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I’m Super Serial... Please Give Me Serial Games

A post the examines the feasibility of episodic games across several genres, both from the business aspects and player aspects.

Warning – this is a long post. I tend to wax poetic in these kinds of things, taking the long road because I like the scenery. So for the TL:DR crowd: I want more episodic games. Anyway, here we go:

So, I read comic books every other week, when I make it around to getting to the comic shop to pick up new issues. I like letting them build up two or three weeks because I only collect a few books and like to read comics for two hours instead of just a few minutes.

The thing about comics is that I’m glad there aren’t new comics to read every day, but I’m glad I don’t have to wait a year or even six months to read new comics. They come out at just the right speed – just often enough that I can keep up with them but also savor the anticipation right before the next issue of a particularly engaging storyline. I like the serial system. It’s one of my favorite things about comics and it means that I get to look forward to a small pleasure every few weeks.

So, why can’t games do that?

Now, before the flames – there have been some serial games. The most successful, of course, is probably the multi-season “Sam and Max” adventure game series, but they aren’t the only notable entry. There are also Half-Life 2 episodes, the Penny Arcade game, and a few others. But aside from Sam and Max, none of these games are really great hits. The Half-Life 2 episodes probably could have been if the “episodes” came out more than once every two and a half years.

My fear is that game developers are going to look at debacles like the Half-Life 2 episodes and think that episodic gaming isn’t a reliable business model. But I don’t know that any developer has really tried it the right way – less like games and more like television or comics, with reliable release schedules, yearly seasons, and cheap back catalogues.

The thing that makes comics and television successful is the subplot and overarching plot mechanic. I like that I can pick up a new comic and reasonably understand what’s going on within a few issues, because subplots are always starting all the time. I don’t particularly want to start a new series in the middle of a subplot, but I can rest assured that a new sub-plot will start soon. This makes it easy for new readers to pick up an old series. Outside of the subplots, there are always mega-arcs, or overarching arcs going on in the background. If you think about television series, you often have a season-long arc, split up into single or double episode sub-plots. I think this model is the first thing that must be understood when sitting down to design an episodic game: short subplots, long mega-arcs.

With television it’s easy to see where each overarching arc begins and ends – there is one per season. One can reliably guess that the major plot of season one will differ from season two, and two from three, etc. With comics there is less differentiation between different mega-arcs, simply because there are no seasons – a comic is produced on a regular schedule all year round. Some comics have different schedules (three issues a month, one issue a month, bimonthly, etc.) but the series never stops unless it’s cancelled.

So with those ideas in mind, how do we use them to create a good episodic game and the accompanying business model? Well, the most basic idea we have to start with is the idea of progression. As new episodes come out, the player has to feel like they are moving forward in some fashion. Whether this means that the storyline advances, the mechanics change, the difficulty increases – these things matter by genre and by game, but for our purposes, a general sense of progression in some aspect of the game is integral to making an episodic game work. This seems like such an obvious idea that it pains me a little to even mention it, but it’s so important that we can’t continue our discussion without it.

Next, I want to talk about genre, because genre will help us understand what type of progression we want to focus on. Not only will this help us determine what production resources we’ll need to reliably and regularly deliver new episodes, but it will also help us consider which genres might be better suited for an episodic experience.

Now, as I understand it, games basically take three major production cycles to produce: tool-creation, design, and art assets. Tool-creation (with some high-level game design) seems to come first. You can’t make a first person shooter game without a level editor of some sort. Next, the levels are designed, and after that the levels are created and the art assets are produced. I realize that this is a very general overview, but it gives us a basic idea of how the process works so we can start looking at how an episodic game might differ from a traditional game.

Both a standard game and an episodic game must begin with tool creation. This is a given. You can’t make a game without tools, so we have to start there. However, once that phase is done, here is where we split. Ideally, an episodic game would like to reuse as many resources as possible for every episode, so this should be taken into account when designing and making tools. If we choose a first person shooter genre, this means being able to cleverly arrange the same set pieces in multiple ways, so as to minimize what I believe to be the most time consuming aspect of the process after tool-creation: art assets.

