Episodic Gaming Fallacy

Here is a quick thought I had recently. Fable II was just released in episodes on XBLA. Also, Episodic Gaming has been discussed in one of the recent Brainy Gamer podcasts. The idea is: instead of releasing one big, long, expensive game, you chop it up into small pieces and release it cheaper and individually. And you always produce the next episode while the previous one is being distributed. If a series turns not to be popular you cancel the development of further episodes, limiting the financial risk. Basically, you adopt the model of TV series.

Here are some problems with that I haven’t really heard being discussed anywhere else:

  • Unlike TV production, game production doesn’t scale down so well. There is a tremendous amount of work to do in order to establish the base technology for a game to work at all. Compared to that, sheer content production is cheaper. Because of that, the game model works THE OTHER way around: the up-front costs are so high that you NEED to produce a huge full-size game and even a bigger sequel before the initial investment starts to pay off. If you release the game in smaller episodes, the pilot episode would end up costing almost as much as the entire season.

  • The consumer behavior actually doesn’t work so well for an episodic model. Right now, most gamers have huge backlogs. Gamers tend to buy games and don’t even open them. Finishing a game just takes a lot of time and rarely anybody has that time. If games were released episodically, gamers would probably just buy the pilots and the first few episodes. The latter episodes would sell much worse. In all, each gamer would end up spending less on each game on average. There is no reason to believe that games would sell more in total to offset that loss. For adult players, money is not the limiting factor – time is.

  • One last thing I noticed while working on my current game. Releasing games in episodes heavily limits the kind of cohesiveness of the world you create. So for example, it would be very difficult to release something like Metroid episodically. You could package one part of the huge world into an episode. But one great feature of Metroid is re-visiting older parts of the world with new skills to open previously closed passages. In order to release Metroid episodically you would need to design and anticipate every ability the player would have at the end of the game already in the pilot episode. Again, this comes back to the first argument: you would need to design and develop the entire season already before the pilot episode, making the pilot almost as expensive as a full-size game.

Am I missing something? What do you think? Have you tried the episodic Fable II? What did you think?

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

7 responses to “Episodic Gaming Fallacy”

  1. axcho

    Hmm, some good points. This definitely makes sense for console games, though I wonder if there still might be a chance for episodic games to work on less infrastructure-intensive platforms like Flash…

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Good thinking! One great example of episoding flash gaming was 10 gnomes. I guess it works better when the game is simple technology and gameplay-wise. But with episodic Flash games you have the same problem was with non-episodic Flash game – how to monetize them?

  3. Tom H.

    Actually, the first two points are counter to my experience. The AAA studios that I’m familiar with have something like a 5:1 ratio of artists to engineers, and grabbing a couple of manuals off my shelf and counting lines in the credits seems to support a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio for anything trying to look next-gen. If you release a game with 1/5th the content, I’d expect you can do it on 1/3rd the budget: you’d still need your pre-production time, but production could be half the length and use half the staff. The control of risk would make the ensuing funding much more supportable from a publisher’s viewpoint, even if potential profit were lower.

    The second seems very much to be a core gamer habit. When I look at a large group of my neighbors who buy Wii/DS games for their kids, or non-gaming professionals who dabble in games, or relatively poor people, the buying pattern tends to be one at a time, play until saturation, buy a new one at the next major holiday / next time you’re bored / next time you have the available cash.

  4. Krystian Majewski

    Excellent arguments.

    I must agree with you on the first part. I presented a skewed picture here. Content is actually got far more cost-intense, especially in the current gen. But it’s not that easy to split development/content by counting heads. Keep in mind that there is a grey area of up-front development where also artists are involved. Take a game like Fallout 3 for example. The levels/dungeons in that game a made of pre-fabricated elements. In oder to design a level an artist need to invest a lot of time creating all those elements. Once they are done, a level designer can build a lot of levels using those elements. From this point, creating even more levels using that same elements becomes easier and cheaper. And in fact, this is how Bethesda managed to create such a huge world. But if you created them for just one level, it would be terribly inefficient. The same is true for other re-usable assets like enemies for example. I found that in game development, the biggest challenge is to establish a working content-pipeline in the first place. And that’s a challenge you don’t have in TV shows.

    As for your second argument – that’s true that customer behavior varies but keep in mind that Wii/DS games are relatively cheap to produce anyway so there is no need for risk control there. The idea seems to be to use episodic gaming to manage the bloated, expensive AAA next gen core gamer titles.

  5. sirleto

    are you missing something? in my eyes total not. it’s exactly the same i’m thinking. and i believe every sane developer should clear come to that point. BUT … money (thus time) is the one big limiting factor, and episodic content is probably one of the few possibilities to actually make a game less expensive (at first for the first few episodes – both the sales price and the development cost, even if it only goes down from 100% big game dev cost to still 80% – this is a big cut of 20%!). and i believe this is the big “motor” behind every company that hypes episodic content.

    another thing: microsales and episodic content seems to work perfect for the asian rpg-alike games. but i do beliebe this is simply because there are enough (teen?) players that have all three necessary factors time and stubborn interesst into only one game _and_ money (prepaid cards everywhere).

    TO tom h.

    i’m well aware of the 3:1 (and up for todays blockbusters) ratio of content to programming/development people. and you are pretty close to call that number as an example why cutting down cost (by less content for the first episode(s)) should be possible. but i say it isn’t.

    it isn’t because exactly as krystian pointed out in his initial post, if you develop the game with 1/3 of the cost (going down from 5:1 teams to 1:1 teams) and sell it with 1/3 of the price, there will be a huge amount of people that TRULY like the game but still will not be able (time!) to buy the rest. for example final fantasy: there is a huge adult “fanbase” where my guts are telling me that about 50% of the people are not playing through the “80h+” games square enix is developing for the teens that are very hatefull against every console rpg that delivers LESS than 30+ hours and still very sad for the games with less than 60+ hours.

    of couse many people are buying every gta add-on, but still there is a huge drop in the add-on sales numbers, wich i do not expact to be only based on customers that bought but did not like the game.

    time for adults is a mayor problem. for example: every indie trying to go half-day work for money and half-day work for his “art” knows what i’m talking about. and indie developers aren’t the only people interested into games AND doing the things that they dream about for a living while in the need to do things they don’t totaly like until their goals are reached!

  6. Ninja

    With so many good TV series pulled before their time I do not relish going through the same in my games…

  7. Krystian Majewski

    Haha, good point! :)


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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