The days of blockbuster gaming are numbered. So sayeth pundit prognosticators of doom, who see the future of gaming in terms of lowering development costs and episodic delivery to avoid being squeezed out of the market by the biggest spenders.
Okay, so they’re not all doomsayers. In fact a few, like Telltale Games (Sam & Max, Tales of Monkey Island), are actually upbeat about episodic distribution. Why? Because their business model depends on it, sure, but also because they say it encourages risk-taking at a time when gaming seems to have settled for repetition and franchising.
I posed five questions to Telltale Games’ co-founder Dan Connors to pick his brain on the so-called ‘episodic’ paradigm’s implications for gamers.
Game On: With all the recent jabber about episodic gaming to offset upfront investment costs, are the days of massive-budget, all-inclusive games numbered?
Dan Connors: The game industry had been heading in a direction where the blockbuster business model was limiting innovation and killing off niche genres. Digital Distribution has changed the landscape and created the opportunity for episodic distribution which works under different economics. We still have a long way to go toward defining what the user experience should be, but it’s safe to say smaller chunks of content delivered on a regular schedule at a smaller pricepoint are more consistent with a connected entertainment experience than the ‘huge’ gaming experience.
GO: What happens if a game’s initial episodes sell poorly? Would Telltale have finished its recent Sam & Max games had the initial episodes missed critical sales marks?
DC: Since we sell the entire season upfront, we need to fulfill the entire season. That’s just a risk of the model if you have a subscription.
GO: While episodic design works well, speaking in terms of narrative, does it problematize the process for games that depend on continuous dramatic flow to work? Doesn’t an episodic approach to game design close off certain design possibilities?
DC: Telltale has proven that telling a story over five episodes can work really well but I think it remains to be seen what the best genres are for the episodic format. To limit your possibilities at this phase, when the problems to be solved haven’t even been identified, would be premature.
GO: Are you a market-watcher or a trend-setter when you settle your per-episode prices? Could you have charged more for the Sam & Max episodes? Less?
DC: When Telltale set the price for the first Sam and Max Season and episodes there weren’t comparable examples to measure against. So far our pricing has worked for us and we’ve learned a lot about how people prefer to buy the content. Now that we have 25 episodes of content out there, we can try different things. Our decisions going forward will be based on reviewing that data.
GO: Let’s take the cynical position and assume the US economy’s going to grow very slowly (if at all) for at least the next half-decade. What’s the sweet spot (or impulse buy price range) for episodic content in that climate?
DC: It’s strange because prices in general have gone up dramatically in the past few years. Currently a Telltale episode cost less than a super burrito, so I think from a single episode perspective $7.95 to $9.95 is likely the right price.