Episodic done right

I’ve dipped my toe in the episodic gaming world once or twice. The results were usually pleasant enough, if never overwhelming. The Sam & Max series, for example, were mostly fun but as games paled in comparison to the original and the art re-use was always a little too obvious. American McGee too is currently toying around with the concept with his Grimm series and Telltale are further building on the idea with Strongbad’s Cool Game for Attractive People. It’s all go, apparently. However, I was most pleasantly surprised by Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty, released this week over the Playstation Network.

I have just spent a very fun few hours of a hang-over blighted Saturday playing through R&C:QFB and it was tremendous fun. Coming as it does on the heels of the full-priced Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, it continues the story and play mechanics. Needless to say you’ll have to have enjoyed the latter before contemplating purchasing the former, but as it was undoubtedly a superb gaming experience it took me a mere 2 seconds to opt for the download.

I fully expect to see more of such “plus alpha” games appearing on PSN, it makes perfect sense. You reuse the tools, tech and assets that so many people have sweated over for so long and build a quicker, new game out of it of such high visual quality and presentational sheen it already stands head and shoulders over the competition in the download market. Development is quick and cheap, compared to the full game, and it keeps the fans warm for when the next instalment arrives, which, as by the unspoken rules of video game markets, must somehow require all new art and tech. It only took a few hours to complete, which is cheap at even half the price, but I was rewarded with a promise of more of the same this autumn, which I’ll lap up like a thirsty kitten when the time comes.

Insomniac really did deliver, in so many ways, even beyond the excellent craftsmanship of the game itself. We had a simultaneous release in Japan and the West, a very cheap price point pushing it nicely into the impulse buy sector, a fully localised game that sets its language to your system’s preferred choice as opposed to your IP, even in Japan, and, a commitment from the developers to deliver more, soon. Nothing is quite as good as feeling a little delicate one weekend, deciding there and then to buy a game, install it within minutes, play and finish it before the day is done.

I fully expect more companies to follow suit. Why spend years on creating a pipeline and assets only to never use them again? And indeed, many games could follow suit. There is of course the much touted extra content for Grand Theft Auto 4, though not owning the Xbox version nor a functioning Xbox, that will pass me by. Though not a full-priced game itself, PixelJunk Eden could easily add extra gardens to prolong the wonderful gameplay. Why not add an extra few hours of storyline to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, using all the art assets and tech of the game but simply create some new areas and extra story?

If you want your fans to keep giving you money it’s extra games like Quest for Booty that give you the most bang for your buck, especially as a consumer, as opposed to paying for a few extra multiplayer maps or extra costumes, God forbid. Previously boxed games had a very short timeframe to sell, as sales would usually drop off significantly after the initial months. Using extra episodic content can keep money coming in on the back of that first initial development cycle. And even better, because such episodic extras are cheap and quick to produce, you’ll face less internet fury over “leeching the consumers dry” or “cynically reusing stuff from the previous game”. This is exactly what Quest for Booty does, and I feel in no way cheated!

As if the glass wasn’t half-full enough, I have to say that slowly PSN is shaping up to be what we all hoped it would be. Though I may have spent more money on full, boxed PS3 games, I have actually spent most time playing PSN titles, and that will certainly have an influence on my future purchases.

10 comments:

  1. I think valve have done it best with half life 2

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  2. What I am alittle surprised at is how long these Half-Life episodes take to make. Sure they are longer than R&C:QFB, but the next episode of that is months away, whereas Episode 3 of Half-Life is coming when? The idea behind episodic extras is to bang them out fairly quickly and cheaply, but Valve *seem* to have decided to make Half-Life sequels shorter and just call them "episodic".

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  3. excellent! I was curious as to how good the R&C episodic was going to be .. well, not that I would ever doubt Insomniac's ability to deliver on their promise.

    I guess with Halflife, a lot of the thrill comes from the cinematic moments / scripted sequences, that does inevitably take more time than a platform style level design (or? ... admittedly, a lot of HL2:EP2 seemed a little formulaic)

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  4. Yeah that is a problem, but still they take less time than the gap between half life and half life 2.

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  5. And don't forget that Valve is using the episodes to roll out some experimental tech. HL2 didn't yet have HDR, EP1 didn't yet have the cinematic engine. So "episodic" doesn't necessarily mean just new art and levels.

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  6. True, episodic is a bit of an umbrella term, but I think JC is right that episodic gaming 'ought' to be similar to episodes of TV-shows ... they should be made with low budgets because of an initial burst of investment in technology, assets and tools, so that new episodes can come out relatively often. Possibly even monthly or bi-monthly or so.

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