Episodic Content

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Mar 6, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 28 comments

A few people have pointed to this item on Shacknews which links to this announcement from Ragnar Tornquist, the guy behind The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. It seems that this game series isn’t going to be a trilogy after all. Instead, it’s going to be Part 1, Part 2, and then many small incremental add-ons to continue the story from there. Here is the relevant quote:

[…]The episodic format is perfect for the continuation of the story – it's something I've been thinking about for ages – and while I can't offer any details about size or cost, we want to provide our fans with good value for money. This is not an attempt to squeeze more money out of you, but to ensure that we can continue the saga in a timely manner without losing out to piracy – which, unfortunately, is rampant. How do we plan on preventing piracy? Well, that's what this R&D stuff is all about.

Don't lose sight of the big picture, guys (and girls). The fact is, we listened to you, we heard you, we decided we wouldn't leave you hanging. The saga continues. Now how cool is that? Rejoice!

I’m just going to skate right around the bit on piracy, because that would need a post of it’s own if I decided to tackle it. Let’s just cut to the point on episodic content…

I’m not interested in the fact that the saga simply “continues”. What people want (or perhaps, just what I want) is for the saga to end, cleanly and clearly. If that works out, then start a new saga. But don’t pump this one until it’s a dead husk. Maybe I’m wrong on the intent here. Maybe the intention is to replace the next $40 game with four $10 expansions that lead to a firm conclusion. Even so, I think most gamers want to sit down and play through a game all at once, without waiting weeks or months between chapters.

But if (as I suspect) this leads to an “ongoing story” then this is about the worst move I could think of. We’re talking about two very different types of stories here. Episodic content is rotten for story-based games, because it strongly discourages anyone from writing a firm resolution. If your job is to keep a story going, then the moment you write an ending you’ve put yourself out of a job.

This is exactly why I don’t watch TV. I’ve read about what a train wreck Lost is. I got tired of the Sopranos when I realized it was just a meandering soap opera for men. I’ve read the frustration from people who have realized that the Battlestar Galactica saga seems to be rudderless. If the author’s goal is to keep stringing the audience along forever, you end up with crappy stories.

To be fair, after giving Dreamfall much fawning praise the ending caused me to divorce myself from the series, so it’s not like this move affects me directly. It’s just that I see this as a bad trend for story-driven games. The last thing I want to see is game that ends in a cliffhanger, with a note for me to come back in four months and give them another $20 if I want to see what happens next. Half-Life is already taking this route. There are a lot of questions about who the aliens are, what their plans are, who the G-man is, and just what is really going on. We’re two games and an expansion into it, and nobody’s even trying to give us any answers. I really believe there aren’t any. Like Lost, it’s just a bunch of mysterious nonsense to keep you coming back.

I can just imagine if the Harry Potter books worked this way: The truth about Harry’s past, his parents, and his scar would be endlessly hinted at, yet never revealed. Each book would end just as Voldermort appears, instead of after he is defeated. Maybe this is just a personal preference, but I prefer the “complete story” approach of books, as opposed to the clumsy, heavy-handed approach of TV shows and comic books. If you tell a decent story I’ll come back for the next one.

And furthermore, the most astounding revelation in this whole business, and the thing that is really going to turn the world of gaming upside-down, is that Want to read more? You can pre-order the expansion pack for this post now! Subscribe to our mailing list, and we’ll let you know when it is available. Thanks for reading!


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28 thoughts on “Episodic Content

  1. Dylan Zimmerman says:

    A great point, although I’m still enamoured by the new Battlestar. Key members of the cast assure us that it IS going somewhere, and I think it will.

    Complete stories are important, though, I totally agree with that. My favourite science-fiction of all time was Babylon 5, and it had a clear end point in sight when the writer started writing.

  2. Alex says:

    The way to do it is to take the Sam & Max route: Have a predefined number of episodes until your story ends, and (most importantly) release them regularly and fast. I ended up buying the season pass after having paid full price for 1/3 of the episodes because by that point I knew that when they said they would release them on a monthly basis, they would release them on a monthly basis. Do I wish they were a little longer? Sure. But the fact that it’s only a month before the next episode is out soothes my craving.

