Episodic Big Budget Games – Maybe It’ll Be Okay?

The news that the new Hitman game is going episodic initially annoyed me. It reminded me a lot of the Final Fantasy VII remake doing the same thing, and how that reaction went. This time, however, I thought about it some more and turned around on it. Most of the credit for that probably goes to Captain Codfish for giving me a prompt to articulate just what I was so unhappy about.

Turns out the answer was a lot of fear that it might suck, more than that it actually does suck. And to be clear, it could suck quite a lot. The news that they’re selling all the episodes upfront for a normal AAA game price suggests that maybe it won’t, though. Even still, Square-Enix is taking a lot of flak for trying to do it. There must be an upside to them, right?

Breaking The Layoff Cycle

Aside from crunch, one of the things that can suck about game development is that it has a cycle of layoffs. This especially plagues smaller studios, but even larger ones can suffer from it.

The core problem is that you need differing amounts of staff at different stages of development, and unless you’re big enough to keep the other staff busy, you’re paying people to be idle. A lot of studios can’t afford to do that, so we get layoffs, and then hiring later when they have to staff up again. This is espcially true after a big development push, when the next set of content (or next game) is at the early stages. Consider:

  • Early on in design and development, you may not be sure just where you’re going yet. You don’t need 50 developers and a large QA staff.
  • For a while, you will need to make tons of assets  (art, voice over work, cutscenes). You can’t do some of those until after writing is done, and once it is, what do the writers do?
  • Once the assets are done and the game has moved into being closer to release, what do the artists do?
  • You need a big development and testing staff closer to release, but once you get there, those people will have a lot less to do.

DLC partially alleviates this, by having more content in the pipeline, so that you can keep people busy. Episodic games are a refinement of the model.

In an episodic game? Episode 3 can be in the design and writing stage while episode 2 is in the asset creation and development stages, while episode 1 is in the final push to release stage. You have the same people as before, only now everyone constantly has work. This starts to look something like a manufacturing operation, for good reason: manufacturing operations are very good at utilizing capacity.

The stability this model generates if it works helps companies keep staff, and gives staff some stability. That’s good for everyone, as experienced staff don’t make mistakes that new recruits make.

Cash Flow & Cutting Losses

In a traditional development cycle, someone (like a publisher) puts up the budget up front. The game gets made. The game gets sold. If it does well, great! If it does poorly, you just lost a ton of money.

The biggest problem with this model is that genres that publishers won’t bet on get undeserved, because making games is expensive. Early access and kickstarter came about to deal with that, by getting developers money for only a partial game, they can have cash flow and keep developing without needing the entire budget up front.

Early access suffers from a lot of games that go into it being unpolished and not ready for prime time, which cuts off a lot of the audience before you start. Episodic gaming could do it even better:

  1. By putting out only a piece of the game, you cut costs, development time, and can get that piece out on a lower budget.
  2. By focusing on less stuff, you can actually polish it, and avoid the biggest pitfall of early access.
  3. If it sells, you have cash flow to make the next episode.
  4. If it doesn’t sell, the market told you that it’s not interested and you cut your losses without building a bunch more game that also won’t sell.

Telltale Games does this to a T, and we get the very highly praised Tales From The Borderlands series out of it. Telltale’s business likely wouldn’t work without the ability to release in episodes.

What About Gamers?

I’ve talked a lot about why it’s good for the business end, but is it good for gamers? Maybe.

A lot depends on how the model is used. Square is clearly trying to alleviate price increase fears with Hitman by offering an upfront package that contains all the episodes, meaning you buy at “full game” price and you get the full game. For diehard Hitman fans, that’s likely the way to go.

How about people who are new to the franchise and not sure if they’d like it? That first episode is going to cost significantly less than a full game. Unlike waiting for a Steam sale, you can buy it cheap on day one. If you like it, great! You now have more to look forward to. If you don’t? You’ve lost considerably less money.

What about people who want the complete game so they can play it all in one go? Those people feel upset that they have to wait. But, they’d have to wait anyway. Without episodes, nothing would come out until the full game is done. It takes longer to make the full game than it does to make an episode, obviously. They do now have to wait while other people are playing and they’re not, but that’s the definition of a first world problem.

