The Escapist Roundtable #1: Episodic vs. Downloaded Content

The Escapist Roundtable #1: Episodic vs. Downloaded Content

This week the editors look at the relationship between DLC and episodic content.

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What if someone makes an oblivion mod that is just like spellbooks but maybe even better ?

On some games players are encouraged to make other players pay for what they do.
At the same time the liberty with which they use modding tools, and what becomes of their creations is more and more controlled by the publishers.

I know your official position, but do you really think thusly restraining free expression through modding is a good evolution ? (yes , i want an answer)

I sense that in the future it will be more visible :
there is already 2 kind of modders, the ones who make mods because of their passion for the game and share it with everyone;
and the ones who make them because, at least in part, of greed.

I know from experience that the mods made with greed are, in overwhelming majority, not as good as the ones made with passion.
Granted that most mods are not that good most of the time anyway, but the good ones made only with passion are ALWAYS better (and I don't say this because I'm stingy).

Take the Thief modding comunity:
http://www.keepofmetalandgold.com/fmarchive.htm

If all of these mods were pay for , I could never have played most of them;
less people would be playing these mods. In consequence there would be less modders, and the Thief comunity would have died out years ago, so newer even better mods would never have been made ...

Hoping I made you think...

I think DLC is the best thing to happen to video games. It allows the developers to put in new content that is beneficial to the base game but not must-have (Knothole Island of Fable II) or just simply give more options (multiplayer maps, music/rhythm game songs, etc.).

Episodic content: not so much. For one, when the episodes cost ten bucks a pop, and a game has four or five episodes, then I benefit because I get to stop playing when I stop liking the game; and if I like it all, then I've paid the same price as I would have for a full game anyway. But what if the episodes are twenty bucks apiece, or what if there are eight or nine or ten episodes? I've paid a hundred dollars for what a game; I'm not accustomed to that, I don't like it, and it's unfair.

Comics and graphic novels work because buying three or four issues of a monthly series will set you back about the same amount of money as buying the graphic novel that accumulates those issues. I'm only asking the games industry to price their content accordingly.

Something that plays heavily into the debate over the value of episodic content is the ever-ticking clock. I can't think of the best term to apply, but games age much faster than most other media (sometimes mechanically, and almost always graphically). This same topic has been covered other times by the Escapist, but there is a general trend to ignore anything that didn't come out in the past month, let alone 4 years ago (the release of Half-Life 2, for example). By the time the Half-Life 2 arc is complete, the group of people interested in picking it up and playing all the way through may not be daunted by the volume of content (as mentioned by Tom End in reference to .hack), but instead daunted by having to work their way through a 6 year-old game (with 6 year-old AI, 6 year-old target resolutions, etc) in order to enjoy the story on the brand-new-shiny game.

As an example from other media, I recently picked up the first book of an 8 book series (begun in 2003 and finished in 2004), and the first book of a 7 book series (begun in 1982, and finished in 2004). As a youth, I read a trilogy begun in 1945 and finished in 1955! None of this, with any hesitation as to the backlog that I was picking up by coming into it late, or the age of the material. But, when I think about trying to get into Metal Gear Solid, this late in the game, I almost cringe. Episodic content for games has unique issues above and beyond just intimidating users with backlog.

The other thing being, with those series of books, I never once considered picking up the 3rd book, and only the 3rd book in the series, and expecting to remain content with that. Going into those book series, I knew full well that I would eventually end up spending the money on every single one in the series, if I enjoyed the first one. Why are gamers so much whinier about this? "Its not a complete product, and you expect how much??" Of course it isn't complete. Nobody said it would be cheap. Get over it!

In more seriousness, with that in mind, how DO publishers overcome the impression that episodic content should inherently end up costing less to the gamer? Seems a bit of a hurdle.

level250geek:
But what if the episodes are twenty bucks apiece, or what if there are eight or nine or ten episodes? I've paid a hundred dollars for what a game; I'm not accustomed to that, I don't like it, and it's unfair.

The assumption that the sum of all episodes in a series (no matter how many there are, how big the individual pieces are, or how the price compares to the chunk) should inherently be compared value-wise to a single median-priced game is either dishonest, or misled. Even in the print realm, if you buy brand-new books in an on-going series, you are inevitably going to pay more than if you wait until the end and buy the whole set of paperbacks. Why the seeming double standard?

EDIT: P.S. I think this round-table thing is a whiz-bang idea. I look forward to more.

I think for episodic gaming to work properly developers need to take a lesson from TV (& maybe novels I dunno if thats how it works with them too). Either make the whole series before releasing the first episode, or like with alot of US TV shows be continuously making them while the season is running. The impression I get of at least Valves attempt is they take the traditional approach to game development with each episode; hence why it takes so damn long for each one to come out. Breaking down a game into smaller, easier to digest & "cheaper" installments is great in theory, but if each installment has a 2year development cycle gap, the series will stagnate; the more so considering the problems with attracting new viewers once the plot has progressed beyond being easily accessible.

