I can’t remember a time when the prospect of episodic gaming was not part of the video game to-do list. Some part of the industry always wanted gaming to mimic the forms of television. It made sense on many levels, aesthetically and financially. After all, most games are marathon experiences if played all the way through. Games advertise their longevity; “40+ hours of gameplay” is a common selling point. And yet few of us have the time to devote to such depth. Parsing the experience into episodic chunks is a more accessible way for mere mortals to work their way into and out of a gaming experience. Economically, episodic models allow the publisher to lure the gamer in with lower entry level price points and then upsell them to episodes that in the end may total more revenue than a one-shot price.
For all the sense episodic gaming makes, it never took off quite the way many expected. Serialized game experiences, even online, still were thwarted by issues with micro-payments and even the problem of keeping interest alive in a series. As with Web video episodics, serialized gaming always seemed like an idea that should work better than it does.
Enter mobile. This week Telltale Inc., which has had success in its Back to the Future series of adventure games for iOS, launches the first two episodes of Law & Order: Legacies. The games will leverage many of the familiar characters from the NBC Universal TV series in investigative mystery adventure games. The twist here is that the games will be issued in rapid succession in an episodic “Season 1” sort of way.
I can’t speak to the quality of the games yet. They have the signature characters, music, and straightforward ambience of the series. Technically, they seem to want to run on a snappier iPad 2, since the animations are blaky on my original iPad.
Just as interesting as the game is the business and marketing model behind it, because it shows how mobile may serve as a platform for episodic gaming to overcome some of its traditional hurdles. The casual and more compressed game play times of mobile map well against shorter game experiences. The pricing of mobile games is also conducive to a system of incremental purchases.
And of course the in-app and seamless purchasing system of iOS eliminates the friction of small purchases. Perhaps more importantly, the app ecosystem itself, where apps do the upselling and the operating system can handle messaging, is a strong environment for serialized content. Now the updates can be pushed to gamers via iOS alerts and from within the game for upsell messaging. The Law & Order app is a shell that contains all of the episodes and lets you buy the next with a tap.
Beyond gaming, in video, fiction, comics, etc., the emerging app publishing platform may well reinvigorate long-lost formats. In some ways the app can revive the serialized novels of 19th century England, the serial cliffhanger shorts of 1930s movie experiences, or the soap opera and comic strip daily doses of melodramatic storytelling waning on other platforms.