  3. Teague says:

    I’ve heard much the same that you have about Lost and The Sopranos, and am witnessing it with Battlestar Galactica (I could fill a whole blog just ranting about THAT love/hate relationship). Most of what I watch are hour-long crime dramas (Law & Order and CSI), because they have a story that is completed in an hour, while including some character development from episode to episode.
    One show that was different was Babylon 5. It was a show that brought its story full circle and ended it well because it was planned out from the beginning. If you haven’t watched it, it might be worth a try. Of course, it kind of flew in the face of the popular concept of “try an idea out, and if it’s popular then milk it for every penny we can get until absolutely NOBODY is watching any more, then add a cute kid and try to squeeze out a few more bucks”.
    As far as games go, I would rather have a complete game that I can do at my own pace, not that dictated by the game’s publishers. It’s not like it’s some guy’s blog or webcomic that he doesn’t do for a living. These people publish games for sale. They should make a product complete before they put it on the market.
    By the way, I love the last bit, Shamus. It makes me think that maybe they’re looking at it as a way to sell advertising. You know, like how on the radio and TV news they tease the top story then say you get the details after these commercial messages?

  4. Teague says:

    Wow, took too long to type and got my thunder stolen…..

  5. Matt says:

    At least with Lost they’ve confirmed there will eventually be an end, a little sketchy on when though…
    I think in the same interview as the “there will be an end” they said that they had some good stuff coming – they compared it to like being 9 moves into a game of chess, down a queen and 2 rooks and being called the worst chess players ever when actually they’re 5 moves from checkmate

    Which I read as “this story arc turned out to be unpopular but we have to finish it or overall it’ll suck even worse”

    I don’t actually mind Lost being strung out a bit, I like it anyway :D

  6. Julia says:

    I’m with Teague (you said it well!) on B5 and Law & Order.

    I don’t play computer games, so I’m sparing myself that particular frustration. :)

  7. I really enjoyed Firefly, and lately I’ve been going through Buffy (since the season DVDs are now pretty cheap, and I’ve only been willing to try it out if I knew I could get it in order). I find I’m enjoying the “Whedonverse”, even though Buffy is clearly less polished and sophisticated than the Firefly universe.

    Part of the reason is that Joss Whedon is both willing and able to close off plot points. Arcs end. Things are resolved. Characters sometimes die, relationships come and go, new characters come in and aren’t always cannon fodder.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s an aspect of confidence in play. Rightly or wrongly, Joss Whedon has the confidence that when he kills off a character, he can build another that’s going to be just as interesting. When he ends an arc, there’s another that can start. Etc. (Personally, I think he’s right about it, but especially before he proved himself it would have been a gamble.)

    Other shows, I think, have less confidence. They think their characters, situations, and cliffhangers are merely flukes, and if they let go of them, they have no confidence that they will be able to replicate their success. Sometimes I think they are wrong. Sometimes I’m pretty sure they are right. Either way, I find myself not really caring after a while.

    If you have skill, Whedon’s got the right approach. The size limitations of a physical universe are entirely constrained by your imagination and the amount of effort you put into it. Even within the confines of a small village, there’s always another person that we’ve never seen close up; imagine the possibilities even a full-sized planet of millions of people offers, let alone a galaxy.

    (You will have to imagine, though, because the only fictional universes I can think of that really gave me a sense of “It’s a great big universe” are Vinge’s Zones of Thought universe (“A Fire Upon the Deep”, “A Deepness in the Sky”) and the Dune universe, especially as seen in Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune, the awesome finale that most people haven’t read after being too put off by God Emperor of Dune, if they even get that far. Most stories seem to take place in a universe somewhat smaller than a largish city in real size.)

  8. Brian says:

    If you want to see the literary version of this, check out Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Books 8, 9, 10, and 11 are particularly bad about this. The story sees apparently little progress but I keep buying 700 page books. Jordan apparently has some serious health issues now and the last book made major progress.

    So frustrating…

  9. bkw says:

    Key members of the cast assure us that it IS going somewhere

    Well of course they say that. Would they intentially jeapordize their bread and butter?

    And bingo, Shamus. This is also why I don’t watch TV, except perhaps on DVD release, and why OVAs that tell a discrete story are better than the “let’s see how long we can milk this premise” approach.