A lot of good points have been said above but I'd also point out that Blizzard has been doing some interesting stuff with their expansion packs. You could coordinate Arendt's point about DLC expanding game design and maps with the concept of episodes that expand the plot. With all of Blizzard's expansion packs you get whole new classes, units, items, etc that keep the core game design intact while giving people a whole new way to experience it. That seems like a decent solution to Pedro's point about game designs like Half-Life 2 aging.

The problem with this setup, adding to Cousin_IT's point about series experts & stagnation, is that you're creating an economic model that encourages the game's story to go on forever. One of the worst trends going on in games right now is releasing unfinished products and then claiming it's going to be a trilogy. It has produced nothing but sloppy writting and unsatisfying endings for people. I can see something equally unpleasant coming up by developers incessantly ending with "Expansion Pack Due in 6 Months!"

If they are going to adopt episodic content, I hope they follow the HBO model and have each Season be designed narratively from the start. Part of what makes The Wire or Six Feet Under so entertaining is that each season has a beginning, middle, and end. About 2/3 through making that season, you check your numbers and decide if you want to make another one. Then you have to cook up another decent story.

I see your point, but when I buy a book that is number X of Y of a series, then that book has its own beginning, middle, and end. It may be a part of an ongoing series, but each work can stand alone (at least from my experience in reading). Your experience will be enriched by reading the whole series, but you can just read volume 2 and be just fine.

However, if an episodic game does not have its own beginning, middle, and end--or if there are not significant game play changes from one entry to another--then I am essentially buying parts of a whole, as opposed to buying full works that are simply part of something bigger.

This is a lazy analogy, but I think it works: you can buy a whole pizza for $8, you can buy a slice of a pizza for $1, but nobody wants to buy a half-slice of pizza for $1.

level250geek:
I see your point, but when I buy a book that is number X of Y of a series, then that book has its own beginning, middle, and end. It may be a part of an ongoing series, but each work can stand alone (at least from my experience in reading). Your experience will be enriched by reading the whole series, but you can just read volume 2 and be just fine.

However, if an episodic game does not have its own beginning, middle, and end--or if there are not significant game play changes from one entry to another--then I am essentially buying parts of a whole, as opposed to buying full works that are simply part of something bigger.

This is a lazy analogy, but I think it works: you can buy a whole pizza for $8, you can buy a slice of a pizza for $1, but nobody wants to buy a half-slice of pizza for $1.

I disagree about books. Say, I buy a standalone book from a particular universe (Star Wars, or Discworld), then fine, that book should stand on its own merit. But for books in a defined trilogy/set, as in Lord of the Rings to which I allude above, I think it is unreasonable to expect someone to read The Two Towers, and walk away satisfied.

In many ways, the crux here is continuity: Penny-Arcade could be said to be episodic, but they primarily avoid arcs of continuity, so that any particular episode of Penny-Arcade can be enjoyed by itself. But Heroes could ALSO said to be episodic, yet just watching Episode 5, Season 1, is going to be a waste of time. Series of games, and episodic games that are heavier on continuity (Half-Life 2) are going to have to employ a different strategy, and face different issues, than games that are episodic/series in that they are essentially little pieces of a game that stand by themselves (American McGee's Grimm games as of late).

As to the lazy analogy, I think it fails to recognize that most of the time, if a pizza costs 8 dollars, and consists of 8 slices, it will be cheaper for you to buy a pizza, than to buy 8 individual slices in separate transactions. There are transaction costs, and businesses factor those in. Nobody wants to buy a half-slice for a dollar, but most will pay 1.25 for a whole slice for a variety of reasons (from the convenience of not having to carry around a whole pizza, to the convenience of getting the slice NOW instead of waiting for the entire next pizza to come out of the oven).

Geoffrey42:

level250geek:
I see your point, but when I buy a book that is number X of Y of a series, then that book has its own beginning, middle, and end. It may be a part of an ongoing series, but each work can stand alone (at least from my experience in reading). Your experience will be enriched by reading the whole series, but you can just read volume 2 and be just fine.

However, if an episodic game does not have its own beginning, middle, and end--or if there are not significant game play changes from one entry to another--then I am essentially buying parts of a whole, as opposed to buying full works that are simply part of something bigger.

This is a lazy analogy, but I think it works: you can buy a whole pizza for $8, you can buy a slice of a pizza for $1, but nobody wants to buy a half-slice of pizza for $1.

I disagree about books. Say, I buy a standalone book from a particular universe (Star Wars, or Discworld), then fine, that book should stand on its own merit. But for books in a defined trilogy/set, as in Lord of the Rings to which I allude above, I think it is unreasonable to expect someone to read The Two Towers, and walk away satisfied.

In many ways, the crux here is continuity: Penny-Arcade could be said to be episodic, but they primarily avoid arcs of continuity, so that any particular episode of Penny-Arcade can be enjoyed by itself. But Heroes could ALSO said to be episodic, yet just watching Episode 5, Season 1, is going to be a waste of time. Series of games, and episodic games that are heavier on continuity (Half-Life 2) are going to have to employ a different strategy, and face different issues, than games that are episodic/series in that they are essentially little pieces of a game that stand by themselves (American McGee's Grimm games as of late).