Improvements to the lives of game developers should also be welcome by gamers. Developers are people too, and having them have something resembling a sane working environment is good for everyone. You don’t get top quality work out of people who are applying somewhere else because they expect to be laid off after development finishes.

A Lot Depends on Square-Enix

While smaller companies like Telltale have been doing this for a while, Square-Enix is on a much larger scale. Hitman’s budget is on a scale far beyond most episodic games, and Final Fantasy VII is going to be one of the largest releases of the year when it comes out.

How well Square-Enix does with using this model will have a major impact on what other companies do. If they handle it well and customers buy in? Expect others to follow suit.

2 thoughts on “Episodic Big Budget Games – Maybe It’ll Be Okay?”

  1. We used to get the benefit described above, in terms of the layoff cycle, from expansions. Game would release with the expansion already in pre-production, and as staff shuffled off of the base game, they’d be put on expansion development. DLC was the refinement to that model, but gamers get butthurt that ANYTHING a developer thought of before the game shipped isn’t free with the game. At some point, the same thing that’s always been done became viewed as a ripoff, for two reasons: First, gamers as a population are pretty stupid. (See Gamergate, boycotts, etc.) Second, a handful of publishers did things that convinced gamers they’re right.

    Episodic doesn’t interest me for triple A games unless I know it will be finished. It will put me off of buying things in some cases. If a publisher wants to go episodic to even out their cash flow, okay, sure. If they want to go episodic because they’re not sure the game will work… well, it sure won’t work for me, because I’ll find something else. I’m not interested in enjoying something and finding out the rest is canceled because a publisher fucked up. An expansion or DLC? Not a problem. I at least have my full game.

    One of the reasons episodic works well for Telltale is precisely what you hate so much about it: the gameplay is EXTREMELY simple (read, dialogue choices and QTEs). Imagine a complex action game with episodes. Okay, first is finished, now I wait a few months… and shit, how do I play this game? I don’t even. Other big problems include:

    R&D is harder to justify. Tech won’t be developed for an episodic game as readily as a full game, because those expenses can’t be divided. You can’t affect savings on your renderer by not making a full game. Any tech in the game needs to be complete, and getting only a fifth of a game’s revenue when it ships means you’ve got your tech cost spread over the course of the entire publication period. That means less tech work outside of companies that specialize in it like Epic.

    Console expenses increase significantly. You don’t have one submission. You have three, or four or five. Each of those costs money, risks failure and delays, and requires QA. Speaking of that…

    QA processes over the life of a dev cycle aren’t the same. Spending more time on wrap up (because you wrap up five times instead of once) and planning (because you get five products instead of one) means less time on meat and potatoes testing. On a Telltale game, that’s fine. On a more complex game? Not so much. Speaking of quality itself:

    While crunch is terrible and detrimental to quality, there is much to be said for maintaining focus. While the actual coders, designers, and artists aren’t going to just stop working after an episode ships, anything out of house (voice talent, outsourced work, sometimes QA) may or may not have a schedule that works for you again next time they’re needed. Now, the sensible thing is to create an agreement at the start that they’ll be free, but if you publish an episode, it flops, and you cancel, that’s a lot of people who suddenly had income planned that won’t get it. If this happens a time or two, publishers trying this will find themselves using whatever they can get. Not conducive to quality or uniformity.

    You talk about improvements to the lives of developers, but I wouldn’t expect them. Not in QA, and likely not elsewhere. Instead of one brutal crunch that most of the company experiences only occasionally (less occasionally in QA), you get multiple crunches. Don’t think that won’t happen. You’ll be wrapping up an episode in just as much of a rush as a full game, because schedules, only now you’ll need to maintain work on the next episode, as well, because in order to keep gaps fairly short, development will have to be started instead of just pre-production. Benefits of this nature don’t trickle down because they could–they’re seized upon at the top as opportunities to increase efficiency.

    It’s not a model I want to see embraced, speaking both as a gamer and someone in the industry. The fact that the conversation is being started by Square, notorious already for their models in mobile, and which continues to choke the life out of it single biggest franchise installment after installment, says something to me as well.

    For certain scopes of games, episodic works well. Triple A is not where it belongs.

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