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.

Female Armor: When Character Design Fails Basic Consistency

I was interested in Devilian, before it came out. Then it came out, people’s reactions came out, and I was pretty much done immediately. What can I say? I don’t particularly need another “girls in bikini armor and heels are somehow equivalent to guys in heavy armor” game, because that makes no sense. If the designers are so lazy that they don’t want the most basic things to be coherent in their design, why should I waste time on it?

Lack of Coherence

Fundamentally, it’s totally incoherent world design. Are the enemies dangerous enough that armor is necessary, or not? Do you need to be mobile enough to be in actual footwear, because nobody goes into actual combat in heels? If you’re wearing armor, why does it have a random hole for your boobs making it totally ineffectual at it’s sole purpose?

This is one of the least skimpy outfits in the game by far, and that makes it even more absurd.

That last one is what kills me. If your world design is such that armor is a thing, then why is armor that can’t actually function at its purpose a thing? She’d be better off wearing something lighter so she can be more agile and maybe avoid the one hit kill that’s aiming straight at her chest. The one on the left whose armor has random cutouts on the back has the same problem.

Turns out she didn’t have magic female adamantium skin.

“Boob plate” drives me nuts. If you don’t want to be armored, that’s fine. Lots of games forego armor in the character design entirely, and if you do it consistently, at least it makes sense in your world. Dragon Quest for example uses “orbs” for defense, which they explain away as a technology that gives the protection of armor without the bulk, so people can wear whatever they want. Sure, whatever. It works for everyone in the world, so it makes sense in that world.

Boob plate doesn’t do that. It’s the designers saying “the enemies are dangerous so you need protection, but female chests are impervous to heavy weapon fire if they’re sexy enough and are thus exempt.” That’s lazy and terribly incoherent design, and it blows immersion out of the water.

It doesn’t even have to be armor, either…

Supposedly, both of these people are dressed for combat.

It’s The Inconsistency

Now, I don’t actually have a problem with sexy outfits. But they have to make some kind of sense. In a world like Dragon Quest where armor isn’t actually a thing because defense comes from something else? This is much less of a problem, and you see that when multiple characters aren’t particularly wearing combat attire (see: Jessica). Luceus and Aurora wear a breastplate out of style more than anything else.

You see the same thing in Disgaea games, where this stuff is driven by magic, and so both Red Magnus and Seraphina don’t need protective clothing because they’re demonic Overlords and loaded up with magical power.

Most of Disgaea 5’s main Overlords. Armor, and shirts, optional.

Characters in Disgaea who are shown in full armor are doing it because of how it looks. Armor Knights for example wouldn’t look right without armor, because it’s literally the name of the class. Demon General Bloodis is fully armored, but Demon Emperor Void Dark wears what is effectively a trench coat, and he’s the stronger of the two. The armor is style only in this universe.

Final Fantasy XIV is another good example of where things are done well. There’s some really nice outfits, including the skimpy stuff like bathing suits, but they’re similarly skimpy for everyone. When you’re in combat gear for a given class, there doesn’t tend to be massive divergence between the male and female versions. There’s no case where a male Dark Knight gets full jet black head-to-toe death armor, and a female Dark Knight in identical armor gets bikini plate.

Consistency beats full realism

You won’t achieve full realism in most games, and that’s fine. The character design also has to look appealing, and that often won’t happen with what armor actually looks like (helmets especially).

Helmets are optional for main characters

That’s an issue with being able to be expressive and letting the player get into it. Helmets are in the way in that case. You even see that in military movies, where the heroes in Top Gun (and Star Wars) wear helmets that show their faces and eyes, while the villains have hidden faces behind their helmets.

That doesn’t bother me, but lack of consistency and outright absurdity does. Like, say, this.

Surprisingly, they’re not kidding a lot of the time.

False Choices Are Worse Than No Choices

Sometimes, listening to players is bad. Players will constantly say that they value choice. They like choices. They want more choices. This mentality drives me nuts, because…

Lots Of Choices Are False

I’m playing in a D&D 3.5 campaign right now, and we just hit level 2. The normal rules for HP work like this: each class has a die representing it’s HP (called a Hit Dice). At level up, you roll that, and gain that much HP. Because this sucks horrifically for unlucky people and can make characters unplayable, a very popular house rule (and the actual rule in organized play like Pathfinder Society) is to use a fixed number like a percentage. A popular number in my circle of friends is 75%, because we don’t like super lethal games.