As to the lazy analogy, I think it fails to recognize that most of the time, if a pizza costs 8 dollars, and consists of 8 slices, it will be cheaper for you to buy a pizza, than to buy 8 individual slices in separate transactions. There are transaction costs, and businesses factor those in. Nobody wants to buy a half-slice for a dollar, but most will pay 1.25 for a whole slice for a variety of reasons (from the convenience of not having to carry around a whole pizza, to the convenience of getting the slice NOW instead of waiting for the entire next pizza to come out of the oven).

I hate to pull a technicality but: The Lord of the Rings is actually one big book. That's the way Tolkien wrote it and that's how he presented it to the publishers. They decided to split it up. But it is the perfect example of episodic content; most books envisioned as an actual series don't work that way. They each stand-alone.

Taking it back to video games. Last year's Too Human was envisioned as a series. Those of us that bought it knew that it was the first part of a trilogy. Yet, it stands on its own--which is a good thing considering we'll probably never see a sequel (which I think is a shame, but hey, different roundtable altogether).

Contrast that with the .hack series, which was essentially a four-disc game, with each disc released as a separate SKU. Each disc cost the same as a single disc title which had its own (both in narrative and game play) beginning, middle, and end.

You are right about the whole pizza analogy though. I did blunder that one, considering that the pricing examples I gave are not realistic at all. A better example would be this: buying a whole pizza that needs to be taken home and cooked, or buying 8 slices of pizza that's ready to eat?

Woah. That was a very, very weird Tumbarumba story.

On the topic at hand, I have to say that I am opposed to episodic gaming.

People always seem to talk about it as a business model, whereas I think this style of releasing should only be done when it serves an "artistic" purpose.

Then again, people like money, so I guess the only way any game publisher will look at the model is from the profitability angle.

I also think that the majority of games turning to this episodic format could make gaming more uninviting to someone who just wants to get into something.

Someone who has never seen a movie in their life (which, really, is what someone new to games feels like) will want something short, an easily digested experience that provides the essentials of a video game experience. And I'm going completely off-topic.

Tumbarumba is weird, man.

Personally, episodic games are great because I've been really busy lately, and even relatively short games like No More Heroes have taken me months to beat. But even with my busy schedule, I can spare a few hours in the span of a week to play the latest Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People episode. Each one takes about 3-6 hours to beat, depending on how much mini-gaming I do and how thick I am regarding certain puzzles. If you add them all together, I spent $50 for 15-30 hours of gameplay, a good exchange in my book.
This also works it's way into the value analogy. If I had wanted, I could have given Telltale $35 upfront, and reserved all the games in the series. I chose the alternate rout because A) I wanted to play the games on the Wii B) I wasn't sure if they'd be good at first, and C) because I didn't want to have to spend that much all at once. So it's a matter of choice: would you rather spend less in the short term or less in the long term. Since most episodic games release a complete collection at the end, the choice is yours (though I'm not sure how many allow you to use the better price as a reservation, so that's something else to consider: speed)

My theory is that someone had the idea that episodic gaming would be easier than building a whole new game. In other words, a three-episode 'set' would be cheaper, easier, and faster than building a single, stand-alone sequel that had as much content as that three episode set, just like breaking one big task into three smaller ones can be more efficient.

I think what happened, though, is that episodic gaming wound up being even less efficient: instead of it being three more manageable tasks, it just wound up being three times as much fighting with the inertia of getting a project started, and three times the crunch at the end.

I wonder what someone with first-hand experience on the inside would say, but that's been my impression, that it's been three mini-projects, rather than one big project where you don't have to keep anyone idle because if there's nothing for a particular team to work on in episode 1, there might be something in episode 2 or 3 to work on, but go right back to 1 as soon as they can to get it out the door.

No one seems to have mentioned how successful the Sam and Max model of episodic gaming is. Released in seasons each episode is stand alone, but part of greater story that reuse characters and locations. It's released in a box at the end of the "season" and in episodic installments. The pricing is reasonable on both. They release 6 episodes or so a "season" on a regular dependable timetable, and we must assume Telltale turns a profit because they've already committed to a third season.

I for one wouldn't mind seeing this model expand to other games, or even other genres.

I like Susan's idea about combining both aspects into one package. Can anyone give me an example of a game that has done this?

I don't think it has been done yet Jumpman, episodic gaming is only a relatively new concept.

I think as long as the games are able to be delivered through digital distribution quickly and easily, length isn't an issue for a game with multiple episodes and hell, give people incentives to play early episodes before going for the latest and greatest thing so that the story can be accessible.

Take for example the Digital Devil Saga games for the PS2. I tried to start at 2 and failed to keep interest in the story. By playing 2 before 1, most of the story of 1 was ruined in the process, making the series dead to me. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find DDS1 in Australia anyway? I've given up searching.

 

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