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The coolest serialized video games

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Last updated on: April 17, 2008 08:30 IST

Strong Bad bounds through his house, one hand jammed inside a cereal box, bleating: "Seriously, quit trying to handle my style . . . unless you're a lady, and then you're cordially invited to have a giant slice of my style!"

Such antics are typical in the cult Web cartoon "Homestar Runner." Only, this isn't the show; it's a videogame. And not just the usual mega epic--it's a bite-size "episodic" game.

"Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People," launching this June on Nintendo's digital distribution channel WiiWare, is Telltale Games' latest episodic videogame series. Unlike typical blockbuster videogames such as "World of Warcraft," which can take years to develop--and thousands of hours to play--episodic games unfurl like a television show.

Microsoft has touted episodic gaming content as the next big thing in games since 2002 when it launched the original Xbox. In 2006, Phil Harrison, then president of Sony Computer Entertainment's Worldwide Studios, praised episodic games during his keynote address.

Later that year, Valve Software released the first of three episodes continuing "Half-Life 2's" story arc. Game design firm Rockstar pledged two episodic installments for "Grand Theft Auto IV."

Game maker Telltale is one of the genre's early pioneers with "Sam and Max," a comic book and cartoon show turned serialized game. So far the adventures of the two eccentric detectives span two five- and six-episode seasons.

Its success--"Sam and Max" has sold 500,000 episodes so far--has transformed Telltale into a broadcast network for games that will develop several "shows" consecutively. "Strong Bad" and another licensed series it will unveil in May are its next offerings.

"Telltale is at the tip of the iceberg," says Telltale Games' Chief Executive Dan Connors. "We're shaping the content that's going to dominate this space."

Episodic games offer a self-contained 30-minute to six-hour chunk--perfect for a lazy weekend--or for older gamers who might find their playing time is more limited than it used to be.

It's also a great way to grow and maintain a following. Since gamers know they can expect a new installment every month, they tend to stick around. And a close bond with a game's community means the product can improve over time since a developer can incorporate user feedback into the design.

"You can build a chunk of content and see how it's received and then build more," says Connors. "It allows us to build a lot of pilots." It's the difference between committing $400,000, the cost of Telltale's "Sam and Max" pilot, to test out an idea vs. several million dollars to a full-blown product that might tank.

A handful of other developers have found episodic games are winning them fans and revenues too. The entire Valve crew is enjoying a getaway in Cabo thanks to the success of its episodic content, which has sold over 4 million units worldwide, according to Valve Software's VP of marketing, Doug Lombardi. (That number increases to 5.8 million if you include the compilation, "The Orange Box.")

Instead of the $40 million and six years of development it took to create "Half-Life 2," Valve churned out an episode a year--and very likely, estimate some game industry observers, for something like a mere $12 million a piece.

In spite of those successes, the biggest gaming companies have been slow to chunk up their games into bite-size pieces. There's no single roadblock, gaming industry experts say, but a score of issues have yet to fall into place.

Distribution channels, for instance, have been slow to emerge. An episodic game isn't something you can package up for the store shelf--at least, not until the season wraps and it can be sold as a box set. Online networks on consoles, like Microsoft's Xbox Live or Sony's PlayStation network are relatively new.

Nintendo's WiiWare won't launch until next month. Console manufacturers must make such digital content a priority in order for it to catch on, suggests Ricardo Sanchez, vice president of content for Turner's game distribution channel GameTap.

And although developing a videogame series costs less than a blockbuster megagame, the development price tag is still not zero.

"People were thinking of spending a [shoestring] budget on the first episode," says Robert Khoo, president of business development for Penny Arcade, the comic and commentary site that focuses on the videogame industry. "They didn't realize how expensive it was to create the first base episode--it requires a lot of upfront investment."

"Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One," which will launch this May for the PC and Xbox Live Arcade, cost over $1 million and took 18 months to develop. Games developer Hothead Games is already three-quarters of the way through creating the second "Penny Arcade" episode. Development will only cost about half as much this time, too, because Hothead gets to reuse the art assets and game engine.

"You have to stick with it," says Khoo. "If you build one episode and then quit, you're shooting yourself in the foot."

GameTap's Ricardo Sanchez says that the industry's biggest players, such as Electronic Arts and Activision, are still waiting for proof that the model will be profitable--and that waves of consumers will play these games. He estimates that the games industry is a good two to five years away from truly embracing episodic content. "As far as I'm concerned, they're viable," he says.

"Sam and Max" fans eagerly awaiting the third season's premiere would agree. Stay tuned.

Mary Jane Irwin,