Disconnected: The Gamer and Episodic Games
Over the past two weeks, the latest episodes of two games that I really enjoy, “Batman: The Telltale Series,” and “King’s Quest,” were released. In the case of Telltale’s episodic series, the new episode was the second of five scheduled for what is sure to be the first season of many, with each episode of season one scheduled to appear every six weeks. In the case of King’s Quest, this week’s offering was the fourth chapter of five that are scheduled. The first was released over a year ago, and “King’s – Quest Chapter 3: Once Upon a Climb” was made available in April. But, no matter the timing – rigidly scheduled or taking the more casual “when it’s done, it’s done” approach – both series’ illustrate the fundamental problem with episodic games.
There is too much time elapsed between releases.
We all know that games take many human hours to create and that the process of creating them can be messy, and that their ultimate release can be subject to delays for any number of technical and business reasons. But, when your games are built around a continuing narrative that requires the player to recall the details of the episode prior, six weeks is way too long – and six months is simply intolerable. There is a reason that episodic television is built around weekly beats that collectively add up to a “season’s” worth of entertainment, or that “binge watching” is all the rage – neither require that you go back and watch the prior episodes because you’ve forgotten everything that has previously transpired. This extended time between episode/chapter releases results in misty, water-colored memories of the way things were, and a complete disconnect from that narrative.
My thesis is not built solely on the two games mentioned above, either – there are a number of arrows in my quiver. “Blues and Bullets,” “Life is Strange,” and a host of games developed by Telltale all have two things in common: first, that they are games that I, and many others, have enjoyed, and, second, that they basically require that you play each episode of the game series in question, play that same episode again once the next episode is released, and play it a third time (minimum) once the entire season has been released. Of course, a lot of players won’t do that and simply wait until the entire season is complete before diving in (usually at a discounted price) – defeating the whole business plan behind episodic gaming.
The idea for most episodic game developers is that they develop the first two to four hour episode on their own dime (or the dime so thoughtfully provided by their financial backers) and release it into the wild to see what kind of consumer and critical response it receives. If it is a hit, or it at least comes close to establishing some type of ROI/break even, it is on to the next episode. If it bombs, then the financial fallout is not as severe, the risks, to a degree, have been mitigated, and the developer takes his remaining marbles and goes home. While that approach will obviously translate to large gaps of time between episode releases and is understandable for a very small Indie developer like Barcelona-based A Crowd of Monsters (Blues and Bullets), it really makes little sense for a well-established developer in the genre like Telltale. They are well-funded and are the leaders in the field. Surely, it would be easy enough for them to schedule their episode releases on a bi-weekly, or, at the very least, monthly, basis? Five episodes, 10 weeks – done and done – all five episodes in the can six months before they release the first (time for PR, marketing and the start of development on the second season), and season two arrives one year after the debut of season one. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
In my research, it seems to me that this is the scenario that gamers prefer. The King’s Quest community started out strong, but has fizzled since. Hell, I am one of the series’ biggest fans and I had NO idea that the fourth chapter was releasing this week. Blues and Bullets is a tremendous achievement and I am waiting for the third episode with baited breath, but there is no news from the developer and no timetable for its release… it has been six months since the second episode was made available, and there was a nine month gap between episodes one and two. How can they possibly hope to keep the audience that they have built when that audience has had so much time to move on to other things? While Telltale’s Batman series is being released on a more regular beat, six weeks is still too long for the pre-purchased, pre-committed full season subscriber.
In other words… give those of us that have committed the complete season in a more compressed time frame and be done with it! You’ll be glad that you did!
To Paraphrase Styx (’70’s Prog Rock… Look it Up) – The Odd Gentlemen Have Left Me With Too Much Time On My Hands!