Keeping those two ideas in mind, progression and clever reuse, let’s start talking about genre. Each type of genre is afforded a different method of progression. Keep in mind that there are essentially two levels of progression – one type that each new episode MUST have, and another type that doesn’t have to be put in every episode, but must be put in regularly enough that the player also feels a sense of secondary progression (Note, the one major genre I’ve overlooked here is MMOs, as those are already under constant progression):

First Person Shooter, Western Role Playing Game, Action, Action Adventure

Must have: New Areas, More Storyline

Occasionally have: New abilities, new weapons and equipment, and new enemies

Adventure

Must have: New puzzles

Occasionally have: New areas and characters

Real Time Strategy, Strategy, and Tactics

Must have: New scenarios

Occasionally have: New units

Puzzle

Must have: New puzzles (usually meaning new mechanics, but this is a wide-genre)

Occasionally have: Graphical upgrades

Sports

Must have: New players

Occasionally have: New mechanics

Simulation and Racing

Must have: New scenarios (or tracks)

Occasionally have: New units

Fighting Games

Must Have: New abilities, new characters, new storyline

Occasionally Have: new areas, more characters and abilities

Japanese Role Playing Games

Must have: New storylines, new equipment

Occasionally have: New areas, new enemies

Okay, so first things first – this list doesn’t cover all the genres – there are so many nowadays and they are blending together in so many ways that it’s almost getting as bad as trying to label music (Neo-grunge electronica opera, anyone?), but I tried to cover the basics.

So let’s start by looking at each genre one by one to see if it’s a feasible candidate for episodic releases. Remember, we want to focus on two major things here: maintaining a sense of progression and minimizing the creation of expensive resources. The best genres for episodic game play, from a business perspective (and also a player perspective because it means releases will be more reliable and more frequent) are those that give the maximum sense of progression while using the minimum of new and expensive resources.

First Person Shooter, Western RPG, Action, Action Adventure

Since we need new areas on a regular basis for these types of games, we’re going to need a dedicated art and design staff. Even though we plan to reuse textures and objects as much as possible, we still need to give players something new in every episode. We’ll also need a writer to keep pumping new storylines. The writer is important, since a storyline that constantly moves forward is one of the easiest ways to maintain the illusion of progression. Players may be willing to retread old areas if they have a new reason to be there – as long as the storyline is compelling players won’t mind retreading old ground as much. Now, occasionally, new abilities, enemies, and equipment must also be created, so there is not much in episodic versions of these games that we could cut from a traditional production staff.

This makes these, perhaps with the exception of WRPGs and Action, as poor candidates for episodic gaming. WRPG’s are saved because they usually exist in a “persistent” world (rather than “level” based) that came be incrementally expanded, thus reusing much of the old content. Action games would probably be cut too, with the exception of a side-scroller game like the metroidvania series that allows levels to be built with reused tile sets. First person shooter games could be a candidate, but my instinct tells me that the art assets needed would be too much, since much of the enjoyment of FPS games rests on killing new things with new weapons in new places and unlike the WRPG, the FPS player is less motivated to retread old ground for a storyline carrot. This, of course, is assuming a single-player campaign. A multiplayer FPS system could work, but players are already trained to receive new FPS content in the form of DLC rather than subscription or episodes.  One could argue the same for WRPG players, but I believe the storyline carrot is strong enough that this could be overcome.

The last thing to note here is the subset of action games, the hack and slash, or dungeon crawler. This genre is a stellar candidate for episodic gaming, since the excitement from the game rests largely, like World of Warcraft (say what you want about WoW, it’s successful) or Diablo, not on the game mechanics, but on new content. The way you play WoW, Diablo, or Torchlight never changes (with the exception of major updates), but the areas in which you use those mechanics change regularly. (Note: I know that Torchlight and Diablo levels are randomly generated, but the assets these levels are made from are not). Since these games are a world that the player exists in – expanding the world expands the game. Coming up with storylines and the occasional new area seems vastly easier than creating new game mechanics.