  10. “This is exactly why I don't watch TV. I've read about what a train wreck Lost is. I got tired of the Sopranos when I realized it was just a meandering soap opera for men.”

    90% of everything is crap.

    But writing off the other 10% of the medium because of the crap just never seems like a good idea to me. It’s like when people write off comic books because of whatever crappy spandex hero title they looked at with inhuman its jiggling everywhere.

    Sure, write it off. But I’ll be taking my MAUS, BONE, and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and pitying them for their loss.

    When it comes to television, a few suggestions:

    1. BABYLON 5. As others have pointed out, the first major American television show to be plotted out as a single, multi-season story. Production realities forced rewrites along the way, but it’s got a beginning, middle, and end and it’s excellent.

    2. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Every season is a single story arc, with a beginning, middle, and end.

    3. 24. Every season is a single story arc with a beginning, middle, and end. (Skip the second season, it was dreadful.)

    4. DOCTOR WHO. The new Doctor Who has been really excellent (with a few mediocre episodes here and there). There are some long-running plot-threads, but every episode is a single story (with a few two-parters).

    As others have pointed out, there’s really no medium in which you can completely escape the “never-ending saga” phenomena now. Novels are no exception.

  11. Shamus says:

    Justin: Oh sure – I still watch TV shows, but I rent them via Netflix where I can see them without commercials. And I only watch a very small number of shows. (Firefly, some Britcoms, that sort of thing.)

    When I said I don’t watch TV, I meant “broadcast TV”. The distinction is getting blurry these days.

  12. eloj says:

    There’s a post-mortem of “Sam & Max: Episode One” in the issue of GDM that came out yesterday. They’re talking about the pros and cons of episodic gaming. Specifically they underline as an important point that they promise upfront

    a) A regular release schedule, and

    b) that gamers who pay for all episodes up front are eligible of, on CD, a standalone version of the game(s) when they’re done.

    They claim that their price of $34.95 for all six episodes (“One Season”), or $8.95 per episode when bought al’a carte, has been well recieved.

    They also compare it to TV, and state that they wish to adopt more of how TV-series are produced, with rotating directors and writers. Apparently they found that their initial aim of 1h gameplay per episode was too low, so they had to adapt to try and target 2-3h instead, which would have been easier with more time at the beginning of the project to plan it out.

    Shamus, if you email me I can pass you a [link to] the article if you want to read it (and haven’t already).

  13. CaptainBooshi says:

    A note to the person who talked about Robert Jordan’s “A Wheel of Time” series. Apparently, he has said that there will be two more books in the series and then it will be finished. So have hope, it really is going somewhere now.

  14. Acksiom says:

    Am I the only person who gets that B5 feeling from “Heroes”? Considering all the precognitive set-ups and close-outs that they’ve done so far, I’m pretty sure they’ve got at least their first ‘arc’ plotted all the way through.

    Heck, am I the only regular here even watching “Heroes”? It’s prime geek fodder, IMAO, and just plain good as a drama all on its own. All y’all should definitely try it, and from the beginning if possible, due to how truly *dense* the backstory has gotten.

    Also, RE Funcom/Tornquist et alia. . .um, Shamus. . .any chance I’m forgiven yet?

  15. kamagurka says:

    You have been misinformed on Battlestar Galactica. That is all.

  16. empty_other says:

    Why do so many blog- and article writers write an article against episodic content? Give the episodic content a chance. If everyone are going to sit here and focus on the bad things with episodic content, we will never experience how episodic content can be well done. We will never see the work of the game creators’ next Joss Whedon.
    The game i wish the most would appear in episodes is Hitman. Each map has a definitive beginning and an end, no possibility for stupid cliffhangers. And one can finish the level in very short time, or take oneself good time. When one have finished the level, one can still play it again while waiting for the next episode.
    Yes, The Longest Journey would probably do bad as episodic content. Just because of the “plot secret upon plot secret” thing. But once they made a few episodes and see how well or bad it sells whenever they are using this or that type of plot, they should after a while learn to see what we, the players, like or doesn’t like.

  17. Shamus says:

    Why do so many blog- and article writers write an article against episodic content? Give the episodic content a chance.

    I wasn’t aware anyone else was doing this. These are just my impressions.

