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The Episodic Experiment

Which series are sustainable? :: February 15th, 2007 :: Features, Valve :: 23 Responses (Feed)
SiN Episodes: Emergence screenshot
SiN Episodes: Emergence paid for its own development, but not much more.

I haven’t been covering the progress of episodic games, mainly because they are only loosely related to Steam itself. The purchase of Ritual Entertainment by casual games developer MumboJumbo however, and the subsequent shelving of the SiN Episodes series, comes amid increasingly noticeable industry whispers that Valve’s episodic efforts are returning only lukewarm sales figures. The episodic debate has been very much re-opened as a result, widened further by yet another Half-Life 2: Episode Two delay. What’s gone — and going — wrong?

The episodic experiment

Perhaps a better question is what’s gone right. The AAA episodes might be stalling, but episodic development is still powering on in other areas. Telltale Games’ Sam & Max in particular is well in the clear, and as Ritual’s director Ken Harward commented in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, that might not be down to mere karma:

Genres that depend on characters more than locations are more likely to succeed in episodic gaming … I think traditional adventure games, with the same core cast but a new mystery to face, are a great example [of that] … Compare [adventure] to a genre where the customer is looking for the new ‘ooh and ahh’ factor. That genre is going to be harder to develop episodes in because of what the customer is looking for.

Sam & Max Episode 3 screenshot
Sam & Max is the episodic success story.

Indeed the strain of creating content-heavy games like the SiN and Half-Life 2 episodes was one of the biggest issues of contention when Valve first announced their new strategy. It wasn’t lost to the players or pundits that a developer and genre both known for piling delays on top of already protracted development cycles probably wouldn’t be the best candidates for producing content to a a “TV-like” schedule.

Valve’s episodic development has cut back on both the delays and the base development time of course, but not nearly enough to offset the new customer expectations that have come along for the ride. Every one of Half-Life 2: Episode Two‘s slips (taking it from Christmas 2006 to Autumn 2007) have been accompanied at some level by the derision of episodic games, the fact that we wouldn’t have anything to deride at all yet if it weren’t for the episodic model be damned.

Gamers on the street, virtual and physical, simply don’t care that it’s their game’s release cycle giving them a better-produced product, or improving its developers’ quality of life, or even allowing its studio to afford to take the sort of risks that the industry at large shies away from. All their perspective allows them to see in episodic gaming is the promise of a more regular feed of cheaper entertainment: precisely what Valve, Ritual, and the FPS genre itself haven’t been able to provide.

Sustainability

It is generally agreed in the media industry that while a film is fronted by a director who takes “artistic control and credit” for his vision, a TV series’ success lies in the hands of its writers. Ritual “put a lot of emphasis on creating memorable characters”; Half-Life 2: Episode One‘s story is noticeably denser; most of the Old Man Murray team are now a part Valve’s writing staff — but both studios also remain (or remained) locked into producing content-heavy games that can’t (or couldn’t) afford to fly on plot alone.

While a film is fronted by a director, a TV series’ success lies in the hands of its writers

Telltale on the other hand have been able to invest heavily in their writing. Each of their bimonthly Sam & Max Season 1 adventure games start in the same building, include the same set of core characters, and, most important of all, have a content-light, stylised cartoon appearance. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the episodes’ critical success has been a result almost solely of their characterisation, gameplay narrative, and stories.

Before we form any conclusions, it’s important to remember that Telltale are in an astonishingly strong position. They are able to capitalise on their huge advantages with little overhead or competition, selling direct to a pre-installed fanbase — and yet their episodes are still a long way from receiving the same level of recognition as their adventure-genre peers. Sam & Max is surely a profitable venture, come as far as it has, but how would a less lightweight series fare on its current sales?

While Valve and Ritual’s episodes have under-represented episodic development, Telltale’s paint a considerably brighter picture than can be relied on. The actual level of sustainability in today’s market is clearly somewhere between the two — though precisely where, I don’t think anyone can yet say.

The grassroots movement

MINERVA: Metastasis screenshot
Episodic development can save amateur mods from an organisational meltdown.

On the fringes of the known games industry, one form of episodic game that can claim complete success. Amateur mod teams, including those behind Counter-Strike, Garry’s Mod, and many of the other most successful names, have long made use of short release cycles to both better hold their projects together and entice earlier player feedback. The methodology isn’t often described as episodic (the term being tied to narratives for a start), but it’s unmistakably the same concept. Release fast and often.

Needless to say, modding is quite distinct from retail. Gamers are far more forgiving of delays when there isn’t a set and promised date to anticipate, and even more so when they know that they won’t be expected to pay anything but respects when a release finally comes. It’s no surprise that even when episodic mods like MINERVA and NightFall see delays of the same proportion as Valve’s, frustration may be evident among the fans but outright criticism is rare. Perhaps the generally more industry-aware nature of the mod playing audience is behind the difference in attitude too, but it’s a distinction well worth noting all the same.