Games that could work as episodes: Bethesda games, Bioware games, Metroidvanias, SNES-era Zelda

Games that probably wouldn’t work: Doom games, Crysis, 3D Action-adventure games

Adventure

Sam and Max is already doing this and they seem to have it down pretty well – the problem I see with their model is that I’d like to see smaller, more regular releases that never end, rather than more expensive episodes. One of the reasons I keep buying comics is because they are so cheap – 3 bucks doesn’t mean much to me. Over time, certainly, I’m sure I’d be chagrined at how much I’ve spent, but a player is much more likely to pay 3 dollars weekly than fifteen dollars monthly. It hits a different psychological price point. Aside from that, we can just assume this model is fine – new puzzles, new areas, obviously the staff found a way to make this business model feasible. This means a whole staff, though.  We can’t cut anything except the initial tool-makers (though I imagine they will still be needed for the occasional new tech). However, that’s more than we could say for the above genres, so it’s something at least. I’m not going to provide examples here because there is already a tested example.

Real Time Strategy, Strategy, and Tactics

RTS probably has the easiest content pipeline for creating new content (because the tools used to create these games are often so simple they can be released to the player base), but must struggle against players wishing to pay for that content. Since the genre is primarily multiplayer, the current expansion pack method will probably still reign for a long time. Strategy and Tactics are primarily single player games, in my opinion (the games are either turn-based or very long, which makes for poor multiplayer), so these could be candidates for episodic gaming assuming the storyline provided enough content to keep players playing and the new scenarios were interesting. These types of games would also have a good content pipeline and editing tools, but might suffer a little if the modding community is strong, since that minimizes the professional impetus to stifle the community in hopes of making more money. Still, I feel as though Strategy and Tactics could be good candidates for episodic game play, both because of the easier pipeline and natural tendency of these games to automatically break their game play into large several hour blocks anyhow, which would make new episodes a natural progression of their type.

Would probably work: Final fantasy tactics, Disgaea, Total War games

Probably wouldn’t work: Civilization, 4X games

Puzzle

I don’t see puzzle games as a good candidate for episodic game play. Subscriptions, possibly, but not episodes, simply because a sense of progression in a puzzle game comes from mastering ever increasingly complicated mechanics or a higher speed of the same mechanics. Not only does this most likely have a playability ceiling (Tetris gets pretty hard at higher levels), but the constant creation of new mechanics requires new tech and lots of new design, which is slow. Game “content” doesn’t really exist and cannot be easily expanded. Now, new puzzle games in the Professor Layton style (each puzzle is a separate piece, a storyline joins them) could be possible.

Could work: Professor Layton games, Ace Attorney games

Wouldn’t work: Tetris, Bejeweled, Plants v. Zombies, Braid

Sports

Sports games seem like they would be a given, considering the seasonal nature of professional sports. Each episode could be another matchup or two, based on your favorite teams. However, and this is essential, enough new content would need to be created that the player felt like they were getting enough for their money. If the only thing that changes is the teams and players, users might not feel the impetus to keep buying episodes. Not only that, since there is no real sense of “storyline” in sports games (with the exception of something like wrestling games based on the LOLDRAMA of professional wrestling leagues with “characters”), new mechanics are the only real way to show the player progression. Much like puzzle games, this would probably become unsustainable very quickly. Now, a sports game might work as an MMO, but would unlikely work as episodes. Yearly releases are of course possible, but this is already the accepted model for sports games.

