Traditionally the Computer Game has had the production form of the motion picture. This is fine if you have 20 million dollars to spend. If you don’t, then you should consider doing what TV-studios have been doing for at least 50 years – you should go episodic. But you have to do it right.
The Episodic Game was the new black in 2006. Tell Tale Games re-launched Sam & Max in an episodic form. Valve continued Half Life 2 as episodes and SiN, an old first person shooter, was reborn as SiN Episodes. But come 2007, and no one talked about episodic games anymore. SiN, episode 2 was never released, and we are still waiting for Half Life 2, episode 3. American McGee tried the format with American McGee’s Grimm, but failed miserably. Tell Tale Games have expanded their range of episodic games, but they among the very few companies to do this.
The reason why Tell Tale Games succeeds in this while the others fail is very simple: they have adopted the production form of a TV-series. And they understand one single thing: just as a TV-series is NOT a movie cut into small pieces, an episodic game is NOT a traditional game cut into small pieces.
The production form of a movie and a TV-series is very different. The obvious difference is that a movie runs around 110 minutes, while a single season of a TV-series (like Lost) runs around 16 hours. A movie easily costs around 20 million $, while an episode of Lost costs around 2 million $. A typical hour-episode lasts app. 40 minutes. In other words: a movie costs around 200000 $ per minute, while a high profile TV-series costs around 40000 $ per minute.
It costs a lot of money to start a TV-series. The pilot of Lost cost 10 million $ (the one of most expensive pilots ever) – about half the budget of a standard movie. If the networks don’t pick up the show, then the money is wasted; if they do up, however, the “machine” has been built and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to use.
While you essentially chuck everything when you've finished making a movie, the whole idea of a TV-series is that you can reuse the cast and the locations – in the long run this makes the production a lot cheaper. Once you have built a set, it becomes very cheap to use it again. Think of a sitcom like Friends: most episodes have a cast list of less than 10 – the 6 main characters and a couple of guest stars. The number of locations is limited to 4 or 5 – the two apartments, the café and 1 or 2 extra locations. Lost has more locations and more characters in each episode – but just as in Friends there are very few new locations and characters.
I think that a lot of this translates easily into computer games. But you have to respect the format– episodic games are NOT full games cut into small pieces.
I think that Half Life 2, episode 1, 2 and (hopefully) 3 is a full game cut into three pieces.
Some are already doing it right. The Phoenix Wright (Capcom) games are actually prime examples of the episodic game. Each game consists of a number of standalone chapters and each chapter has few locations and few characters. Blue Toad Mystery Files (Relentless Software) is an episodic game in 6 episodes, which can be downloaded from the PlayStation Network – the whole game takes place in 1 village and the characters are reused from episode to episode. And then there’s Tell Tale Games, which have released several different IP’s as episodes.
I’ll be returning to the dos and don’ts of episodic game in the future – I will be trying to set up some ground rules for the format.