This morning Auriond informed me of an email from an adventure-gaming enthusiast about our development of Out of Time. They were very concerned about our decision to make the game episodic, and had inquired to us about reconsidering our episodic development. Team Effigy has always been wide open to consumer and player feedback, as we find that it is very important to take into consideration all comments and critiques of whatever we are working on.
In that light, instead of continuing to write about mind-mapping in this issue of my development diary, I’m going to take the time to give plenty of explanation as to why the episodic formula is going to be very important for Out of Time, and hopefully put curiosities at rest in the assurance that I’m pretty sure we know what we’re doing.
(This article is also fairly long-winded. You’ve been warned.)
Why they work, why they don’t, and why we’re doing it.
If you look at the history of current episodic gaming, you can certainly say that there is a vast difference between creating a game in episodes, and creating a game to be episodic. One of which can encompass both points, and one of which can only hold the former. This, intermingled with how the episodes are developed and released, can easily determine whether or not an episodic game can succeed greatly, or fail miserably (outside the realm of being, at the core, a good or bad game). I’ll be talking about the top three main points of such successes and failures.
1) Episodic games should have a story that specifically fits the episodic format. Otherwise, don’t bother. (Also: If you are making an episodic game from the beginning, it’s a good idea to keep it that way.)
TellTale Games is currently the studio at the forefront of episodic gaming, even though their first episodic series was a bit of a flop. Starting as a hodgepodge collection of former LucasArts employees, their first episodic property attempt was that of Jeff Smith’s Bone (a graphic novel series that is a particular favorite of mine). In my opinion, they picked a very poor property for episodic gaming: Bone is not a story arc that fits the idea of ‘episodes’ very well. It functions much better as a long storyline, and the broken-up nature of episodic format does not attune to the nature of the way Bone’s story flows.
Once TellTale began getting (back into) story arcs that fit the episodic format much better, they began to see a much larger return on their efforts. Sam & Max, a property formerly worked on by members of TellTale (and a property that they wished to get back into when they formed TellTale), was their gratuitous launchpad of episodic gaming awesomeness. It’s one of those properties that fit the episodic format perfectly: a comic with short, contained storylines that have larger story arcs running through them. Stories that can be enjoyed independently from one another, and yet are part of a much larger, much more enjoyable vision.
The plain success of Sam & Max lead TellTale onto one hot property after another: Wallace and Gromit, Homestar Runner, and Monkey Island.* All properties, of which, translated perfectly to episodic format in one manner or the other. Wallace and Gromit through their popularity of several short animated films, and Homestar Runner through their quirky and highly episodic flash animations. The quality of Monkey Island related directly back to TellTale’s grassroots: the highly reguarded collection of existing Monkey Island titles.
TellTale is certainly the current forefront of episodic adventures because they understand that in order to have a successful episodic game, the story must fit the formula.
… Of course, you can also make a very, very, very bad game by reversing the formula: fitting an episodic storyline into a full-length game.
Brace yourselves. I’m going to talk about Indigo Prophecy. (Or, as most may know it, Fahrenheit.)
I was drawn into this game by the demo. I found the concept that I was playing to be truly awesome: the main character had just murdered some stranger in cold blood, and I had to clean up the crime scene and vamoose before the mean policeman caught me. I was impressed that it got a very visceral response from me. My heart was pumping while I was trying to clean up the blood and hide the body, all the while watching as the elderly officer made his way to where I was hastily covering up my trail of unsolicited murder.
Considering it impressed me, I went and purchased the game. At full price.
… And heavily regretted it.
I believe Ben Croshaw (Yahtzee, for all you Zero Punctuation and Trilby adventure fans) said it best in his Condemned 2 review. It has a plot that, at the halfway point, goes something arbitrarily known as ‘snooker loopy’. There is a total abandonment of subtlety, there is a sudden introduction of ancient mystical cults, and enough ‘wtf’ moments to sate you of un-conjointed randomness for the rest of your natural life.
Moments of which include, in no particular order, being chased by a panther in a Mayan temple, secret cults named after different colors of the rainbow, dying and then coming back to life (as in, you are basically a walking corpse) to have sexual relations with the police officer (ya, srsly) chasing you for murder, angelic statues springing to life to blatantly attack people, discovering a puddle of alien goo on a military base, being attacked by giant insects, and the cheesiest of face-palming paranormal-related content: indigo children.
That, paired with some very sticky and very frustrating quick time event ‘simon says’ gameplay (that I swear single-handedly gave me carpal tunnel through movement repetition) made me a very unhappy adventurer. It made me wonder: why? Just … why?
