I think there’s a missed opportunity with Episodic games that are currently being launched, they’re largely just about delivering a known experience over an extended period of time and splitting the costs throughout each episode.
There’s very little focus on the user experience and, more importantly, the social experience that episodic content can repeatedly deliver.
I think they key to this is engaging everyone in a simultaneous and recurring experience, like a TV show.
Imagine a chapter of a story driven game like Halo Reach being made available for everyone to play at 8pm on the 1st Sunday of every month, just one chapter, no-one can play it before that time so everyone experiences the same event. It could even be that this chapter is only available to play for a fixed period too, if you missed the event then you’ve got to wait for a repeat or get yourself the box-set.
I believe this will generate much more exposure for the game where the anticipation of what’s in the episode and the discussions afterwards make for a continued presence in peoples minds. Everyone would get the time to savour the experience and look forwards to the next one, hoping to share this with your friends.
A great side-effect of this is that it enables others to join the experience and catch-up with the previous episodes with everyone lining up at the next event.
It’s completely important to give people and end-to-end experience, i.e., a boxed off series with a compelling series ending. This gives everyone something to share and builds to a great crescendo for your idea.
How would you make this happen?
I believe that a pre-sold box set, either retail or online, would enable players to get their content ready *before* the content is unlocked at a specific time. You have the content in your hands, it’s ready, you know it’s going to be delivered to you over time so you can judge the value.
This is a different position to making the game available for download/purchase at a set time, this is about unlocking the experience.
iTunes has incorporated the idea of a ‘Series Pass’ for TV Series since 2006 with the exact model with series such as The Inbetweeners being unlocked as they’re aired on TV. It would seem likely that this model will extend to games too.
Steam have also been supporting this kind of pre-load and unlock for years where they pre-download content to your PC so that the game is ready to play at a specific time, no additional downloads or waiting is necessary.
For other platforms, it would seem trivial to unlock the content based on a live connection to an ‘unlock server’ instead of the obvious unlocking at a set time based on your PC/phone/console clock.
There’s also the opportunity to engage your audience between events by adding in the usual layers of Making Of documentaries and Developer Commentary (Valve have been embedding comments this since 2005). These extras could be made available to series subscribers to encourage people to take up the whole package.
Benefits to your business
There is a middle-ground to be had here. As a business you could make enough content to release but the whole series would be incomplete as you’d be making the later episodes as you go along.
There are pros & cons to this approach.
It means you *have* to hit all of your production dates for the later episodes or you risk breaking the series and therefore the experience and we all know there’s a lot of things that can go wrong. This risk is mitigated by the length of your series and the lead time on your episode, i.e., if you get 6 months worth of content in the bank before you release the 1st episode then you’re probably going to be OK.
One benefit to overlapping release & development is that you can start to incorporate feedback into your episodes that are currently in production and also use the revenue to keep your business going.
I believe there’s a great opportunity for well thought out and specifically written games that maximise the potential of Episodic content.
It needs a well written story that spans multiple episodes with the emotional peaks & troughs to keep you coming back for more.
All of the pieces have existed for a while but no-ones really made a go of it and I believe that the synced mass shared event is key to this.
It’s not enough simply to make your game available to download at a fixed time, the experience must be shared.