The bridge between these retail and mod worlds, blurring the line between the two, is Steam. Garry’s Mod, The Ship, Alien Swarm, Natural Selection, Dystopia and Red Orchestra are all at different stages along the process of moving between the two, and of course there’s the original triplet of Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress. The list will only grow as more independent developers realise the power of this emerging route to market.

Even if Valve’s efforts toward creating episodic games don’t work out, with Steam and their encouragement of iterative mod development they’ve more than laid the foundation for others to carry on their work. Those modders and independent developers will inevitably create a stable market for the episodically-developed AAA titles that aren’t quite possible today…by which time they will perhaps come out when they ought!


23 Responses to this post:

18 Comments

  1. PacificV2 Says:

    I totally agree on your opinion – what’s the point of episodic gaming if the ETAs aren’t met?

    But then again – it’s valve we’re talking about. They may take time at doing what they do – but they do it like no other.

  2. Nutnoze Says:

    I agree, the episodic content for episode 1 & 2 was a complete failure. Valve seems too bogged down in making larger things like portal, and team fortress 2 to go along with the episodes to make it work properly. Adding these games that you might as well just buy over steam only makes the release date farther and farther away, which really ruins the point of episodes.

    What they should have done:

    Put a LOT of focus on episodes, like a LOT. Make them come out fast. A year wait, is MUCH too long. Make them come out every six months, at most.

    Stop packaging things in with the episodes, it seems like one of the huge things slowing the episodes down is portal and TF2. Just let us buy it over steam for god’s sake, and release the episode alone, cheaper! In my view, the whole point of episodes is to keep us interested in the story, in small bits. Heck, you would probably make a lot of money just releasing one chapter every month or so on steam for $5.

  3. Kruul Says:

    the release dates for these episodic games honestly doesn’t bother me too much – all that matters to ME is that their content/visuals/storyline is GREAT (as HL2’s always has been).

    I was a person who bought SIN Episode 1, I thought it was pretty sweet. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t create more of them. =/

    What would be SWEET, is some sort of system, where MODDERS become the EPISODIC CONTENT generators. We all have seen the explositivity of Garry’s Mod, now all that needs to be done is combining THAT type of authorship, with the ability to produce of a storyline/visual effect that can be quickly taken to market. Modders would COMPETE to produce Episodic content, and the top storylines could be combined and quickly published.

    That is how these episodic games *could* be done, if what we’re looking for is fast, orignal, not to mention, user-driven content.

  4. Beacon Says:

    How dare you call Garry an amateur! DIE HEATHEN!

  5. Tom Edwards Says:

    it seems like one of the huge things slowing the episodes down is portal and TF2

    I can tell you now it isn’t. Separate teams are working on all three — in Portal’s case, a completely new team bought in especially for the job from DigiPen.

    It’s not like Valve can lump everyone there onto Ep2 anyway. It’d collapse.

    What would be SWEET, is some sort of system, where MODDERS become the EPISODIC CONTENT generators.

    This is where Peer to Peer comes in, if it’s even still being made.

    Being able to assemble narratives in Source at the same pace as Telltale is a completely different matter, one that you’d probably be looking at procedural content for (I’ve had my ideas writing this feature. ;-) ).

  6. Cargo Cult Says:

    I suspect the massively delayed Episode Two is in part because they’re building up a large compilation for retail release – instead of being a small, slightly overlooked expansion, it’ll be of full-sized game proportions. And presumably will have a marketing budget to match, despite comprising three (or more) separate games.

    I imagine another issue is their refusal to make something with lesser production values. If you look at, say, a feature film and a spin-off television series, then the special effects, acting, sets and so on for the series are almost always of lower quality. Not surprising – a smaller budget needs to be stretched out over many episodes…

    Valve, fools that they are, appear to be making a big-budget feature film, but in three parts. Oops.

    As for modders creating the episodic content – they have the opportunity already, but at times I seem to be the only person actually releasing anything. Almost everyone else looks determined to build gargantuan game-replacements with unpaid teams of thousands working on innumerable weapons models and dodgy concept art…

  7. Tazers Hurt Says:

    I think that a main reason that this is going so slow for Valve is that they are trying to get the simultaneous Ps3/360/PC launch. Get it out on the PC first, and let the console people want it even more! Then release for massive profit.

  8. Campaignjunkie Says:

    I think the problem is something deeper than the “gargantuan industrial mod complex”: it’s the “next-gen” focus on visuals that is permeating into the mod community. Visit Mapcore or Interlopers and most of the WIP maps are intended more as “portfolio pieces” – not actual levels. These are single level projects that balloon out of control (eg. de_wanda) without the aid of crappy concept art or weapon replacements.

