Digits & Dragons
Gone to Pieces: Episodic Gaming
Heavyweight gamers definitely have their plates full these days. Beefy games like Oblivion are
thick with dozens, if not hundreds of hours of juicy reality-escaping goodness. Still haven't
gotten your fill? Well, try on an MMORPG; it's an all-you-can-eat buffet - and if you talk to any
serious World of Warcraft players you'll know there are certainly many out there who are
Just about any AAA game you buy is going to be chock full of things to do, and it better be, with
shelf prices at $50 or more! This is a good thing, right? We pay a ton for games so we better get
a ton in them. That's what we are used to… but is there a better way?
Growing up, there was nothing better than getting a huge game and going at it for hours a day.
Classics such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III took easily sixty hours a piece, and that
was great for a kid who had the whole summer to game. Sadly, those days have passed.
With the realities of an adult life comes a lot less time for gaming. With only a limited number
of hours for gaming each week, it becomes easy to lose interest in a game that takes a couple
months to complete. Unless a game is really great, it probably will retire to my games shelf long
before I have gotten through - which is a shame because some of these are pretty decent, just too
long for my time constraints right now.
So what is a guy like me to do, spend the big money to play just a piece of the game? Yeah, I do
that quite a bit, but it isn't kind on the wallet. Pay a little to get quick, crappy, knock-off games?
Never. Thankfully, there are a few developers out there who have recognized this problem and
have brought us the answer: episodic gaming.
The idea behind episodic gaming is that more players will get on board the title if the entry cost
is lower. Of course, if you are producing worthless games you probably don't want to take this
pay-as-you-go approach, but for certain types of quality games, this is a great way to go. Shorter
developing times, fewer expectations for completeness and a continuing fan base are some of the
many reasons episodic gaming is being experimented with.
One Third of Half Life
Perhaps the premiere example of episodic gaming right now is Half Life 2: Episode One. If
you've never heard of the Half Life series you probably aren't a very serious gamer: the Half
Life games both sold extremely well and received near unanimous praise for their intense action,
clever physics and creative story.
The Half Life universe tells the tale of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a scientist turned commando who
has to battle his way out of a research facility and through alien soldiers from another dimension.
(Ok, the summary may sound cliché but it is actually a very original and creative world!) Armed
with your trusty crowbar and other weapons, ranging from a gravity gun to a battery-powered
crossbow, it's up to you to get out alive and do your part to save the planet.
The HL: Episodes are a continuation of the story and really take the place of Half Life 3. The
developers at Valve decided that rather than wait five or six years for a whole new game, they
would release the episodes incrementally at around $20 a piece. Three episodes were initially
slated, but rumors have been confirmed about a fourth episode also being planned.
Zombies will walk crawl and run after you.
I've been playing Half Life 2: Episode One for the last couple of weeks and I must say, I am
impressed. Episode One has everything I love about first person shooters (life-or-death tactics,
quick action and great visuals) and none of elements I hate (repetitive mouse twitching, brain-dead AI). It is pretty rare to find me raving about a first-person shooter, but this is one I would
recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre.
Like other games in the series, there are a lot of problems to solve and the easiest approach will
often find you on your back with the ringing of explosives in your now dead ears. Using the
gravity gun to manipulate objects is a fun part of solving these tasks and the excellent physics
make these problems more puzzling than frustrating. Rather than being just annoying blocks in
the progression, the puzzles are woven into the story and flow, breaking up the action nicely.
Alien soldiers and zombies don't like each other. Or you.
Same Old Games, Cool New Content
Well, Half Life 2: Episode One is great both as a stand-alone game and also as a piece of the
whole Half Life world, but it isn't the only episodic content out there. There are a number of
episodic formats and games that are being released, some with better success than others.
The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion has experiment with episodic content releases to mixed reviews.
These add-ons cost between $0.99 and $2.99 and add single quests, dungeons and items. Players
were initially outraged at having to pay for new content, but apparently enough people are
buying because Bethesda continues to release new features.
Personally, I didn't come close to doing everything in the original world, let alone buying more
to do, but I support the episodic releases. Of course, there is the fear that these paid add-ons may
encourage developers to release "incomplete" games, but this certainly wasn't the case with
Oblivion. The original game was certainly worth the price tag and further content helps to keep
that incredible world of Tamriel alive and growing.
Want this shiny armor? You're going to have to shell out $1.99.
Neverwinter Nights also uses the episodic content format to release their "Premium Modules".
Again, their cost is a lot less than a whole new game and they are good enough that even with the
thousands of player-made modules out there, people are still buying. These modules go far
beyond the simple one-hour quests of Oblivion and can add dozens of hours of adventuring to
your game. Even four years after the original release, Bioware continues to release new content
both as free additions and premium add-ons. With such great customer commitment, there is no
doubt I will be picking up Neverwinter Nights 2 as soon as it gets out next month.
Whether it is new modules to add on to great games or entirely new adventures, episodic games
are a great pay "pay for what you eat" approach. They are great for gamers like me who don't
have a ton of time, but also appeal to those who have already done everything there is to do in
the virtual world and are looking for one more piece. As long as developers don't slacken on the
initial releases, I will continue to support playing (and paying) in pieces!