When I discovered that it was originally intended to be an episodic game, it suddenly all came together. It all made sense. They tried to fit three (or more) games into one title. I felt very bad, as I knew that if they had stuck with the episodic formula, the game probably would have done much better. Unfortunately, Quantic Dream ran out of funding while trying to ‘revolutionize’ the genre, and had to mush all of it together. The storyline did not merit at all from being one full-length game, and reducing a plotline that could have had great depth otherwise made it hokey, confusing, and just downright laughable.
To this day, I will never know how the game did as well as it did through sales, the press, and many online reviews. Everyone I spoke to disliked it. Including myself.
Albeit, if Quantic Dream has taught us anything, it is what not to do with an episodic story arc.
2) Don’t even think about releasing your next episode more than 5 months after your previous one. (Unless you have the rabid, loyal fan base of Half-Life.)
Another reason why I believe Bone did so poorly as TellTale’s first episodic game was simply the time frame in which episodes were released, which was something that was immediately fixed upon the creation of Sam & Max. The time between episodic release is crucial to how well a game will do out on the market, simply due to how the consumer base (and even the general public) reacts and relates to episodic material.
Take television for example: episodes of programs reliably air at consecutive dates not long after the last episode is released, to keep viewer interest. It would be hard to keep television audiences if a show only aired a new episode once every six months. Attention would waver, new interests would be found, and the show is canceled as it is inevitably lost and forgotten. As is the case with many episodic adventures that have not made it past their second title. Unless the company you work for is named ‘Valve‘, of course.
To get an idea of how time frame affects sales and popularity, the first episode of TellTale’s Bone was released on September 15, 2005, and their second episode of Bone was released on April 12, 2006. That is nearly seven months after initial episode release. That’s over half a year of waiting. (I’m sure coinciding with the release of the Xbox 360 didn’t help its case, either.) The length of time between episodes of Sam & Max were greatly reduced: each episode is separated by a time frame of about 2-4 weeks. This good habit carried on to their newer series, and greatly contributes to how Sam & Max became the impressive series it is today.
This sort of situation is even more apparent with games that have an even further time gap between episodes (no matter how much their creators are passionate about them) which seem to come out with a bang, then go out with a faint whimper and fall into obscurity . The critically-praised episodic first person shooter SiN fell victim to a whopping eight year span between the first and second episode. Its initial release concurrent and competing with that of the original Half-Life back in 1998 certainly could not have helped, but I think they might have been able to stir more attention to the original title if they had attempted to release a second episode immediately after the first.
I also think that Hothead Games’ second installment of Penny Arcade Adventures would have done much better sales-wise if it had been released sooner after the initial game, to keep rolling along fresh in the praise and high ratings of the first. It seems as though even the course of three months is ‘too long’ for optimal span between episodic games.
Of course, the only company to negate and completely not have any trouble maintaining audience while they develop new episodes is Valve, respectively. Half-Life is indeed an “episodic” game, and spans of time between game releases have ranged from one to two years, with no fault in their record sales figures due to it. Their amazing consumer loyalty is completely related to Valve’s high-quality game play and story development, however. The fan base that has been built up over time due to this is strictly what sets this company’s episodic strategy apart from other episodic games. Albeit, there is word from the inside that Valve kinda regrets doing the “episodic thing”, and it is unlikely that they will go back to it.
It is truly unfortunate that the only other company that has been able to keep up with quick episodic releases is American McGee’s company Spicy Horse with his most current title: Grimm. It was very impressive that a new game was released every week or so, but Grimm will still be getting a bit of finger-wagging from me in my next (short) point on this list.
3) Quality over quantity. (Srsly. Don’t overdo it unless you have a really, really, really, really good story. Or something else to hold a player’s attention. You will be loved for it.)
I have to admit that I never finished the Grimm series.
I got up to the “Mulan” episode, played halfway through, and quit the game with a sigh of disappointment, never to pick it up again.
There wasn’t really too much wrong with the series. The idea was great. The game play was amusing, and occasionally disturbing. The dialogue was funny, and some of the episodes were just downright entertaining. The game released weekly to bi-weekly like clockwork, and they were short enough that you could sit down with a cup of tea and unwind with them during a lunch break.
The reason why Grimm only did ‘average’ where critics and player reviews were concerned, I believe, boiled down to one thing: There were just too many of them.
