Is Episodic Content the Future of Gaming?

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead won a number of Best-Of awards last year. In addition to its many accolades, it also sold quite well. A number of things led to its success beyond the fact that it is a great game. The Walking Dead cost less than the average game, was available on damn near every device released in the last decade that supports games, and it held players' interest by stretching out its release over the course of several months.

Clementine and Lee, main characters in The Walking Dead.

Clementine and Lee, main characters in The Walking Dead.

That last point is the one I’d like to focus on. Rather than spend years developing a single large release, Telltale created a framework for several smaller games in a series and released them over a relatively short period of time. Each game(or episode, in Telltale’s parlance) released at $5 per episode. A season pass could be purchased at a discounted rate, and a disc containing all five episodes is now available for around $30.

It might not be fair to compare every other release to The Walking Dead. However, many games would fit into its mold quite well. There are places where higher-budget games greatly surpass it, particularly in the realm of visuals. The Walking Dead also has a relatively simple control scheme and its straightforward design means bug testing was probably fairly manageable compared to a game like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto.

Neither of these factors make The Walking Dead a bad game. In fact, the decision to design the graphics around running on a greater variety of hardware and tell a fairly linear story helps greatly reduce development costs and time. Few, if any, players felt either of these limitations were a problem. The low barriers to entry and quality story made The Walking Dead game a hit in every quantifiable aspect of the term.

Developers and publishers have been looking for ways to make more money off of the hard work they put into their titles, and with the incredibly high cost of development, this is understandable. With budgets well into the tens of millions, a AAA title needs to sell more than a few million to make back the capital put into it. The 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider sold 3.6 million copies in its first month, taking in around $216 million, and it is considered a flop. That’s a horrible sign for the health of the industry.

For reference, last week’s top box office hit, Oblivion, made $38.2 million, and that is considered quite successful. The Avengers had a first weekend of a little under $207.5 million, and is one of the greatest opening weekends in history. Tomb Raider took in more than that during its first month, had a smaller budget than either movie, and is considered a failure.

The solution, in the eyes of most developers and publishers, is to raises game costs, despite their already high average of $60 per title. Other ideas include releasing additional content several months after release to maintain interest and reduce the frequency of new game trade-ins. Neither of these solutions is ideal; raising the cost of entry will shrink the market, and reducing trade-ins will likely reduce the number of new game purchases made by lower- and middle-class gamers, again resulting in fewer sales.

A decision point in The Walking Dead

A decision point in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead’s method wouldn’t work for every game, at least not entirely. However, episodic gaming isn’t just about lowering the barrier to entry; it is also about keeping customers interested in your product and buying add-ons for months to come. Each Walking Dead game episode is around two hours long, providing a total play time of around ten hours. The length of play time games offer varies wildly by genre, but twelve-to-twenty hours is about average for a $60 game. Role-playing games tend to be significantly longer, while fighting games and first-person shooters are often less. Still, at half the price The Walking Dead offered half the length of play time. If developers and publishers could produce shorter games that cost less money, with the promise of a smoother release of extended content, they could greatly reduce the amount of money lost when a game fails.

Imagine having spent $30 on Mass Effect 3, getting about a third of the way through it, then getting three additional chapters of the story for $10 each, over the course of a few months. This could have also allowed the optional content released well after players finished the game, like The Citadel and Omega add-ons, to have come out in a manner that would better suit the story rather than as an afterthought. Had this additional content been released as part of the main game, I might have bought more of it. As it stands, while I do intend to buy it at some point, I’m busy playing other games.

While people might balk at spending $60 on a game, sight unseen, they are more likely to spend $30 on a game, then $30 or even $50 more over time, if they really enjoy the experience. The Walking Dead is proof of this. Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) offer further proof. Episodic content strikes a perfect balance between lowering the cost of entry and avoiding monthly subscriptions. Free-to-Play games, which make money in the form of limiting player progress until they buy various forms of in-game items, are gaining in equal parts popularity and ire. By going episodic, developers maintain player engagement, generate a regular stream of revenue, and avoid the backlash that addiction-based microtransactions produce.

The industry would do well to emulate one of last year’s top performers. They don’t have to follow its model to the letter — there is still room for bigger-budget titles that cost more. However, taking a page from the playbook of someone who turns the common industry model on its ear while maintaining a realistic pricing model would be wise. The free-to-play model depends on a smaller number of players to spend more money, which is a recipe for disaster should a game not garner a paying audience at all. Episodic gaming lowers the barrier to entry why ensuring a quality product maintains a paying audience. The whole thing is so obvious, I’m shocked no one else is following the model already.

Posted on April 25, 2013 and filed under Business.