Could work: Wresting games

Probably wouldn’t work: Traditional sports games

Simulation and Racing

Simulation and Racing games are strange things to lump together, but I lumped them together because they both seem to require the same things: new areas to use the same mechanics. For racing this is obvious, the game never changes – it’s negotiating new tracks with new vehicles that make the game interesting. The same with other simulation games – dog-fighting, flyers, etc – it’s the areas and vehicles that make it new and interesting to the player. This is another case where the addition of a storyline could add some needed sense of progression to the player. The only real hurdle to overcome here is this: players would need to believe that the new tracks or locations were worth purchasing. This could be a hard sell, so I feel as though the price point for these episodes would have to be lower than say, something like an RPG, for a player to bite. Since these games occasionally need new units (cars, planes) for the player to use, this could be overcome by having micro-episodes (tracks, levels) and macro-episodes (tracks, levels, and units) – these releases could overlap, with a discount to players who purchased all the micro episodes as they were released. It’s a complicated model and would require some player education, but I feel like it could work.

Could work: Racing games, Flight Sims

Probably wouldn’t work: games where the mechanics matter more than the levels – I’m not sure what these would be, but certainly they exist.

Fighting Games

I don’t think fighting games would work with this model, simply because so much new needs to be added to add more characters (new art, new tech, balancing and design), but there is little incentive for the player to purchase new episodes. The only real carrot is a continuing storyline, but fight game storylines have traditionally been tacked on as afterthoughts and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Could Work: none

Probably wouldn’t work: fighting games

Japanese Role Playing Games

I left these for last because I think these are the best candidate for episodic gaming. They keep the same mechanics and tool sets while adding new areas, items, and storylines as the game moves on. They have obsessive fan bases who would probably be likely to continually purchase new episodes as they are released, and, most importantly, storyline is a major factor in the sense of progression. Storyline is cheap and easy to produce and retains players who would be considering quitting. Not only that, there is a high sense of progression in these games that can easily be raised each month with higher numbers.

Could Work: Most JRPGs

Probably wouldn’t work: Some games, depending on the combat systems

Other Essential things to Consider

Okay, so this is getting a bit long, but we still have one major thing to think about before we all sit down to make millions designing our new hit episodic games: episode pricing and content delivery.

A stellar system for episode delivery, and I can’t stress this enough, is the singular most important thing when it comes to user adoption of the episodic model. Let’s say that again, just so we’re all sure how important this is.

Got it? Good.

Episode delivery should be as seamless and hassle free as possible. The fewer clicks between player’s wallets and playing the game, the less time they have to wait, the better. What this means is this: episodes should preload themselves through a system like Steam, so as soon as a new episode is released, even before it is purchased, it should preload onto player systems if possible. How would that be managed? I envision it like this:

Each game should come with a Steam-like platform (or even use Steam) to manage the content outside the game itself. This client would run in the background, minimized to the taskbar, at all times, just like Steam. When a new episode is available, the episode is preloaded on to the player machine and ready to purchase. Obviously, players must be given an option to turn off this preload, but players should be educated to the advantages of the preloading system. Episodes should be released early in the morning (wee hours) or during the workday, with the idea that once the player gets ready to play it, all they have to do it click a button to purchase the episode (since payment information is already loaded) and start playing the game instantly. Even if a preloading option is not available, the game should be optimized to download new areas in the background while the game is playing so players can begin each new episode as soon as possible.

Episodic games should be treated like comic books or television shows – small, bite-size bits for the adult gamer, finish able in one sitting in a few hours. They should be ready to play as soon as they player decides to play them. They should be released on a regular basis, monthly, if possible, though a bi-weekly or weekly schedule might be even better, if this type of development could be sustained.

Seasons

Ideally episodic games would function like comic books – they never end. However, in the event that tech needs to be overhauled or refreshed, the television model of seasons could be used, with the game running for half a year, then taking a half-year break to refresh tech. Episodes should be able to be purchased individually or with a “season” pass that prepays for all episodes in a season up front. Also, once a new season begins, players should be able to purchase a previous season at a discount.

Conclusion (for now?)

So, this post has already gotten epic – it’s licking the heels of 3500 words already. It’s time to wrap it up. I feel as though I’ve done my best to describe the ideas here clearly and accurately, but invariably I’ve missed something. Please leave your questions, comments, flames, and nerd-rages in the comment field below.

Thanks for reading!

Reposted from my original post on mispeled.net

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