Having too many episodes with similar game play and no meta-story made them extremely varied in quality and made later episodes downright stale. Almost to the point of being unplayable, because you simply got bored with them. There is really nothing there to hold your attention, or to encourage you to play more, aside from seeing what happens when you ‘Grimm up’ the happy-go-lucky storybook worlds. If there had been just a few less episodes, mostly focused on very well-known fairy tales instead of more obscure ones, with a meta-story that enveloped all the episodes (and I’m certain there could have been an absolutely great one, with a versatile character like Grimm), I know for sure I would have played them all the way to the end, and would have rated them all higher than a 6 or 7 on GameTap.
And thus concludes my three point list. There are other factors as to why episodic titles success and fail, but I find that these three are the major ones (in accordance to current episodic games). All in all, the developmental success of any game (especially episodic games) all boils down to that of the concise planning and forward-thinking of those actually creating the game. Know what you want, plan up the wazoo, and plan for the development of an episodic game: not just ‘a game’.
So, why is Team Effigy developing an episodic game?
There are many reasons why a very small, independent company like Team Effigy would want to develop an episodic title.
1) First and foremost, it will help us release new, complete games in shorter periods of time. After a 3-4 year project like The Marionette, there is a personal challenge of never taking that long to develop a game like that ever again (lol). Dividing it into episodes makes it easier: You might only have to wait a year or two for the initial product while finishing touches are being placed on the next game, and development is wrapping up on the one after that.
2) We don’t have to bite off more than we can chew. A full-length 8-9 hour (or more) adventure game is a bit of a large undertaking (especially for a team as small as Team Effigy). At this point, Team Effigy knows how to make a decent 3-4 hour adventure game. Instead of having to step it up from making one 3-4 hour adventure game to making a full 8-9 hour (or more) adventure game, we can focus on making three or four 3-4 hour adventure games. In this respect, it’s much less intimidating.
3) Making shorter, smaller games means that we have many more distribution options. Due to a manageable download size, we can port and provide the game on many more systems than just PC with minimal effort. We can then distribute our content to the Wii, Xbox Live, Sony Marketplace, Steam, GameTap, and other online game services and download sites for better player convenience and visibility. We’re going to try and get it distributed on as many platforms as we possibly can (including the ones listed above). I’m particularly excited about possibly seeing it on the Wii. (That said, I’d also love to see The Marionette on the DS, possibly on a cartridge with a couple of other short point-and-click adventures that we might have a hankering to create.)
4) Smaller games mean smaller cost, which means you don’t have to make a huge $50 investment in the game to get a satisfying return. Don’t like the first chapter? Don’t buy the next one. Love it and can’t wait to see what happens next? Put the next episode on pre-order. Feeling so-so about it? Wait for it to go on sale, and then indulge to see if you like it. ( As far as Out of Time goes, we’re fairly positive that each fresh-release episode will be priced below $15. We’ve actually been discussing pricing it under $10, depending on how development goes. Nothing is set in stone yet, though.)
5) Players actually get to be involved in the development of the games! Having episodes to the games means that there is a window of opportunity between them where player critique and feedback actually gets used to make the game better! Of course, huge major overhauls can’t really be done, but little things that could make the game just ‘a little bit better’, can. Users think the controls are a bit wonky? Fix them for next episode. Is it hard to navigate to the interface? Fix for the next episode. Main character walks too slow? Fix for next episode!
(Of course, we’re pretty aware of stuff like that, because we’re sort of awesome. So hopefully our problems will be minimal.)
6) Less investment, greater return. Instead of attempting to make one huge long game as a single release, we have more than one chance with a game to effectively adapt and ‘get it right’ before the game is completely finished. There is also less monetary investment in ‘smaller’ games than a full-on ‘large’ game: we don’t have to put all of our eggs into one basket, so to speak.
… And I could go on.
All in all, I think the biggest, largest, huge-ist, most gigantic-ist reason as to why Team Effigy is developing Out of Time as an episodic game is merely this:
The nature of the storyline is episodic.
Going back to my very first point as to why episodic games do and do not work: It would be really silly, in my opinion, to develop the story of Out of Time as a singular unit. It is a story specifically suited for an episodic release. The plot-line, the character development, the way that time will be expressed to pass during the story will be particularly intense when expressed in episodes.
We’re hoping to have people on the edge of their seats, talking and theorizing between episodes about what will happen next. We want people to be excited about what happens to Travis. We want people to be able to get right into the story, just as they get into their favorite mystery on TV. We want people to be following every twist and turn, and to be chomping at the bit to play the next episode when…
… well. You’re just going to have to wait to find out. ;)
(*I personally think the CSI games they made do not count, as Ubisoft had direct involvement with those.)