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?

No comments: