Opinion: Our Inevitable Episodic Future

The bar for game technology, development budgets and consumer cost is driving ever higher while the hardcore audience is beginning to age, leaving a bit less room for games in their lives. Something's gotta give, and Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander explains w
Episodic content is to traditional gaming what TV is to movies, one supposes. Initially, movies were only in theaters; initially, games were only in arcades. Then, it became possible to watch movies on a home projector; similarly, it became possible to play games on a home console. The next step for cinematic content, of course, was TV broadcasting -- now is the next step for games broadcast content? Some would definitely say so. Each new console generation historically has amped up the bar for just how much graphical, processing, production value and general power needs to drive a game, and that means ever-growing development teams and ever-swelling development budgets. We're fast approaching that zero point where consumers will no longer buy games for a price at which game companies won't lose money. And with price points in this console generation initially ranging from the mid-$200s to $599, we learned, essentially, that very few people will buy a game console for $599. What if, in the next console generation, the "budget" console is the one weighing in at $400? How many people will buy the higher-end competitive consoles then -- no matter how many extra media-oriented features are included? There's a chance, of course, that innovation and hardware consolidation will eventually make consoles cheaper, as occurred with home computers. There's also something to be said for adjusting for inflation. But largely, the current format, wherein every few years we buy a more expensive new console and all of the higher-priced new games for that console, is absolutely unsustainable. With some exceptions (Rock Band, Guitar Hero) consumers are likely to resist price points for a single game that exceed $60 or so. But, given pioneering innovation on the indie front, we've also seen how very small and simple games can be very interesting, very enjoyable and very marketable, so there are no guarantees that graphical sophistication and prices will necessarily continue driving up concurrently. Nonetheless, no matter what the case, we're reaching a ceiling, and something's gotta give. So what are the other factors in the space right now? Three big ones. First, the so-called "rise of a new audience" of casual gamers, or at least, lighter-engagement gamers outside the traditional hardcore demographic. Second, the increase in digital distribution and connected content; third, the success of the free-to-play biz model. Let's look at these factors one by one, to get an idea of the kind of results they might produce for the industry down the line. The "New" Gamer Everyone has heard more times than they can count all about how the Wii created a whole new audience of gamers, and how more and more people are into casual games, and it's a whole new group of people that have never really been into games before. But given demographics, that might be semi-fallacious. Think about it; some people define "hardcore" as 18-35, but the most active and committed sector of the market is really probably something like 14-22. They're the ones that have the time. They've also got no bills and no rent, mostly. But after that age, they start going to work, needing to manage their own expenses, and generally developing more complex adult lives. At the very minimum, they have less time and less money for games; on a broader level, they've matured somewhat, and likely have a broader spectrum of interests, without desiring to invest so much of either resource in a single relatively time-consuming hobby. Definitions, though, aren't so black-and-white as "hardcore" versus "casual." A good chunk of these "older folks playing games" that the market's all abuzz about, this so-called "brand new demographic," is simply the traditional gamer who is beginning to age. If they loved grind RPGs all through their teens and early twenties, they're not going to suddenly switch to Zuma just because they don't have so much time anymore. They're going to want a complex, engaging and familiar experience, only with a shorter time commitment and less cost. Something like the difference between a three-hour mafia flick and watching The Sopranos once a week, for example. And for all of you reading this -- can you imagine losing interest in games completely in ten years? The market is set to "broaden" even more when the Atari babies who were raised by Nintendo start getting on in years. Death Of The Retail Box? I'm not nearly the first to predict that the traditional $60 box on a shelf is on the way out, because of rising costs, broadening audiences and a wider array of payment options for consumers. Warcraft, and possibly LOTRO, are the only MMOs, for example, that clearly manage to continue surviving in the long-term without being free. For online games, this means there are a higher number of products that users can at least dip their toes into at no cost, and then only pay if they want to invest further. Imported ideas from the East, like microtransactions, are increasingly allowing consumers to pay for a game exactly what it's worth to them. Game companies will also continue to make unprecedented amounts of money from in-game or wrap-around ads for as long as that bubble lasts, enabling online games to continue being free, or nearly so. So consumers right now have two choices: download something for free, or nearly free, and maintain control over both cost and user engagement -- or roll the dice and pay $60 at retail for a finite number of enjoyment hours, hoping you turn out to agree with that reviewer who gave it a 9. I think it's pretty clear which way things are going. For consoles to survive another generation, they'll need to take a page from this book. They've already begun, in large part. Xbox Live has some pretty sophisticated multiplayer and social networking features, free downloadable demos, and plenty of smaller, simpler downloadables on Live Arcade. Sony's got the downloadable thing too, with plenty of simple yet well-designed indie games available digitally -- and they've made it clear they're aiming to catch up in the social connectivity department, too. How much further of a stretch would it be to divvy up major new releases into shorter, cheaper installments and offer them as episodic downloads -- no box, no disc required? Tune In You can already look at some current offerings -- the Half Life episodes, or even a game like No More Heroes, to see what this might feel like. No More Heroes is structured around a series very dramatic assassination missions. Without giving anything away, there are ten or so of these, and each mission plays like its own little episode -- you get the background, you prepare, and then the fights are both cinematic and climactic. There's a satisfying conclusion when you win, and it feels just like you've watched an installment of your favorite serial television show. The game's comic tone, stylistic elements and real "character's characters" help with this, too. There are plenty of things to mess around with outside of the mission structure, so there's more to do if you have more time -- but everything generally can be digested in one tidy bite if you haven't. And the depth of experience doesn't suffer, either. How cool would it have been if each of No More Heroes' missions was released separately, once per week, digitally? And you and all your friends who were interested in the game could get excited together looking forward to the next crazy part-time job, the next larger-than-life boss character, and then all tune in together for the latest? Then the next day, you hit the official site to see a sneak peek of next week's fight and blabber about it -- reflect, speculate, enthuse, complain -- on the forums? Would be fun, eh? And, given that kind of setup, I doubt anyone would feel any less immersed and involved than they would playing a sixty hour graphical wankfest all by themselves. Not to eschew the 60-hour marathon solo-play game. That's what I do on the weekend, after all. And just like there's still a thriving audience for movies even though we can watch HBO at home now, the traditional hardcore game will not likely ever totally disappear. And everyone's probably got one game experience that, if done right, by the right developers, the industry could name you its price. But the days when they could set the bar that high every time, regardless of any other factors, will soon be over. This kind of format would be good for games, too -- just use this article as an example. Sort of long, isn't it? What if yesterday I'd presented an idea and then asked you to read the rest today? Assuming you were interested, you would have found it much more digestible. And how many more people do you think would read the entire thing if it had been presented in two shorter pieces? Worth thinking about, yes?

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