Stand by for episodic casual gaming

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Like the episodic cliffhangers of the silver screen, the health and welfare of episodic gaming seems to be in constant danger. Once hailed as the "next great thing" in video games because of how neatly it piggybacks on the growth of digital distribution, suddenly outspoken games industry figures seem to scorn the idea of games developed and sold in scheduled, bite-size chunks.

Mark Rein has called the format "insane" with a "broken business model" that relies on a $20 price point and a gap of months between the release of episodes. Rein is vice president of Cary, NC-based developer Epic Games.

Similarly, Steve Nix, director of business development at id Software, has said that his studio is unlikely to "jump on the episodic gaming bandwagon any time soon ... at least until we see the model proven a bit more." He questioned how a developer could possibly make compelling gameplay in such a short time window.

Most damaging of all was the death last year of the high-profile "SiN Episodes."

Last June, Dallas-based developer Ritual Entertainment expressed high hopes for "SiN Episodes," a first-person shooter planned to have nine episodes, each released in six-month intervals. Ritual released episode one, "Emergence," and then quietly cancelled the series. In January of this year, Ritual was purchased by Dallas-based MumboJumbo, a developer of casual games, a move which seemed to put the kibosh on Ritual's dalliances in the episodic space.

Not so, says Michael Suarez, MumboJumbo's VP of product development, who has studied the episodic business model and likes what he sees. In fact, it was one of the contributing factors for why his company bought Ritual.

"We expect their experiences in grappling with the logistics behind building an episodic property and franchise to come in handy in the casual space," he explains.

Suarez believes that the reason the triple-A game development houses might struggle with the episodic model is that they haven't yet figured out how to make it work for a typical hardcore audience "which is used to big products with sophisticated gameplay mechanics," he says. "When they ship in truncated, episodic pieces, their audience perceives them as budget games that don't meet their expectations."

But casual games have short development cycles and are designed to be delivered online in easily playable pieces, which, according to Suarez, fits the description of episodic games precisely. That's why he expects MumboJumbo to break new ground in the episodic casual game space, beginning with "Zoom Book: The Temple Of The Sun." It will be available for digital download in mid-June and at retail in August.

Given the much-smaller budget of "Zoom Book," Richard "The Levelord" Gray anticipates the new game will suffer none of the financial setbacks that plagued "SiN Episodes" and that eventually resulted in its demise. Gray was a co-founder of Ritual and is now senior game designer at MumboJumbo.

"The plan was to self-fund the first episode of 'SiN Episodes' and then use the profits to fund the next episode and daisy-chain from there," he recalls. "But the first episode took 10 months to build instead of the expected six due to all the models and coding and such. So when it finally came out -- and we sold 150,000-plus units -- it more than paid for itself, but didn't quite pay for episode two. I think we just tried to do too much at the beginning. I'm still a firm believer in the episodic paradigm, however there needs to be proper management and financing."

But when one thinks of episodic games, one pictures intense action, story-driven levels and cliffhanger endings, not the sort of puzzles one associates with casual games. How does MumboJumbo intend to deal with the disconnect?

" 'Zoom Book' will be the first truly episodic casual game," says Suarez. "It's sort of a jigsaw puzzle on steroids that was inspired by the Hungarian-born illustrator Istvan Banyai, who wrote the award-winning children's book 'Zoom.' There will be lots of graphic special effects and a storyline to follow. If it sells, we plan to create more episodes with the same characters and a continuation of the story line."

Suarez' gameplan calls for creating a franchise that will enable MumboJumbo to develope subsequent episodes at a cost significantly less than the initial one.

"If we strike gold the first time out with a puzzle-solving gameplay mechanic that users love and want more of, and if we sell a significant number of units at $19.95 each, then the whole investment in the technology will be worth it," he says. "From thereon in, all we need to do is swap in new storylines and different graphics and sound assets that are thematically consistent with the original."

Meanwhile, enthusiasm for episodic games is shared by GameTap, Turner Broadcasting's online video games service, which seems to be turning itself into a TV channel for gaming.

"We are presenting games the same way that a TV programmer would present a TV series or a movie," says Ricardo Sanchez, GameTap's vp of content. "Every week we introduce new games, bring back older ones from our vault and tell our subscribers that here's some fun stuff to play this week. At the same time, we're trying to offer at least one episodic game as part of the GameTap subscription, just the way HBO attracts viewers by making 'The Sopranos' part of the subscription."

Sanchez notes that, unquestionably, GameTap's first go at episodic gaming -- "Sam & Max: Season 1" -- has had a positive effect on the service's numbers.

