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Sunday Thoughts: Episodic Content

Why is it so hard to get right?

Those of you who don’t listen to the podcast or pay much attention to me, and I can’t blame you if you largely ignore me, probably don’t know how much I love comic books. The fact is I love them a lot, an almost worrying amount if I’m honest. I have a lot of single issues, and the number increases weekly.

Whilst I love comics, I do often ask myself why I pick them up every week. I mean for almost every story you can wait six to eight months for a collected edition, and pay less money than you would if you picked it up as individual issues are released.

A pretty average weekly comic haul.
I suppose part of it’s wanting to keep up with everyone else, if you’re reading a story months after everyone else is done with it you can’t really have much of a discussion. Certainly a few people will talk to you about it, but you’re just going to have better conversations if everyone’s reading it at the same time. It’d be like watching Lost now and trying to have a conversation about a particular scene in one episode; you’re probably not going to get much response.

There are other elements that add to the draw of getting comics as soon as I can though, and it’s one of those I really want to talk about today. It’s the art of the cliffhanger, needing to know what what happens next. It’s about getting a bite sized chunk you can consume quickly and being left begging for more, being desperate to see just how Spider-Man survives this or how Batman beats the Joker this time. Obviously you’re pretty sure they’re going to win, I mean the hero does tend to, but it’s finding out how that intrigues and entices.

TV shows are the same as well, but here’s the important bit, the bit that most games seem to forget about when they talk about episodic content; it’s all about timing. A story driven TV show comes out every week, in some cases every day, and leaves you with enough to come back for the next episode. Comics tend to come out about once a month and that’s just about at the limit, comics that are on a fortnightly schedule do hold attention much better.

Any longer than a month though and you’re in trouble. There was (and possibly still is) a series called Scarlet, and interesting book about a fairly normal girl sparking a rebellion against the corrupt police force in her city. It was intriguing, enjoyably paced, well written and, because it was on a bi-monthly schedule, I’d often forget what had been happening in the last issue. It disappeared after five issues with very little information on its future, and now I can’t remember many of the plot details beyond the broad overview.

It seems odd then that episodic content for games rarely seems to hit to the kind of quick schedule that works so well in other mediums. Looks at The Walking Dead, episode one was in April and although the second episode was scheduled for this month there’s been little word on it so far.

There are, obviously, different development concerns with games, and they have to go through certification in a way that no other medium does. Still, it seems like some of this could be taken into account, or more content could be produced in advance.

This seems to be the approach that Spartan Ops is taking. If you don’t know about Spartan Ops, it’s an episodic co-op campaign for Halo 4. A new episode will hit each week and, impressively, each features five missions as well as narrative content. 343 have also said that they’re trying to weave narrative strands into those missions, something that’s certainly welcome.

Halo 4's Spartan Ops looks light it could be a great example of how to do episodic content right.
The best aspect though? It’s completely free as long as you have Xbox Live Gold and, given that it’s an online co-op campaign, requiring Gold isn’t really much of a restriction.

Of course I’m not saying that every developer should make their episodic content free, that would be lunacy. Obviously Microsoft are throwing money at this, and that’s also probably helping in making sure it hits every week. Still, it’s hard to argue that the general approach to the content isn’t good.

Whilst I suppose some may feel a bit overwhelmed by new content every week, I think it’s a fantastic approach. It keeps the game fresh in peoples minds and by having it hit weekly 343 and Microsoft can create a real buzz around the product long after its release.

Would it work for a product that’s entirely episodic though? I really don’t know. Without a big budget like Halo it might be tricky to pre-load all of the content, but then again you have to do it for a non-episodic release. I mean if you release a full game you have to have everything ready to go before release, why is this such an issue for developers working on episodic titles?

Maybe the simple answer is that games just can’t work in episodes, but I’d like that to not be the case. Whilst huge games can be great, it’d be nice to see someone really nail down the episodic style with a quality story told every week or fortnight. It would be nice to see those differing approaches, and I don’t think one would harm the other; just because I love TV shows doesn’t mean I don’t see films right?

  1. bmg_123
    Since: Feb 2012

    Whilst it obviously wouldn’t work with every game, episodic content would be nice to see in games like Just cause 2; giving new races or small missions every month for a while after release. I think of something like that as a solution to the online pass problem. Instead of restricting online pay, and punishing the poorer consumers, games should simply add small rewards for those who do buy new, as long as it’s actually worth it of course.
    A great example of this would be Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s VIP code, which gave free map packs to those who bought new, which was a great way to extend play, and consequently it became the game in which I’ve spent the most time ever. A game I’ve spent around 1/20th of the time in would be Battlefield 3, simply because it offers no content beyond the (shoddy imo) Back to Karkand maps. EA would instead charge us £40 for what Bad Company offered for free.

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 16:14.
    • teflon
      Community Team
      Since: May 2009

      Oh, I hated that with BFBC2. The free maps were all just the variants of those already on disc, and once we knew that, I was annoyed that there wasn’t any really new content on the way, and quickly tired of the smaller selection of maps in each rotation, leaving the game fairly quickly.

      BF3 is an odd one, though. I think adding in the Karkand maps was nice, but they haven’t kept up the stream of new content as well as they did elsewhere. Too much time without new maps has, I think, probably lead to a lot of apathy and people leaving before Premium came out. It definitely feels like they were winging it. Now that I know better what’s coming, though, I’m quite intrigued by the future of the game again. Shame it costs so much.

      Whereas, something like Uncharted 3 had a great stream of content, but it was all a bit scattershot with old maps coming back, skins, co-op etc. etc. In the end, it felt like I hadn’t really got my value from the Fortune Hunter thing, because they promised 14 thingies of content, and then squirmed out of it with skin packs, UC2 maps and so on, which wasn’t really made clear.

      Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 16:28.
      • bmg_123
        Since: Feb 2012

        I get what you’re saying about the variation of standard maps in BC2, but at least it was something fresh, and free too, and it certainly kept me and my friends very entertained for a long time. And yeah, BF3 Premium definitely costs too much.
        Still haven’t gotten around to picking up Uncharted 3, I’ll get it used at some point because somehow there was a bug with the store and I downloaded an online pass for free :p
        Although I won’t be getting the Fortune thing, way too many rehashes there, which didn’t make sense since all of the Uncharted 2 map packs were pretty great…oh well!

        Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 16:36.
  2. teflon
    Community Team
    Since: May 2009

    Telltale used to nail the monthly releases no problem, but lately have gone off the boil a little. I’m not sure why that is, because it’s left people with a ridiculously long wait between episodes 1 & 2, and, to be honest, I’ve almost forgotten all about TWD. I do believe that they’re much better after the 2nd episode again, but even so…

    Still, they’re not quite as bad as Valve at episodic gaming. ;)

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 16:31.
  3. tonycawley
    Pint! Pint!
    Since: Feb 2009

    Hate to say I told you so but I said this would happen with TWD and everyone insisted it wouldnt. When ep 1 released it was meant to be an episode per month, quite tempted not to buy ep2 just to show my displeasure.

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 17:11.
  4. hazelam
    Since: Feb 2009

    i know what you mean about comics, i get the uk reprints of the dc books Titan put out in the uk, the trouble is Titan are a bit crap.

    they did a terrible job when they first picked up the dc license, jumping back and forwards through the continuity, filling the book with elseworlds stories when the main storyline gets interesting, and just missing out important threads.
    amyway, the end result is sales dropped, and now they’re putting the titles out every two months, ironically, just as they seem to be getting their act together.
    so i have to go back and reread the last issue to remind myself what happened before i read the new issue.

    i think the trouble with games is maybe they underestimate the amount of work they’ll have to put in to do episodic content.
    they may be small compared to a full game but they still need a lot of work.

    i’m surprised Telltale don’t seem to be able to keep to the schedule with the Walking Dead game.
    but then with the previous titles on console they were just porting them not creating them as they go, i don’t know how they did with the monthly schedule with their earlier titles on pc.

    but if they knew they couldn’t keep up they should have delayed the launch until they had enough done so they were sure they could get it out monthly like they said they would, especially when they’ve got people who have bought the season and are left waiting for the latest episode a lot longer than they should.
    i know i’d rather wait longer for the first episode and get the rest regularly than wait months between each episode.

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 17:18.
  5. LycanGav
    Since: Apr 2009

    Something that should be taken into account with The Walking Dead is that Telltale have said multiple times that fans actions within the game are shaping their development of the narrative. The example they gave is the choice between two people the player must make at the end of the first episode, sacrificing someone. They assumed that the split would be 50/50 roughly and so developed towards this end with regards to how the story would proceed. However, through their stat tracking they noticed that the split was almost 80/20 in favour of one character. This led to a revisit of key story elements to examine if they had shaped the outcome and if this might occur in other key areas.

    Games really cannot be compared to other media for episodic content because generally players are shaping how the story plays out. Comics and television have a set narrative, by and large, and it’s simply a case of following the script and churning out the product. When you are trying to construct a more fluid narrative however…..

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 17:29.
  6. PA_Kid
    Since: May 2012

    I think it is important to note that games in general are not an episodic industry like TV or periodicals are. Those industries are built completely on that model.

    Games are more like movies in that they are larger budgets and done one at a time. As far as I’ve seen,in those two industries things only use an episodic model for one of two reason 1 – to save money like filming movies back to back or 2 – because they need money for the first episodes to help fund the rest (likely telltale’s reason)

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 19:13.
  7. bunimomike
    Since: Jul 2009

    The very nature of games development might make this tricky and only particular genres and certain-sized developers (for the larger franchises) might have the clout to go with something episodic. However, it’s something I’d like to see more of as it will hopefully prevent huge financial losses for said company when things start to perform below their forecast. On the plus side it means smaller ventures could be set-up and ones that flourish go on to be massive franchises.

    Great article for a Sunday (read: quiet day for real gaming news so perfect for mulling over).

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 19:33.
  8. Roynaldo
    Since: Nov 2008

    An episode of a game cant be made in 2 weeks. They will have to make it well before its release…. the cash will be spent on development and therefore why bother releasing it in bits? The games industry cant possibly function like that although for devs to take a risk and see how it goes would be welcome, they cant afford to throw away all that time and money on a chance. The games industry doesnt deal in taking chances.

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 20:30.
    • bunimomike
      Since: Jul 2009

      Neither do the others, fella (TV, film). It’s about delivery and some games could do this. Publishers just need to be careful, I reckon.

      Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 20:58.
  9. LycanGav
    Since: Apr 2009

    Nah, TV definitely deals in taking chances. Production companies will churn out loads of pilots every year, throw a bunch of them at the networks and see what sticks. If something sticks, they’ll often make six to fourteen episodes and see how it goes, before ordering more episodes based on reaction and ratings. This is often called a “back nine order”.

    Comment posted on 17/06/2012 at 21:03.
  10. Omac_brother
    Since: Nov 2011

    After waiting an enormous time to finish the BttF series, I have decided to wait until all the episodes are available for a series before delving in. The wait kills me.
    I still love the idea, because I can play for 4 hours and Ive completed an episode, great for short bursts of gaming, but the wait… no thanks.

    Comment posted on 18/06/2012 at 08:34.