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Episodification : A Warning


News that digital versions of Killzone: Shadowfall will be playable even after only the main menu and first level have been downloaded is something that I have very mixed feeling on.

A vanguard, apparently, to a broader PS4-wide strategy to reduce download times and expedite gameplay; on the surface, it seems like a great idea. With the file-size of games set only to increase in the next generation, the prospect of having to download gargantuan files before waiting for them to be installed (a real annoyance on the PS3) for yet another generation wasn’t something that filled me with much joy.

A common sense win, then – or is it?

If this strategy is to be used only to divide AAA games up into more manageable chunks of data, then so be it. If, however, it will serve as a means to slice them up into episodic content with a charge for each piece, then I’ll take serious issue with it.

The exception, not the rule.

The exception, not the rule.

The Walking Dead has proven that there is absolutely a market for this type of content. It’s narrative-lead, comic-book, action-lite nature lends itself perfectly to this format – and it had no pretensions to be anything other than an episodic piece of work. It’s not without a sense of irony, then, that its resounding success has resulted in the production of a retail version. On the other hand, we’ve seen what can happen to much larger, action-oriented titles that waive episodic pretensions in our face: Half Life. Indeed.

Basically: don’t mess with the underlying nature of ‘things’.

If the ‘episodification’ of erstwhile complete pieces of work becomes a strategy that Sony choose to explore, I fear it will have a number of damaging ramifications on what is already a somewhat fragile business model. Much has been written over recent years of the death of the AA game – the Metacritic 60-70 title – and whilst we at VoxelArcade might stand and point the finger indignantly at a score-obsessed industry, the fact remains that we are a largely ignored minority. The AAA game, then, presents huge financial risks to developers and publishers, hence the obsession with hitting often unrealistic targets, securing a 90+ Metacritic score and squeezing DLC for all it’s worth. On the surface, you might argue that episodic AAA games would offer a more open-house approach to development and that more leftfield titles might be green-lit given the reduced risks. Quite how reduced those risks would be remains open to some question. I’d wager that pre-production and game-engine work counts for a significant amount of graft, even before level one is complete. My concern, however, is that if you try and force this ‘episodification’ upon titles that arguably don’t warrant it that it will guide the development process like a tank through an antiques store.

Sometime this century would be nice.

Sometime this century would be nice.

How long would we have to wait between episodes? What impact would protracted periods of waiting have upon what should be a conjoined experience? If you were playing several games at the same time, each one atomised level-by-level, how would you be able to fully appreciate any given one? What contracts would programmers be offered if it was unknown if the game would ever get past level one? What climate would this create within an already fickle industry? How could a consistent vision be sustained with such a stop-start, knife-edge development process? What price would the consumer end-up paying for something sliced into smaller pieces? How much more would be ‘pruned’ out of the core game and offered-up as ‘optional’ DLC?

In essence, the experience would be akin to reading a book, a chapter at a time, with the author waiting to see how the sales figures go before penning a new chapter. Or having the musician wait for a track to hit a certain number of plays before recording the next one in the album. In short: what price would the artistic process pay?

As much as I’m an ardent fan of technology and am constantly in awe of the possibilities it affords us, I’m old and wise enough to know that just because something’s possible, doesn’t meant that we should do it.

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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.

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One Comment

  1. I think the ‘play while you download’ thing is just what it says- you have been able to do a similar thing on a few PC MMO games for a while now, and I welcome the idea. As for episodic gaming? Hate it, always have, it is just a way to squeeze more cash out of us and get away with little slices of content.

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