    I don’t want to “give it a chance” because I hate the idea of dropping $40 for an incomplete game that holds the rest of the story ransom. A great deal of my writing on videogames is dedicated to how well I liked the ending of a game (see my ranting on NWN2) and that is just a crucial part of the process for me.

    I actually am curious how this will all play out. I don’t have a problem with episodic content for games that are not story-driven. There are a lot of cases where giving players a little content at a time could be a good thing. It’s really a great idea for indie developers. It just sucks for stories in my book.

  18. Farvana says:

    As a note? I’m very fond of Firefly, but hate Buffy/Angel. My distaste for vampire movies plus teenage drama by the bucketload plus Whedon’s almost caricature-like way of creating characters just made a horrible angsty mess of a show, in my opinion. Plus, too many awkward pauses.

    I haven’t watched “normal” tv since middle school, though, and I count myself lucky. Anything worth watching is on DVD or, if it’s still ongoing, on a torrent (legality issues aside).

    And like you pointed out, episodic format is why. That’s what initially drew me into anime, at 16 years of age: stories may come in episodes, but look, plot! Character development! No status quo, a concrete ending! And now I’m watching Heroes, seeing how they sidestep any real character development and resolution where possible, and wishing I had the space for another anime (maybe Noein or Eureka 7).

    I think episodic content in a game takes some serious talent to pull off correctly, though. You have to have a solid conclusion with some major plot points resolved, with just enough loose threads to introduce new plot in the new episode. From the sound of it, that’s not what’s going on here.

  19. phlux says:

    I think the fallacy about episodic content is that you’re paying an “incomplete experience.” In most of its current forms, the episodes are complete in and of themselves, they are just SHORTER. And usually the cost is prorated in a fair way with the length. You’re paying 1/3 as much for a game that has 1/3 or so of the play time.

    I remember being absolutely furious when I paid 50 dollars for Star Trek: Elite Force, and it had about 9 hours of gameplay. It was GOOD gameplay, and it was a really fun game (enough so that I bought the sequel) but it was terribly short. This game makes an excellent case for episodic content.

    I would have been thrilled to buy that game for 20 dollars, and then pay them 20 bucks to reuse the same game engine and produce a new 9 hour adventure as often as they could put one out.

    Not all stories need to be epic, and not all episodic content has to rely on unfinished plot threads and cliffhangers to continue generating revenue ad infinitum. In the right context it makes all the sense in the world, even for story-driven games.

  20. Shamus says:

    phlux: I’m with you there. If that is the way it turns out then I’ll be just fine with it. I have my doubts the Dreamfall team will take this desireable route, since I paid $50 for half a story. I think inclomplete endings will get worse with them, not better, once they move to 8 hours of gameplay for $20, or whatever.

  21. Joshua says:

    Personally, I like the idea of episodic content, if done well. The first Episode for Half-Life was only $20, and they “intended” to release the second about six months later. Yes, it’s been delayed, but it’s still a shorter span of time than 5 years. My only concern is that the second is $40-50, which isn’t a reduction. The idea is that they can make slight upgrades to the engine, produce a game in a much shorter period of time, and charge the equivalent amount of money for the portion of a larger game. Given your posts on the problems with game companies having to constantly adapt for changes in video performance and system capabilities(and why games for consoles have an advantage), having a much shorter time-table to produce a game allows a company to circumvent a lot of the problems, IF done right.

    As far as television, I love the idea of having a complete story told over multiple seasons, I’m just scarred from the “milking” that’s been done in the past. I wonder how much of it is due to the creators, and how much is due to pressure from the network to keep the show going. I’m a Lost fan, but after watching the Second season(haven’t seen any of the 3rd but heard horror stories), I’m a little worried that it’s going to turn into Alias(milked badly) or Twin Peaks(odd plot twists that provide questions instead of answers just to “surprise” the audience).

  22. Phlux says:

    The thing with Episode 2 is that they’re including a lot more with it than just Episode 2. It also comes with the new (amazing looking) Team Fortress. It also is coming with Portal, I believe, which is at the very least an innovative gameplay concept that will provide a little amusement in multiplayer.

    I understand their motivation for this. If E2 had been released on schedule, it probably would have been its own thing and they would have charged 20 bucks, just like E1. Now that it’s been delayed, they feel like the time-gap means people will expect more, and thus will be willing to pay more.

