Thinking Out Loud: Episodic Gaming

If you spend much time reading all the game sites about new concepts and ideas, probably one of the biggest buzz terms you'll hear is "digital distribution." The ability to provide your content directly to the end user and skip all the middle men is an interesting prospect to many developers, especially the smaller independent developers who's chances of ever getting their games carried in the Walmarts and Best Buys of the world is slim to none. The concept of digital distribution is appealing to many, although most of the publishers and retail distributors are probably scared to death of it. With the cost of development rising it could be a major benefit to the industry as a whole even though it could kill some of the juggernauts that currently run the show. Not only does DD make the thought of self-publishing your own games much more realistic than ever before, but it also offers to the actual gamers the possibility of getting their fix at cheaper prices.

Another concept that builds on top of DD is the idea of "episodic content." The idea is that rather than buying a big epic game all at once, the gamer buys it in smaller segments, thus making their gaming experience more akin to a TV show than a movie. Very few companies have actually tried realizing the concept so far, but it's fairly inevitable that it will come to be a normal occurance in the future.

Now I will try to offer some of my ideas on how to successfully pull off this idea that I have yet to see fully realized in our industry. Now of course being that I'm a fledgling game designer/developer myself, some might ask why give away these ideas if they could be your own big break? Well, I see it as a much greater benefit to the industry as a whole rather than to keep to myself. The method of delivery isn't nearly as important as the real meat of the game, AKA: content.

So, first off, episodic gaming requires your users to have a broadband internet connection. This is a little bit of a problem as still not everyone has one. In fact, according to recent surveys and statistics you'll find that in the United States (where I reside), only about half of Americans have broadband at their homes. In fact, from my own personal experience, it's even less than that if your in the rural south (also where I currently reside). Since America is so spread out, the further away you live from a major city the less your chances are of having anything better than dial-up. So this presents a major bottleneck in the concept...but, not as huge as it may sound at first. Just as with regular television shows, you can offer offline versions of your episodic content if you're popular enough, and have the distribution channels to support you. Once you finish a "season" in your game, you can bundle it all up on a DVD or 2 and sell it through traditional retail means (once again, if your game is popular enough to have retail distributors behind it). So, this means, that some smaller companies might find themselves online-only for a couple years, but after they're audience hits a certain point, they might find the big boys come beg them to let them publish the offline version. Sound like delusions of grandeur? Perhaps, but I'm merely trying to get an idea across...I'm not saying it will be easy nor happen to many.

So, where do we begin.... first off, let me say that if you want to make any money off your game you have to give it away for free. Sound crazy? It's not... In the television industry all new shows start off with a "pilot" episode. Then in the game industry many games will offer a "demo." What I'm proposing here is simply to combine the two. It's not that new a concept either, it's what made shareware titles like Doom take off to where they are today. So, here's what you do: Offer up the entire first episode of your game 100% free to everyone. You build a digital distribution/update service into that initial release, and so when you release episode two, the gamer simply starts up the same game they've already downloaded for free, and do all their purchasing and downloading from within it. Now of course, there might be a third party mechanism you want to use, like Steam for instance. That's fine, but once again... I say give away your first episode for free. Give the gamers something to play. Let them see just how good your series will be.

Now of course, this puts alot of weight on your first episode. If you're giving it out for free, and no one likes it, you're going to have a hell of time selling them your next one. Sorry, that's the price of such a service. And speaking of price, if you're a small company trying to do this all by yourself, the bandwidth to host that first free episode is going to be monstrous. Of course, you could always look for investors/partners to help carry that load, but then that means you have to give them a cut of your profits once you start making a return on your investment...and you may not want to get into that situation if you can help it. There's also things like bitTorrent to help lighten the load, but unfortunately alot of ISPs (especially those offered on college campuses) are trying to block it out of existence for potential piracy uses.

Then of course there's always advertising, whether it simply be on your site, perhaps displayed during the download process, or actually in your game. All I have to say about that last one is be careful, gamers will put up with it to a certain extent, but if you over do it or do it wrong (like putting a big Mountain Dew billboard in the middle of an ancient medieval world), there will be a backlash. Also it's important to remember that since you intend on selling subsequent episodes after the first one, people will probably feel pretty angry with you if they are paying for it and seeing ads at the same time. Once again, there's a small window where you can get away with it, but eventually your users are going to catch on. Be careful...

Another good idea may be to go ahead and prepare the first 2 or 3 episodes before you ever release that first one for free. That way, if people like they can go ahead and download the next episode or two right away, and you can start paying off that bandwidth debt right away too. Some may even feel compelled to finish the entire season before "airing" the first episode, but once again...this is somewhere you need to be careful on. If your audience realizes that you've completed the entire game and are simply slipping it out bit by bit to them simply so you can charge them more in the long run than you would have to have sold it all at once, they're not gonna be happy.