  9. Apollo441 Says:

    It is a good and bad idea at the same time, episode one actually cost me more that hl2 did and there is less action/storyline (i mean in length not intensity).

  10. Psychomidget Says:

    I totally agree with Tazers Hurt, release for us dedicated PC Gamers before the Console newbies.

  11. Alex Says:

    Valve pointed out a few of attributes of episodic content that made it appealing: using technology you’re already familiar with, being able to use pre-existing content and using the shorter development time to get public criticism to push your design in the right direction more often.

    Of course, Episode 2 seems to basically ignore all that and go back to ‘regular’ Valve development. They’re adding a bunch of things to the engine, moving to very different-looking locals and taking a really long time to make the thing. I remember reading that the Episode 2 team started their work at the same time as the Ep1 guys (who then went on to work on Team Fortress 2).

    Anyway, I remember reading from a lot of Trek fans that the plot of the movie Insurrection felt more like a two-part episode of The Next Generation than a blockbuster with a movie theater price-tag.

    If the story Valve is trying to tell with Half-Life works in the opposite way, then maybe it’s good that they’re not lopping off their ambition to get it out the door on time. It would just be better if they said that and didn’t pretend that it was still ‘episodic’. :)

  12. hahnchen Says:

    Michael Russell’s blog pretty much detailed what went wrong at Ritual.

    http://www.romsteady.net/blog/2007/01/what-failed.html

    It wasn’t really episodic delivery which was the problem, but from what seems to be mismanagement of people and projects. There were mistakes with Sin Episodes, and it wasn’t as good as it could have been, but the title did meet its own modest targets.

    The reason Valve has delayed Episode Two for an absolute age is because it insists on releasing all three “episodic” games (TF2, Portal, Ep2) at once to pander the retailers. I’m pretty sure if they released each one when they thought it ready, we’d have Portal already, TF2 in the summer, and Ep2 as its currently scheduled.

    But had they done that, then retail costs would have been higher, the margins for retailers would have been lower, and like Sin Episodes as Tom Mustaine puts it, it’d have been sent “straight to the shit bin”.

  13. Tom Edwards Says:

    Valve, fools that they are, appear to be making a big-budget feature film, but in three parts. Oops.

    Their hands are tied. Just think about the size the backlash would have been if they’d sacrificed quality (what their audience perceive as quality, at least) for the sake of episodic.

  14. demm Says:

    The 2 main points of criticism for Episode 1 were

    • it’s too short
    • it doesn’t add any new multiplayer modes

    Even though Episode 1 was an excellent game, it got several relatively bad reviews. Valve doesn’t want that to happen again, so they take their time and try to add extra value to the game. And imo this is a good step!

  15. poullos Says:

    I have to admit I was one with the crowd whining about EP2 third delay. Why? Because, a short-term valve announced delivery system, turned into a delay-on-delay bundled multi platform release. Valve left it’s original plan on episodic content and focused on how to make it sell more. Nothing wrong here, except from the delays. XBOX 360 and PS3 support and portal+TF2 bundle made a new record in delays.(6 month episode to 15+ months)

    But, they have a reason…
    New generation consoles is a must and valve saw the money vain. Heh, they do what they do to make money after all.

    Now for the bundle. This is awesome but takes time. One have to think though why valve chose to stick to its initial plans to release EP2 with portal+TF2. Are they afraid of low sales? Because, although source is getting quite a few upgrades with Ep2, DX10 is still something that shines over the top. Valve, knows it needs something more to compete DX10 hype and portal+TF2 will serve for now…until Ep3

  16. poullos Says:

    Just a question: do you think pc+xbox360+ps3 simultaneous release will sell more or, valve should release pc version first? IMO, many HL series fans already own a console and won’t buy more than one version on release. PC would sell more on release and further release on consoles would make higher sales. But then again you make a BIG BANG in all three platforms with an excellent array of packages and prices. :)

  17. chopsnsauce Says:

    @poullous

    I think the answer is: Marketing Budget.

    If they do a simulaneous release they only need one marketing budget. So irrespective of whether the sell more or less, the marketing overhead will be less.

  18. Tom Edwards Says:

    http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=13030

    But the biggest news dealt with episodic gaming, since Kim confirmed that Microsoft and Bungie Studios are currently planning two different episodic gaming series for Xbox 360 with Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, commenting: “Our deal with Peter is not about a film guy who wants to make video games”.

    He also revealed of the Jackson/Bungie collaboration: “We’re in the design phase now”, continuing: “The first series will be set in the Halo universe.” In addition to this deal, Jackson continues to executive produce the currently on hiatus Halo feature film.

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