Editorial: Change the Channel

Likely to be released across five or more episodes, one per week.
A Minecraft Telltale game would presents itself with some puzzling possibilities.

A fishy wind is blowing across Lcom these days, readers. Our original General Editor and Co-Founder Ethos (of Riddlethos fame*) has vacated his position here to pursue other endeavors on the internet abroad. Our boy is growing up. In his place he has left the position in my placable capable hands. And this is the way of things, fine fellows, not only at our humble website but in other areas of life as well. Why, yes these changes happen within the games industry as well, who would have guess I was going segue into that? As we wave a tear-soaked handkerchief goodbye at our old whatshisname, allow me to reflect on other changes happening all around and rest assured that I have things completely under control. [Note to self: Consider getting things under control]

Where was I? Changes in the games industry, that was it. The changes I mean to discuss this week are ones I predict will see a sharp uptick in the coming months as the results from this low-pressure financial quarter hit the investor meeting PowerPoint slides. They come off the wild success of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones, and eventually Minecraft: Story Mode. These changes are, of course, episodic release schedules. It should be evident from the kind of games Telltale, the contemporary name in episodic content delivery, has been producing that this system has met with very wide appeal. The intellectual property Telltale combos up with have lately all be widely popular games and TV shows, spun into a story-heavy game that is light on interaction and ripe for “school yard” discussions of individual experiences. And while that dramatic focus on decision making has no doubt been part of the success, the episodic delivery is probably overlooked for its contribution.

Their games put a premium on storytelling over gameplay or visual fidelity, which is my Minecraft: Story Mode both odd and fitting when it was announced.
The Wolf Among Us utilizes Tellgame Games’ typical cell shaded art style to smooth over the simple character models.

Personally I am of two minds on the delivery system, but I can see why more of the industry is taking notice to the method. With games like Resident Evil: Revelations 2 now taking up the episodic mantle, I would not be surprised to see more examples to follow that reside outside of the typical Telltale-style of game. Games delivered this way seem designed to increase exposure where standalone releases would otherwise be less capable. As has been the case for some time, the games industry enjoys aping other entertainment mediums like movies and TV, and what both of those industries have over videogames is multifaceted exposure. Games have only recently begun to find a good method of profiting again on old releases, but it comes at the cost of backward compatibility and whatever consumer goodwill along with it. TV and movies have initial releases, in theaters or live broadcast, as well as DVD/Blu-ray and premium/network TV releases. Games have one release date, possibly extended by DLC.

Episodic content looks to combat this limitation while keeping the game’s name at the top of websites for a month or more. Many outlets review each episode individually and perhaps also again collectively when the whole season is bundled in a physical format. Review scores and content have an arguable impact on game sales, but awareness unquestionably does. Less important than what the reviews are saying is the fact that the game is being headlined week after week at high traffic sites, keeping awareness up while not really increasing the amount of content needed to be delivered.

He's always been a hard dog to keep under the porch.
Barry Burton gets a chance to star in his own game since 2002.

As well, the content is initially only offered digitally which strips the retail overhead to increase the margin by roughly eight percent, by my math based on retail profits on sixty dollar games of about five dollars. By the end of the season, a physical retail version usually ships, gaining yet more exposure on store shelves as a “New Release” and keeping retail partners satisfied. Combined with Season Passes and Special Editions, the model adds several chances for success to a formerly singular and all-or-nothing release date. It has the added benefit of being consumer friendly (it does not costs them more) and easy to understand.

And in an exercise mostly in speculation I feel a lot of these decisions have come from careful monitoring of player habits. The lengths that people play games for in one sitting and the overall progress people make in a game can all be recorded now on modern consoles (and likely have been for some time on last gen systems) as well as through platforms like Steam. Understanding retention rates is a huge analytical aspect of other modern platforms like YouTube, and I doubt anything is being differently considered for games. In order to make sure games are not over-produced or under-produced, episodic content can hedge that bet by segmenting the experience into a familiar TV-style structure.

My issues and concerns with a rise in this method are nagging, however. In order to fit an episodic structure, games that need not be cut up will likely be broken apart to fit this model. I look at the previously mentioned Resident Evil: Revelations 2 and wonder what about that game required it to be episodic beside a Capcom executive giving the order. As clear and as multifaceted as it is, it will begin to work against publishers if they arbitrarily make games into episodes across several installments instead of one single story. The impact might be limited, however, as consumers could wait to buy the final bundle but constraint is rarely counted on as the better part of consumerism and neither is compromise in the face of instant gratification. Finally, the episodic structure might begin to ring anachronistic, even regressive, to people now increasingly used to Netflix-style binge watching of whole TV seasons. As games begin to copy the a page from TV, Netflix is actively ripping the pages up. The two ideas do not exactly mesh in the way mainstream gamers and Netflix users most certainly do.

So that will wrap up my little market analysis on the subject of episodic games. So far I have yet to be too greatly benefited or annoyed by the practice. I appreciate the various Telltale games, but do not particularly enjoy them. I was put off by the original RE: Revelations and the second looks to be more of the same, episodes notwithstanding. So let me know if you have a stronger opinion on the practice or if you think any of my armchair analysis is bunk (or amazing, I will take “amazing”, too).

*very famous

5 comments

  1. I actually think you’re pretty spot on, and as you know, I’m typically a fan of those episodic clicky adventures. I’ll never say they appeal to all, but to even think of turning it into some sort of standard is a horrible idea. As you point out, many games would not stand up to the practice, and the likely hood of estranging fans is too great. Episodic gaming must be carefully, and wisely employed, or it will implode.

    Very interesting point about the Netflix Binge Factor, which is generally the only way I will take in a tv show. That is also how I ended up playing The Wolf Among Us, which still stands strong in my mind. Conversely, Telltale’s GoT is indeed ringing a bell or two, but I am playing it as the episodes release, and finding my interest waning.

    As an aside, I think Telltale plus Minecraft is dumb dumb dumb. Come on. Minecraft was tons of fun (as long as I was playing without Bup) but there was never a story there. There were some debatable story elements, but nobody was telling a tale. Arguably, the idea was to let the players create their own along with shaping the world they inhabited. Telltale seems like they’re poking their ePeen where it doesn’t belong, and this coupling seems forced in a way that makes me want to distance myself from them.

  2. Revelations 2 is a fantastic success in the episodic format IMO. This is Capcom testing the viability of sub-$60 middle market games, while utilising the episodic format to generate buzz over a period of a month, rather than a week.

    For just $6 [or thereabouts] the first episode alone provides a crazy amount of content for people who enjoy Raid Mode.

    I have played through Clair’s episode, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I plan on playing through Barry’s later on tonight.

  3. The problem with this episodic bullshit is that it by and large throws intertextual connexion under the bus in favour of an affordable, bite-size delivery designed for people without money or attention spans. It might work fine as a niche enterprise, but we’ve said that about plenty of things, and then they go on to be adopted by every single developer for every single game. So, I have become increasingly opposed to this sort of ‘niche’ thing, being now justly fearful of what the industry will do with it as it picks up it and tries to make it work in every situation all of the time.

Comments are closed.