"With every release of a new 'Sam & Max' episode, our subscriber numbers have jumped," he says, although he declined to provide specifics. "An added benefit was that, with every new episode, subscribers accessed older games, including earlier 'Sam & Max' episodes."

Created by developer Telltale Games, the "Sam & Max" series is based on a 1993 adventure game, "Sam & Max Hit The Road" by LucasArts, which itself was based on the two heroes of the "Sam & Max: Freelance Police" comic book -- Sam, a six-foot-tall dog, and Max, a three-foot-tall "hyperkinetic rabbity thing." In 2002, LucasArts announced that it would build a sequel, but the game's unexpected cancellation caused an uproar among fans. The episodic version, released this last October, was mostly designed by ex-LucasArts employees.

GameTap announced that it would release the game in six monthly episodes, with each episode lasting about four hours.

"The monthly schedule was very deliberate," explains Sanchez. "We want subscribers to know exactly when each episode will be released so they can join us and play it the day it comes out. And that is something we have absolutely lived up to."

With the first season of "Sam & Max" now completed, in July GameTap plans to launch its next episodic title, "Galactic Command: Echo Squad," a space combat game developed by Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based 3000AD. It is being presented in four monthly episodes, each with about 10 hours of gameplay divided up into 16 missions. Unlike previous episodic games, "Galactic Command" contains a multiplayer component that extends game play after the single-player episodes are played out.

"Our short-term goal is to have one original episodic game running at all times," says Sanchez. "But, over time, we'd like to have a few running simultanously so that, regardless what kind of game you like, we've got something for you."

Sanchez explains that he is trying to restrict his programming to "only network-quality" episodic games.

"That means great fun, really well-done, really polished, properly funded, with lots of marketing support behind it. For instance," he recalls, "we put six months' worth of marketing behind 'Sam & Max' before its release, just as a TV network would promote a new show."

He notes that the biggest hurdle for episodic developers is finding funding, which is why so few episodic games are currently available.

"Many of the developers are turning to us for funding, but I can't fund every single one that comes my way," he says. "There just aren't many people out there willing to put their own money into the development of a game even though episodic games are typically cheaper to create than others because there are efficiencies of production -- assets can be repeated from episode to episode, and you can have several teams working on a few episodes simultaneously. In general, you should be able to make a really good episodic game series for under $3 million compared to $8 or $10 million for a triple-A game."

He cites "SiN Episodes" as a good example of an episodic game that needed better planning.

"If you're making a TV series, you don't spend a theatrical-sized budget on the first episode," he says. "And you should expect it to have TV-quality sound and visuals, not theatrical-quality sound and visuals. 'SiN Episodes' was a fantastic game, but they tried too hard to make it a traditional PC game, just with a shorter gameplay duration. If they had focused on streamlining the production process to make it more efficiently, it wouldn't have died."

But, as evidenced by its critics, such enthusiasm for episodic games is not universal.

George Broussard has been an independent game developer since 1991, has worked on such popular games as "Duke Nukem 3D" and "Max Payne," and is co-owner of Garland, Tex.-based publisher 3D Realms. He, like Epic's Reins, calls episodic games "a broken model for larger games" for several reasons, including gamers' short attention spans.

"People get bored and want to move on," he explains. "It's hard to keep people hooked and coming back game after game. I mean, think of your favorite TV show that you watch one hour a week. Now imagine a four-hour episode of 'Lost' every six months, or worse, once a year. Who is going to wait for that next episode?"

Similarly, says Broussard, developers can't make high-end gaming content at a quick enough pace.

"It took a year for Valve to build 'Half-Life 2: Episode One' and Ritual to build the first episode of 'SiN Episodes.' That's okay for Valve, which sells to a fan base of millions who bought their previous 'Half-Life' games. But it didn't work for Ritual, which had a very small fan base and overestimated how interested people were in their game. I mean, if it takes a year for the first episode, why not make it two years and create a traditional full game and sell it for $50, not $19.95."

He attributes the success of the "Sam & Max" series to the nature of its developer, Telltale Games.

"They are a very small team compared to Valve and have lower costs," he explains, "And they are making a game series that's far less demanding. The adventure game genre may be very suitable for episodic gaming; the action -- or first-person shooter -- game genre definitely is not."

Broussard believes that the episodic formula works for television -- which is based on advertising revenues -- but doesn't have a bright future for games, unless they are of the small-scale or casual variety.

"I just can't see the advantage of doing episodic unless you are a group of five or six people in a garage, eating Ramen noodles, and rolling the dice with little to lose," he says. "In that case, it's very possible the episodes could get you noticed which could lead to a bigger deal. But does episodic work for a multi-million-dollar-a-year game company? I don't think so."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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