And now we come to the next aspect you need to consider... price. Luckily digital distribution offers you a beautiful thing called scalability. The bigger your audience, the more money you make and thus you can afford bigger bandwidth too. I would suggest to you to sell your episodes as cheaply as you can afford to. The cheaper they are, the more likely someone will be willing to pay for them, and thus you can potentially make a lot more money by selling them at a lower cost. Then some may choose to sell their new episodes at a higher price point the first week or two of their release, and then lower the price gradually over time. For example, you may charge $20 for your episode at first, then a few weeks later, you drop it to $10, then later on down the road, you drop it to $5. Now, of course that could just as easily be 5 then 2 then 1 depending on your business model.

When deciding how much to charge for each episode, you need to really look at how big each one will be, and how many you plan on releasing over the course of your season. If each episode only consists of a single level that will average out to about an hour or two of gameplay, but you plan on releasing 20 of them, I'd suggest selling them for about $5-10 if not less even. If you plan on releasing 5 or 6 episodes with about 6-8 hours of gameplay each, you'd probably want to charge around $10-20. These are all factors you need to look at when deciding all these things.

Lastly there are a few more small things to take into account. Do you even want to have seasons? Perhaps you just want to start with episode one and never stop until your ready to end the series. If you do go with a season model, perhaps you should give away the first episode of each subsequent season for free just as you did with the first one in case someone wants to start from there? Do you want to let your audience pick and choose which episodes they buy, or do you force them to own all the prior episodes first? (ie...you can't buy episode 4 unless you already have played through and completed 1,2 and 3) These are all tough, and very important questions you need to consider. Since you're giving away the first episode for free and merely selling the content of the subsequent episodes, perhaps it would be more beneficial for you to use an open source model with your actual game engine and digital distribution service? Maybe you might even want to build a general purpose engine that multiple "shows" can be purchased through, rather than just your own? There all kinds of options out there for you, and even more factors than I have covered here. Episodic gaming offers a potentially, very compelling experience for gamers and developers alike.....but when will anyone be ready to really pull it off? Are you?


Killer Games

Throughout recent history, every time a new line of electronic products are released, they don't really take off and become mainstream until they find their "killer app." Usually some form of content that you can only experience through this new medium, although not always a type of entertainment. Back in the 1980s the spreadsheet was supposedly the killer app for the PC, and it was for many businesses. However, the PC did not find it's true killer app for home use until the world first experienced the world wide web. In the late 1990s the DVD format was taking off very slowly until the Matrix came out. After that, anyone and everyone had a DVD player, and you almost always found a copy of the Matrix on DVD in their collection. Now of course, once that killer app has been found and had time to thoroughly saturate the market, the technology becomes common place and then the killer app is no longer essential even though it once was. It is said that Nirvana's "Nevermind" was the killer app for the CD player. Apple's computer have been mildly popular for decades, but it doesn't seem they really started taking off till they found their killer app in the iPod. And if we want to take the concept way back, there was the Christian Bible for books made from a printing press. Yet as important as all these were, I'm more interested in games for this little rambling session.

I'm not really sure what the killer app for the Atari was, I guess it was a little before my time. That and I've still yet to hear a definitive answer. Some would try to argue Pong or the awful port of PacMan that was released for it, but I'm still not so sure from the mixed reports I've heard. When the Nintendo Entertainment System dropped in on the USA in 1985, it came preloaded with it's killer app: Super Mario Bros. Sure there were many other important titles in that generation, but Mario made the NES and the game industry what it is today. Mario 1 (as some like to call it, even though not the most accurate title nor number), was a must have game. When someone talked about wanting to get a NES, it was a safe assumption that they wanted this game. Even though many other classic NES games may not be in the same genre or anything, Mario set the tone for that generation. And not only that, but Nintendo included it with your system by default. This was pure genius. They did the same thing with the GameBoy a few years later. Tetris, did not always come with a new GB when you bought it, but it often did, and it was certainly the killer app that got that handheld system rolling.

As we go into the 16-bit generation things aren't quite as clear. I would say that Sonic the Hedgehog, along with its subsequent sequels were the killer app for the Sega Genesis. However, it could also be argued that Mortal Kombat was the killer app when it came to the Genesis with all it's gore and fatalities fully intact, as while the SNES had a bloodless, neutered version for it's home users. The Super NES would be pretty clearly marked for Super Mario World this time around (once again included by default when you purchased a new system).

As the game industry began to transition into 3D games with the so-called 32-bit era, the Sega Saturn never seemed to find it's killer app, at least not with American audiences (which of course I'm more familiar with being that I live here). The new player in the console biz at the time, Sony, with it's PlayStation would not really take off until the release of Final Fantasy 7. Sure in the scope of things, the Madden football series would easily out weight the FFs in sales numbers, but FF7 was the one for most people to make them say, "I've got to have one of these." The Nintendo64 would come out a year later than the other two with Super Mario 64 included by default as Nintendo tried to make it 3 for 3. Unfortunately as innovative as Mario64 was, it just didn't have the same fun factor as its 2D predecessors. The N64 would not find it's killer app until a couple years later with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released for it. Zelda had always been an extremely popular game on prior Nintendo systems, but this time it got to take the spotlight away from the long running front runner Mario.