When I was DM, I just used 75%, period. In the game I’m in, the DM is giving us a choice of rolling (with reroll on a 1) or 75%. Everyone loves choice, right?

It's a trap!
Admiral Ackbar knows what I’m going to say.

I did a bit of math, and you’re 98% likely to do better with 75% than you are with rolling. For a Cleric, you’re 52% likely to wind up with at least 19 HP more with 75% than you are with rolling. There is a choice here, but it isn’t what it seems. The choice is actually between “do you want to have lots of HP” and “not that”. It’s a choice between doing the correct thing and the wrong thing. The choice being offered is a trap that will lure in players who don’t know better. Nobody who does know better will make that choice.

This is the kind of choice that is really a false choice and shouldn’t exist at all. Offering up bad choices in the name of “more choice” makes no sense. If I offer you a cheeseburger or a turd sandwich for dinner, do you really feel better that I didn’t just go ahead and only offer cheeseburgers?

Talent Trees Are So Guilty

Big, complex talent trees are another thing players like. They’re another thing that tends to suck in a lot of games. If you played earlier versions of WoW, you’d remember the large trees with lots of talents and points to spend. You could come up with all kinds of builds, and in the easy solo game they’d all work fine. Trouble with that? Sooner or later, the easy solo game ends.

Once you hit the difficult content, most of those build combinations suck. There’s talents that are required to play effectively, and those aren’t really a choice at all. It was pretty common to see builds that spent 47/51 points on mandatory things, and then gave you 4 points to spend on whatever you wanted because they didn’t matter. The actual choice there? 4 out of 51 points. The other ones are only a choice between doing the best you can, or doing less than the best you can and forcing the rest of your group to carry you.

Rift was also notorious for this. It featured an extensive talent system, with tons of build options. Again, most of them sucked. Only the system was so complicated in Rift that doing the right thing was much harder, and it was really easy to make a build that sucked. I literally doubled my DPS in five minutes by changing builds to one I found online. That’s a 100% effectiveness boost in game due to spending under 5 minutes on Google.

Does that seem right, to you? Who makes the choice *not* to do that if they know better? Why would a game developer want me to get better at the game by copying what I see in Google instead of by playing the game?

The whole thing against “cookie cutter” builds is a misguided reaction to this very problem. Players love choice, but players also hate it when someone who doesn’t want to deal with all that choice can get an optimized build really easily. But that isn’t the fault of anyone except the people demanding more choice, because lots of people just want to play the game effectively without dealing with trying to optimize 50 talent points. There’s even more players who don’t have the game knowledge or math skills to have any chance of coming up with a good build on their own. For those players, the cookie cutter builds are actively helping the developers by giving those players the means to actually function in the game halfway effectively. Those players would likely just quit otherwise after finding the game frustrating.

Players also hate it when there are optimal builds at all, with the idea that everything should be equal. That’s an ideal that almost never happens in reality because the more options you have, the more difficult it is to make them all line up equally.  Against a given raid boss, one option will be better than the others. If the boss difficulty is high enough that being optimized matters, one or two builds will fit it. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Give Me Fewer Choices, But Make Them Good

Sid Meier said that “a good game is a series of interesting choices”. He was right. I wish more developers would heed his lesson. Many of the choices we’re given are not interesting. They’re a choice between a right and wrong answer, where the only people making the wrong choice either don’t know it’s the wrong choice, or don’t care if they’re sabotaging themselves or their team. This is why simplified talent trees (like what WoW did) are often the right way to go no matter how players react online. When most of the choices are just cruft and not really an interesting choice, you’re better off cutting them out entirely and only leaving the real choices. It’s easier to develop, easier to balance, and easier to understand for the players.

If the players don’t know what’s good for them? That’s fine. It’s the developers getting paid to make the game, and their livelihood on the line with it. They need to know better.