no-brainer. It may not seem like it right now, but most of what we’re lacking is the gaming equivalent of “television channels”, if just for accountability to a schedule, much less useful aggregations of “shows”. GameTap is out there (and part of a company known for traditional television channels), and they seem to get it. Steam is out there and they are slow to be a “television channel” because they still want to be a broad distribution platform. It would be really interesting if Steam created a “premium content channel” and started to force accountability from its studios in that channel, particularly Valve. Certainly it would be the tail wagging the dog, but it would do Valve wonders to commit to an episode schedule.

    Obviously there are a lot more opportunities for “television channels” to pull independents together or to pull niches together. I’d love to see GarageGames get interested independents together with committed season schedules.

    “Casual game” growth has only benefitted the games industry as a whole, and I think that episodic programming will become yet another interesting slice of the spectrum.

  6. This Sam and Max thing sounds a lot like Guild Wars where they release a new expansion every few months or so. I think for people who can’t put a lot of time playing games should know of other ways on how to save energy and time in it. Like in Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater, Snake will gain health and Stamina whenever you turn off the system. So you don’t have to hunt for food. There is also a chance of killing The End (Who is the slowest to fight) or if you do have to fight The End, just turn of the system live your life for a week come back and he dies LOL. There is also a lot of games that features Easy or Very Easy for people who can’t or dont want to waste time battling one enemy. You can also do what I do for RPGs where you gain levels only when it’s needed and fight boss using all items, and magic and run whenever you get the chance. But older people now a days like my uncles are more into racing or some kind of first person shooting games. So there is no real hassle with those kind of games. So I Don’t think episodic games are really necessary it’s more of are you the kind of person who needs to unlock every lockable or do you run like hell to get the damn thing done.

  7. Wow, I don’t get how people can have a problem with this. Its not like this format has to take over the entire industry. It offers a new and different way to get your entertainment.
    I personally love the idea. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a game that takes 40+ hours to complete and just didn’t have time to finish it or I just got tired of it. I finished the first episode of Sam and Max by playing it for two nights and about 2 hours each time. It worked out perfectly and was well worth the 10 bucks for the Gametap monthly fee.
    3drealms should think about this format for Duke Nukem forever. Maybe we’d finally get a chance to see something.

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