As the next generation came about, Sega would release their very last console, The Dreamcast. Sadly, just as with the Saturn in the prior generation, the DC would never truly find its own killer app, or at least not in time. Sonic's transition into three dimensions was even more coldly received than Mario's had been in the last gen. Innovative and quirky games like Jet Set Radio would make small dents as well, but not enough to really matter. Sega's greatest attempt would be the epic release of the Shenmue series. At the time it was the most expensive game ever made with an unheard of 5 years in development. Once again the series would surprisingly fall flat. It's sequel, Shenmue 2, would not even receive an American release as the first one had sold so poorly here. Twice in a row Sega had failed to find their killer app and it was too late to try and continue.

Oddly enough, when the PlayStation 2 was released, it became an instant hit even with no killer app. In this generation, the PlayStation brand name would be all the killer app Sony needed to crush it's competition a second time around. However, even with such a strong fan base, the PS2 would eventually need a real game to hold the crown and almost two years later it would find it with Grand Theft Auto 3. GTA3 would be the system seller, even though oddly once again, the PS2's sales numbers had already marked it as a success with no really worthwhile games to show for it. For Japanese consumers, many of it's initial purchasers bought it for its cheap DVD player functionality and would not buy an actual game for it for some time.

Microsoft would now make it's first attempt into the console gaming realm with the Xbox, and quickly found its killer app in Halo. Halo and it's sequel, Halo 2 would become the best selling games to that time, but still would not be enough to take the PS2's crown. In fact even with record breaking sales numbers for the Halo series, the Xbox would barely sell any systems at all in Japan.

Lastly Nintendo would try to regain the supremacy it once had with the GameCube. However, this would mark the first time that Nintendo did not include a Mario game with it's system at launch. Sure, there was Mario Sunshine available at launch, but it was not actually included with the system as were its predecessors. Not only that, but the sales of Mario Sunshine would be almost as abysmal as the Xbox's sales in Japan. Mario had lost his magic touch and was no longer even remotely considerable as a killer app. Next Nintendo would attempt to bring their last gen champion in, but The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker would have fairly mediocre sales as well. In the end, Super Smash Bros: Melee would be the closest thing to a killer app for the GameCube, but it would be hard to call it a system seller.

Now with the history behind us, let's look at the new generation of systems. First up is the Xbox 360. Released in the fall of 2005, almost a year and a half later there is still no killer app. Yes, Gears of War was immensely successful and has already out sold both Halo and Halo 2, numbers wise. Yet, it still does not seem to be strong enough a title to be the system selling killer app MS needs. In Japan, MS was hoping that the recently released Blue Dragon would become the killer app there. However, even though the title drove Xbox 360 sales well over the combined sales of the first system, it still has a pretty weak market share there.

The PlayStation3, although just released about 4 months ago, does not seem to be doing so well. Sony had hoped its built-in BluRay player capabilities would be its killer app, but unlike with DVD in the prior generation, BluRay has yet to become a proven format. As it appears its brand name will not be enough to drive the system's sales this go 'round, Sony needs a killer app and soon if it doesn't want to go the way of Sega. Sadly for them, there do not seem to be any upcoming games that appear like they will be able to do the trick any time soon.

And finally there is Nintendo's Wii. It seems after two generations of failure, Nintendo may be poised to take back their old spot at the top. However, the Wii is in an odd situation itself. The Wii is already immensely popular even with those who do not traditionally play videogames, yet it like the PS2 before it, does not seem to have any one game ready to become its killer app. Nintendo's latest iteration in the Zelda series seems popular enough, but it's still no killer app. And its tacked on Wii-mote functionality is not enough to push it to system seller status since you can have almost the same gaming experience from the GameCube version. No, what's selling the systems is the revolutionary Wii-mote itself. There are lots of games that show off its potential, but it still appears it might be a while before any developers actually realize its full potential. Yet that potential, along with the simple yet fun WiiSports package that comes with ever Wii sold seem to be enough to keep gamers guzzling down the machines just as quickly as Nintendo can produce them. Yet just like the PS2 again, it will eventually need an actual game to take over as its killer app. If and when that happens is still unknown, and some fear that if it doesn't happen before this Christmas Nintendo may find them with a few million disappointed and angry Wii owners.

Now, of course it's no secret I have my own console aspirations for this generation and potentially the next, but I realize that no matter how novel the open console format may be, it'll take an exclusive killer app to make it really happen.

Interestingly enough, I'd like to finish up by discussing HD-DVD, BluRay and HDTV in general. HDTV and HD formats are inevitable and have slowly filtered into US homes. However, they don't seem to be just exploding, nor is there any clear victor in the HD disc wars. This, once again is because there's still yet to be any HD killer app. There is no movie, TV show or videogame that's making consumers say "I've got to have one." What will it be? Who knows.... but it's bound to be only a matter of time, and I don't know about you but I can't wait to experience it ;)