The Next Episode Gaming Takes a Cue From Television Success

The Next Episode Gaming Takes a Cue From Television Success
When CDs first came out, they were a niche format that cost far more than vinyl or cassettes. Eventually they sold enough to become industry standard but music bigwigs had grown fat on their high point price. Instead of lowering it, they included more music to fill the increased storage capacity resulting in bloated albums to trick us into thinking we were getting more band for our buck.

This situation has repeated itself with videogames where many titles are stretched unnecessarily into 50-, 60-, even 100-hour epics. Back in the summer of 2005, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and Zelda, griped "a lot of the games out there are just too long.” Yet the recent Zelda: Twilight Princess was nonetheless a 70-hour odyssey.

The problem is that most such titles remain unfinished by the masses and risk disappointing the hardcore gamers who do bother grinding to the finish. It’s got to be disheartening for the developers to have their endgame go unplayed.

But many of the best-ever videogames are just such lengthy adventures so tempering ambitious narratives is not necessarily the way to go. Instead, the answer may lie in episodic games. After all, serials have taken over television, so why not borrow their bite-size structure, labyrinthine plots and episode-ending cliffhangers?

Most hit games boast self-contained movie-style sequels and expansion packs are really just fan-service add-ons — the button-mashing equivalent of a remix record to tide us over until a real album is ready. Episodic games, however, come out in chapter format allowing gamers to buy each individually at a relatively inexpensive price. Though added up they most likely cost more, at least gamers would enjoy the thrill of completion while creators get a faster development cycle, a more regular cash-flow and important fan feedback.

Obviously, this works best with a download model, otherwise publishers (and therefore you) are paying far more in distribution and manufacturing costs — that’s why you buy TV seasons in stores and individual episodes on iTunes. Though next-gen hard drives and online services like Xbox Live, PlayStation Store and Nintendo’s Virtual Console have set the stage for this format to hit your TV set, at the moment it’s a computer-based world — but even there it’s been a bumpy road. Pioneering episodic games Wing Commander: Secret Ops (1998) and Majestic (2001) were both "cancelled” before completion; the former was too large a download in the pre-broadband era, while the latter simply failed to attract enough players.

More recently, the makers of 2005’s Indigo Prophecy, which did actually feel like interactive TV, abandoned their planned serialisation and suffered for it because the sped-up release date apparently left an episode or two unfinished and the game’s eventual two-weeks-later time jump completely derailed a potential classic.

Mindful of how annoyed fans were at the six-year delay between Half-Life and its smash sequel, the developer Valve decided to follow-up with a trilogy of episodes to be delivered via their Steam digital distribution platform that would form a new story arc, essentially making it Half-Life 3.

But though the first ep was a hit, the second has been pushed back repeatedly, leaving fans frustrated yet again. Ritual Entertainment hit a similar snag with SiN Episodes, which launched in May 2006 and has yet to see a follow-up. These failures have instilled scepticism in gamers much like how TV viewers were wary of this season’s flood of serials for fear they’d be axed before revealing their answers.

On the other hand, Telltale Games has had considerable success by keeping their scope smaller with an adventure game adaptation of Bone, split in accordance with the graphic novel collections of Jeff Smith’s cult comic, and the Sam & Max series, a revival of the early ‘90s LucasArts comedic classic starring a detective dog and psycho bunny.

Telltale is currently on Abe Lincoln Must Die!, the fourth monthly instalment of S&M’s six-episode "season one” with Reality 2.0 due sometime this month. The point-and-click series has deservedly earned raves for its well-crafted games, hilarious scripts, jazzy score and, best of all, timely releases.

As well as their own website, the games are available via the broadband network GameTap and Telltale is apparently angling to get Sam & Max onto the Wii and Xbox Live. If successful, this private dick duo may’ve finally uncovered the secret to making episodic gaming fly. If not, well, Grand Theft Auto 4 is to be followed by several small GTA episodes, so the serial format may just be forced onto the industry at gunpoint.