Daily Reaction: Does The Walking Dead Demonstrate a Future in Episodic Content?

With the final episode of The Walking Dead game just released, the undead duo of Dan and Seb limp through another episode of Daily Reaction. This week we discuss how influential the most successful episodic console games to date could change the future of the industry.

Dan: As The Walking Dead game was the fastest selling Telltale title to date, moving over a million copies of its first episode in only 20 days, it’s not only a success for the studio, but it shows the potential for all future episodic driven games. Prior to TWD, Telltale had released a few other episodic games, which were met with average-to-good sales and had decent word of mouth. Telltale proved the ability of the console market to sustain episodic content to not only help fund products, but also found the best way to utilize cliffhangers in the games industry.

With the success of TWD, Telltale have not only been the driving force for console based episodic content, but also recently announced they are set to expand as a company, with bigger offices. This growth can only mean that Telltale sees a big future in the viability of IPs that are capable of being split into segments that more closely match a television show. This idea is a great way to keep an audience’s attention for an extended period, but also runs a number of risks.

Seb: But that right there is the problem. Their last biggest game was Back to the Future, now it’s The Walking Dead. Those are massive IPs – TWD would have sold incredibly no matter what form of game it was. As much as I love the idea of episodic content – being able to look forward to a monthly, story driven game – there are clear flaws with the business model. Telltale needs these huge IPs to drive sales, which is why they’re making another TWD series as well as Fable. Sam and Max was their big IP, and they did relatively well on it, all things considered, but both BTTF & TWD sold far faster and far better.

If Telltale was truly confident in the strength of episodic games, they’d release more original IP as they’d have more control, and not have to share the profits. Relentless Software developed Blue Toad Murder Files for PS3 and PC, managing 250,000 PSN sales for across the four episodes as of last year. That might sound like a decent amount, but they told PSLS that they were very keen to do another series, but that didn’t happen. Sadly they ended up laying off a lot of staff, and eventually turning to Kinect games development.

Another issue is that Telltale can’t keep to a schedule. They constantly delay at the last minute, mid season, and different regions often have to wait even longer. Even when they do come out, there are numerous complaints over the bugs and how they feel rushed. It’s a big problem with episodic content, and something that could only be alleviated by a developer creating most, if not all, of the episodes before they even release the first one (like with many TV shows), so that everything is ready. Unfortunately, that would mean going for a long period without money, something that smaller developers might not be able to do.

Dan: Telltale Games have had to utilize known IPs to be able to find success in the market using the episodic content, but this is not only a method to just sell games, it is a way to introduce a new play model to gamers. As gamers eventually find that playing games could be a similar experience to those found in sitcoms and other TV series, the potential could be something that other companies extend upon. While Telltale might have been the first major console producer of episodic content, they might not be the ones who actually figure out how to generate unique content that is successful.

Having other developers like Naughty Dog or Rockstar North develop an episodic title using either their known IPs or their ability to create a story that people care about could actually be the jumping point for the whole industry to embrace an episodic model. If major studios could see a return on an initially smaller title it may allow for them to develop titles at a faster rate and extend the life of an IP instead of simply pushing out a single product every year. While not all titles need to be pushed into a segmented experience, the idea is a great option that should be embraced as something viable for studios to benefit from. As we have seen with recent titles like Assassin’s Creed 3, the churning of ‘complete’ titles on an annual basis has not helped in the quality of a product, but if they were able to focus on an episode instead they might be able to actually produce a better product – even on a shorter time frame.

Seb: If that were to happen, it’d be way down the line. It’d have to be when digital completely dominates the console industry. Right now, retail and online retailers are king – that’s where the big bucks are, and that’s where the big guys will stay. Naughty Dog won’t try episodic content because they make ‘blockbuster’ titles. It’s the equivalent of a film. That doesn’t work for TV-like content.

There is certainly a place for episodic content in this industry, and I do believe it can be larger than the niche Telltale has carved out. But it still hasn’t been proven to be very successful without the help of a big franchise. And, even then, these aren’t reaching a TV-level output – we’re talking five or so episodes a series, and generally only one series. Interestingly, I met a Relentless developer at the Develop Conference a few years ago, and he said he’d love for there to be a weekly episodic game that continued for years like a soap opera. If something like that could be created, it would truly revolutionize the entire industry, storytelling and how we play games.

I’m sure Telltale’s success will inspire more developers to try out episodic content, but there are still too many risks for it to become a widespread distribution method. Think about how few people actually finish games – we’re often talking as little as 30%. Those people won’t buy episode two, and they most certainly won’t buy episode twelve. What it could lead to in game development is a dumbing down of titles. They won’t want to give you too many obstacles, so that you definitely keep playing, definitely make it to the end of the episode. Blue Toad, for example, was a competition based game, you were scored at the end – you always completed the game, no matter what. Equally, The Walking Dead made it very hard for you to fail – if you did badly, your character just made enemies or lost equipment. And restarting was fast and simple that it made death meaningless.

That makes sense for certain games, but not for the majority of core experiences. Unless problems like these can be overcome, episodic content will remain a small, albeit interesting, part of the industry.

Have you played an episodic game from beginning to end? Do you think the ability to get a return on the development of a game while still in production is beneficial? Or does it force the developer to rush the product to market? Let us know in the comments, or by sending Dan part of a comment and the other half to Seb.

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