Episodic: What Games Learned From TV
In two short years, The Walking Dead has become one of the hottest intellectual properties in America. Starting as a comic book series in 2003, the introduction of a record-breaking AMC television adaptation in 2010 begat a media juggernaut, with the additions of a live talk show, fan conventions, media tie-ins and more. Yet it is perhaps a video game adaptation by Telltale Games that has had the most impact of all on its particular medium, as The Walking Dead: The Game has succeeded both financially and critically with a unique televisual-model of distribution, releasing ‘episodes’ of a single season over the course of 2012, possibly heralding a new age (good or bad) in video games thanks to digital distribution as well as unique gameplay possibilities.
The Walking Dead is certainly not the first video game to borrow from television, particularly in terms of aesthetics and style. Alan Wake, published by Microsoft for the XBox 360 in 2010, is a full-length psychological thriller that is internally structured like a television series. ‘Levels’ of the game are presented as ‘episodes,’ each with their own arcs and cliffhanger endings. The most overt element is a “Previously On Alan Wake” cinematic that plays before each ‘episode,’ quickly recapping the events of the game so far. The function here is less practical (as it is used on actual television shows to remind viewers of possibly long-forgotten plot points) as it is much more stylistic, meant to imitate the particularly televisual device, perhaps even parodying it.
While Alan Wake certainly captures the aesthetics and presentational aspects of television, it is still a primarily singular experience. Yes, the game features episodes and levels, but games have always had levels since their very inception. Whenever Mario (well, Jumpman) would reach the Princess in Donkey Kong, he would quickly whisk her away, prompting the next ‘episode’ of conflict and adventure for our hero. But Alan Wake shows the inherent structural similarities between these two media. Both television and many video games utilize a particularly fragmented organizational style, wherein smaller yet distinct parts come together to form a whole that allows starting and stopping, as opposed to film which is meant to be experienced in a single sitting. Games often take several hours to complete, and television seasons and entire seasons certainly tie to this mode. With all of these connections, as well as the obvious fact that games are primarily played on televisions, the real question is why episodic gaming is the exception and not the rule?
The first episode of The Walking Dead game was released in April of 2012. Subsequent episodes (2-5) were released roughly every two months, meaning the entire ‘season’ of the game took about seven months to be fully released. While a disc-based, physical release containing the entire season will be released in December, over 1.2 million unique players have downloaded and experienced the game so far (and these sales numbers only take into account the first three episodes) and was the highest-selling game in August 2012. What is most fascinating about the game’s success, from an economic standpoint, is the growth in downloads from Episode 1 into later installments. Like a television show gaining viewers from season to season, The Walking Dead gained players as word spread in the months between releases. The episodic television model was not some gimmick as it played aesthetically in Alan Wake, but a financially successful distribution model for a gaming product.
There are many factors required for this system to be successful. First and foremost, digital distribution is needed by publishers like Telltale Games in order to keep costs down. The idea of packaged episodic content would raise prices exponentially, particularly considering that each episode only contains roughly 2-3 hours of content (as opposed to full-retail games ranging from 20-50 hours). Players are even able to buy a ‘Season Pass,’ getting all five episodes cheaper than buying them individually, encouraging early adoption.
Beyond the digital technology, the game had to be good, which allowed for both popular and critical acclaim to spread, increasing interest in the product while it was still on the market, so to speak. Instead of possibly buying a game most people had already purchased and played to completion, new players could ‘catch up,’ and join the conversation. Herein lies the rub; while episodic gaming is a new frontier for how developers make games, helping avoid the huge risk market of long development cycles and increased budgets, it is perhaps an even larger divergence in terms of how we play games.
One of the more lauded aspects of The Walking Dead is the element of player choice. The game frequently confronts players with moral and practical choices that change the plot throughout the rest of the game, with decisions as major as killing or saving certain characters. This entire system gains more worth for the player when it is shared socially, with players discussing stories and divergences in various play-throughs, leading to a variety of unique narratives. Communities like The Walking Dead Confessions (SPOILERS!) have sprung up around the game, and the episodic nature was crucial to these discussions, as posts before the final episode frequently featured theories and hopes for how the rest of the game would play out. Players were socially-constructing their play experience because of the episodic nature, rather than individualizing the experience and sharing after-the-fact.
As television continues into its (arguably) new “golden age,” the shift in video games towards the televisual model of both aesthetics and distribution may be a sign of quality to come. Despite the entrenched history of AAA-games and off-the-shelf distribution, the rise of digital and more small-scale games portends a seismic shift in the industry, for players, developers, but perhaps most importantly, for the games themselves.