Welcome to the first week of The Escapist Roundtable discussion. This is a new, ongoing feature where members of The Escapist team sit down to discuss a question of importance to them. We want the Roundtable discussions to be a place where readers can engage directly with the questions we discuss on a daily basis. We also hope that this roundtable serves as a starting point which our readers, in the comments section, will take to new and more illustrious heights.
This week’s question is: Has the idea of a brand being built entirely on episodic content been rendered obsolete in the face of downloadable content that fleshes out one larger release?
Julianne Greer: No. Why should it? The biggest barriers to episodic content were delivery mechanism and consumers’ feelings of purchasing an incomplete product. But as games continue to use DLC, people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of downloading supplemental content to their videogames. The second issue is one already in addressed in other media – there are some fully-realized-upon-release pieces (movies, novels) and there are some given in installments over time (TV dramas, comics). Everyone’s different, so the way they consume content is different. As long as this is the case, all different types, paces and schedules of entertainment will be available.
John Funk: This question leaves me a little torn. Personally, I view episodic content and DLC as being totally different beasts. On the one hand, DLC offers additional content that doesn’t affect the core game and its narrative. The Mirror’s Edge DLC is a perfect example of this. And then on the other hand, you have episodic gaming like the Half-Life 2 titles which move the narrative along with deliberate pacing and a defined beginning and end.
So no, I don’t think episodic content is obsolete at all, because DLC and episodic content are two different concepts. A game marketed as being shipped in episodes will deliver a different experience from the game marketed as a complete experience – albeit with optional extra content.
Susan Arendt: I have to agree that one has nothing to do with the other because they perform different functions. Episodic content continues the story arc towards a conclusion, while DLC is broader in scope. I think Oblivion‘s approach to DLC was the best that I’ve seen so far. It included everything from huge quests with new areas (Shivering Isles) to tiny upgrades that added a little extra flavor to the game, but didn’t have a huge impact (Spell Books). And it was appropriately priced.
John: The other thing to keep in mind about DLC is that it is inherently optional, and so you really can’t rely on it to tell the game’s story. If I get to the final act of a game and then find out that I have to pay $5 to fight the Big Bad and see the ending, I’m going to be pissed off. Whereas if I buy HL2 Episode 2 without playing the previous games and feel like I’ve been short-changed because there’s no real beginning and no real ending, well, that’s basically my fault for only experiencing the middle part of a trilogy.
Susan: I’m glad you brought up the HL2 episodes. Because when I look at that series I see that a huge obstacle to doing episodic content well is timing. If you take too long between episodes you run the risk of your audience losing interest or simply forgetting what the heck is going on. And by the same token, if you release them too close together your audience might not be done with one before you’re offering them the another one.
Tom Endo: I definitely agree that the timing of episodic content is crucial to its success. The other day when we were talking about this, Jordan said to me that in terms of length and plot advancement, HL2 Episode 1 and2 are very much what you would expect out of an “episode.” But the time between their releases is far longer than what you would expect for something that’s designed to flow together. I remember one series that had really well planned releases was the .hack series for the PS2. I think all four games were released almost within the span of a year.
Julianne: Yeah, timing is absolutely key. If you want to pull people into your new series, you have to remember you are making a deal with them: They will purchase and download the episodes in a series, but you are promising your customer a regular service. Take TV programming, which is set to a weekly timeslot where fans can get their weekly fix of AwesomeEpisodicProgramX. If that show’s timeslot is left empty too many weeks in a row, the consumer feels like the deal is broken and finds other things to do.
Tom: I think one burden for episodic content, and maybe it’s just endemic, is that even with great execution, episodic content quickly makes us into experts. TV networks deal with this all the time, how do they get new viewers for a show like Lost? And in some ways this goes back to what John said about experiencing the HL2 episodes from the midway point. By the time I found out about the .hack series in May of 2003, it was too late. I knew I would have to go back and play the first one to get anything out of the second game that had just been released, and that’s not even considering all the hours the third and fourth games would require. I mean, with each game clocking in at roughly 25 hours, and the carry-overs between games, it was just too much to think about starting. That’s what I love about DLC; because it’s optional, no one’s left out of the club and everyone is free to join it any time they please.
Susan: I think the smartest approach would be to use the two in concert. Releasing DLC in between episodes would help bridge the gap in between releases. That way you keep a player’s interest while not interfering with the storyline.
Julianne: I do want to add, though, that the deal struck between consumer and provider is not just the timing of release, but also the manner in which they are released. So I could see releasing episodic content and DLC together as a potential problem if some additional content is fee and some is free. This kind of thing confuses consumers; why does this cost money? They gave us the other for free! That gets into dangerous territory where one or both sides are suspicious of the other.
Susan: Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of it should necessarily be free. I was making a distinction between optional and required. The way I see it, smaller DLC can maintain interest in a title in between Episodes, but it should be priced fairly. A few dollars for new environments or a small quest makes sense if you look at it against the larger price of the next full Episode. This goes back to what you were saying about the unspoken deal between consumer and publisher – not only does the timing have to be reasonable, the pricing does as well.
Tom: I should mention that one of our features being released next Tuesday is an interview with a producer at Criterion about everything they’ve done with Burnout Paradise. That’s a game that’s really defined what DLC can be. All of it has also been free up until this latest forthcoming expansion. I think it will be really interesting for everyone to see if that strategy works and to hear some rationale behind Criterion’s decision.
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