    Personally I’m fine with this situation, because I would have paid the 20 for E2, as well as another 20 for Team Fortress. Portal is just gravy for me.

  23. Matt P says:

    I have to agree with all those people about B5. It was essentially my Star Trek. I grew up on the entire series being in my local video store (not any more sadly) and my Mum and I slowly renting out the entire series. I was pretty young then and not even a big sci-fi fan but I could still tell it was something special. Must watch it again now that I can roughly gauge a show’s quality…
    I have to agree with those on Lost and Battlestar Galactice too. I lost (what an original pun) interest in these series when they seemed to be going nowhere. Lost especially was a painful experience. I can handle mystery but not when the writers are being deliberately obtuse. And not when there’s no end in sight.
    Continuing my fit of agreement, I also have to side with Jason Alexander about comics. I had exactly the view he’s opposed to (which was pretty hypocritical for a gamer geek who hated those who dissed games without playing any) until on a whim I read Watchmen. Just wow. So after that I’m keeping an eye out for good comics. If anyone has any names I’d be thankful.
    I’m also into Heroes because as has been pointed out it actually seems to be going somewhere.

  24. Miral says:

    It’s an interesting contrast: I couldn’t care less about TF2, but I’m eagerly awaiting both E2 and Portal.

    On other topics: B5 is still my favourite series of all time (with the Whedonverse tying for second/third places). I’m still watching Lost but we’re only in S3 here so it still looks like it’s going to do something eventually. Though it does annoy me that it takes too long to get there (similar to Wheel of Time that way).

    Regarding Dreamfall, Ragnar Tornquist has stated that the series has always had a definite beginning, middle, and end, and that coming out in chapters should not change that. Dreamfall happened to be half of the ‘middle’, so the remaining chapters should cover the rest of the middle and the end, but won’t go on forever. Again, see Sam & Max. There’s a definite conclusion to the “season”. (And if you haven’t already, play episode four. It’s easily the best in the series to date.)

  25. Katy says:

    One: I agree with you on neverending stories. I HATE THAT. Books about one character whose life just gets continuously more sucky; TV shows that never resolve the key plot point… After the second or third season, the realization that there is no ending is still always a blow. In Japan, they have a good system where the bulk of dramas broadcasted have only one season and finish out in about 12 episodes (unless they have a good reason to make one more season). However, their anime and manga are a good example of authors writing a great beginning and a great middle but then forgetting to write an ending…ever.

    Two: Law&Order rocks my world. Go Mr. McCoy, you lawyer you!

  26. This is not an attempt to squeeze more money out of you, but to ensure that we can continue the saga in a timely manner without losing out to piracy – which, unfortunately, is rampant.

    If my choices are:

    a) a legitimate, uncracked version of Dreamfall that requires afflicting my PC with Starforce, which will impair and may even damage my CD or DVD drive


    b) a cracked version that does not impair my PC or require inserting my game disc to start, thus running *better* than the legitimate version

    then doesn’t it seem as though they’re actually encouraging users toward piracy, rather than discouraging it?

  27. Xavier says:

    This thing is much probably OLD, but while reading it, I had this “You have a point, BUT…” and when I have this feeling, it’s too late to back down, so…

    You have a point, but episodic content isn’t necessarily bad, a mysterious story that takes longer to end is not automatically pointless. I’ve never played Dreamfall, although by what you said of it, I’ll probably wait until they finish the trilogy so I can do one after the other (the second one cliffhanger looks particularly bad). But I do watch Lost, and I like it. Personally, I don’t gauge a game by its ending, (although the ending does have some weight in the end) as much as I don’t gauge a novel by its ending.

    Seeing the story unfold continuously (albeit slowly) in front of me is much more rewarding than seeing it end, no matter how happily or sadly. As an analogy, the good thing of life is not the way it ends. I hope I gave my point (though you’ll probably never read this comment).

  28. Shamus says:

    Xavier: You are right. It good or bad of EC depends very much on how it’s done. The ending of dreamfall made me pretty cynical about the whole thing. I wouldn’t want to see more games end like that.

    But yes, if done right it could really work. I understand the the new Sam & Max game does this, but I haven’t played it.

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