SiNful delights

Written by Brett Thomas

December 30, 2006 | 10:50

Tags: #cancellation #episodic-gaming #sin-episodes

Has anyone else noticed how much episodic content has really become a buzzword in the marketplace? Everywhere you turn in the media industry, creators are getting praised for offering their content in smaller, cheaper bites. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the gaming industry - the concept of episodic games has been hot on the minds of developers for nearly a year now.

For all intents and purposes, episodic content has been heralded as both the future and saviour of gaming. The idea of paying for the game as a developer completes certain goals has its advantages - not least of which is the ability to play the game in pieces over time, rather than waiting long periods for a product that's almost out of date by the time it hits shelves. There's only one flaw in this great system, and it's got publishers weak at the knees and salivating:

It's all a SiN.

No, I'm not talking the fire and brimstone, see-you-never-again type of sin. Well, sort of - because I view episodic content as a slippery slope of rights erosion that we're chasing for a mighty small carrot. We want that delicious taste of something "new" and unfinished... and we are willing to pay through the nose for it.

So what do I mean about SiN? SiN: Emergence, of course. Released as the first true benchmark of episodic content, SiN (along with its developer, Ritual) was a 9-part series meant to assemble a full game. Emergence featured a few hours of gameplay, and was able to be purchased for the low, low price of $19.95. Of course, since then it's dropped a bit, down to the rock-bottom steal of $14.95.

Now, before I even waste more time explaining how else we get shafted with episodic content, let's do a quick bit of math. $14.95 times 9 episodes at 6 hours a piece.... that's $135 for barely over 50 hours of gameplay. Gameplay that I had to wait months to advance through. What a... deal? Yeah, for everyone but me.

The real deal behind episodic gaming is an industry that's starting to wise up to western culture's collective ADD. Why wait 18 months to get paid for a 50 hour game, when you can make more than twice as much getting it in earlier, regular installments? It is the exact opposite of all economic common sense, and it has publishers loving every bit of it.

In finance, we usually say present money is worth more than future money. Basically, money is most valuable when it's in your hand, and least valuable when you have to count on someone else to give it to you later, because you can't actually use it for anything until they do. We make up for the difference with the concept of interest - an increase in the amount someone actually owes you, which accounts for your inability to use that money right now (it also takes into account the likelihood you'll ever be paid back).

"The real deal behind episodic gaming is an industry that's starting to wise up to western culture's collective ADD."

In Episodic-content Land, though, everything gets switched around. We pay more present money so we don't have to pay them less future money. Sweet deal, huh? I wish I could get a bank to give me terms like that, I could see myself talking to a mortgage lender now - "Don't worry, if you give me $200,000 right now, I'll pay you back all $120,000." That's all episodic content is.

When put like that, it sounds pretty absurd, doesn't it? I mean, who would hurry up and pay more money to wait for a finished product than they would pay for a finished product itself? And not just more, but double and then some?

The answer is not very many people, of course. The average consumer would be expected at some point to do the math and realize he or she came up short - the minute pen hits paper in an effort to figure out the cost of an entire game, it's easy to see that the consumer gets screwed.

Which is why I'll demystify the true business concept - there is no Santa Claus. No tooth fairy. No Smurfs. And certainly no Episodes 5-9. SiN Episodes 2-4 being cancelled may have been a hitch, but there was never an ending... except an early one.

Of course, vague reassurances could prove me wrong.

The entire business model is designed to indulge your sinful delights in getting an early cut, and use that money elsewhere. As surely as I am writing this, Ritual had not ever intended to actually finish all 9 parts, and I'd bet a lot that publishers are actually pushing other developers to plan to do likewise.
If you think about it, it's the only way the concept makes sense. It would take all of one blockbuster game released episodically all the way to completion before consumers everywhere wised up as to how bad this was for them. No, the point was never to charge you double the cost for a game - it was (and is) to charge you the same cost for half a game.

It all comes down to the concept of the desire to taste that forbidden fruit. We, as gamers, often try out for beta-testing slots, salivate over screenshots, and download previews - so why not find a way to charge us for it? But the reality is, nobody is going to pay for an advertisement to spend more money on a game. But we would pay for the ability to play the first few levels...

"Nobody is going to pay for an advertisement to spend money on a game."

At the same time, the publisher gets some good revenue - we've already paid as much for half a game as we would have paid for a full boxed copy in stores. Incrementally, we don't feel that repeated $20 hit as much as one big $50...even if we've already given you $60 over the past 4 months.

For everyone getting ready to bombard the forums with "But what about Valve? Clearly HL2 Episodes will finish," I have one other concept - expansion pack. There's already a full game. All of the episodes combined will likely amount to the playtime of one expansion for most games - about 15 hours of extended gameplay (the first amounted to about 5, so they're right on target).

Now, normally you would spend $20 on an expansion, like you do for many of the games out today. But if you add up HL2: Episodes 1 and 2 at $19.95 a pop, you've just paid almost as much as you paid for Half Life 2. And whether Episode 3 will even exist rather than transitioning to Half Life 3 has not even been confirmed by Valve. Yet another tale that will likely be unfinished - unless you pay for another entire game down the line.

"The seed for episodic content was planted when subscription-based MMOs became truly successful."

This great concept didn't come out of thin air, though. If I had to make a guess, I'd say that the seed for episodic content was planted when subscription-based MMOs became truly successful. You buy a full game, which pays for the development costs, then pay monthly for the servers that expand the world and story arc of the game.

Episodic content is very similar - it works by using established engines (thus lowering costs, as the bulk of development fees are already paid off) and franchises. Think of the titles - SiN, Half Life... these are gaming heavyweights, but each is up there in age. Then you pay episodically for a little bit more levels and textures which expand the world and story arc of the game.

"We used to have a name for it in the industry - shareware."

Of course, this same concept of "play a little now, and more later" is older than that. In fact, we used to have a name for it in the industry - shareware. There was a point where publishers used to actually let you play the first few levels of a title for free. You were even encouraged to share a copy of that with your friends. How silly, huh?

Unfortunately, the concept of shareware was marred by one fatal flaw - since those levels were free, you usually had to have an actual, completed game to sell to people...

I guess the only unforgivable sin anymore is having one of those.
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