A Very Special Episode of Half-Life 2

Should video games be more like TV shows?

Video games have always encouraged fanaticism. In college, my roommates and I frittered away much of our freshman year on a Sega Genesis hockey game. The challengers came. And they left, always in disgrace, sometimes a few dollars lighter.

Alas, icy glory is long behind me. I’m old now, and I’ve got to work and pay bills. I’m not alone. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is now 33 years old, an age at which marathon gaming sessions are (usually) impossible. But today’s games are deeper and more complex than ever. Some can take 40 hours or more to master.

Try dropping into the sprawling environments of sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto or The Godfather: The Game. You’ll need at least a day just to get your bearings. First-person shooters like Halo 2 and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter aren’t far behind. The amount of practice needed to nail down a skill like, say, grenade flying in Halo 2 is Herculean. Sports titles—always the primary target of my compulsive energies—now require ever-more heroic levels of immersion. It pains me to think about how much time I would’ve wasted with the current generation of hockey games. Of course, all of these games feel as complex as tick-tack-toe next to the multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft, an online man-eater from which there is no escape. Playing WoW is a lifestyle choice most graying gamers can’t make.

So, how should game companies appeal to older players? And what should aging gamers do to get their fix without having to play 40 hours a week? One possible answer is episodic gaming.

The idea behind episodic games is to release content in small batches, like episodes of a TV show. This concept has been around for a decade, but every attempt so far has flopped. In 1998, Wing Commander: Secret Ops proved too bulky to download; two years later, nobody cared about the role-playing game Siege of Avalon. Since then, broadband has replaced dial-up, and developers have acquired better design tools. Plus, more gamers are geezers.

Jason Hall, the head of the Warner Bros. game division, told me that whoever figures out episodic content first will “make a mint.” For one thing, an episodic game would provide a simple, effective way to connect with a growing audience that uses online console services such as Xbox Live. Online distribution would allow companies to decrease production costs, and releasing games more frequently would lend itself to faster feedback, letting designers make tweaks based on user input in between episodes. Most simply, if episodic content really catches on, gamers will open their wallets every month or, perhaps, every week.

I have no doubt that, in this environment, episodic gaming could crack open a new niche. But what’s the formula?

Two of the most-hyped episodic games to hit the market recently are a Half-Life 2 trilogy and a first-person shooter called SiN Episodes: Emergence, which cost $20 and $15, respectively. The initial episodes of both are slick, playable, and provide short bursts of entertainment. But they also reveal a crucial problem with episodic gaming—how to hook an audience used to instant gratification. Gamers who bought the first episodes of the Half-Life 2 trilogy and SiN will have to wait around six months for the next chapters to arrive. Cost, too, is a problem. Gamers already buy expansion packs and sequels, a rudimentary form of episodic content. But people may shy away from dropping $20 on several appetizers when they can pay $60 for a full meal.

Kuma Reality Games has found a way around that. Kuma War, a free PC game based on the Iraq war, now has 76 downloadable episodes, including the hunt for Odai and Qusai Hussein and the battle for Fallujah. Kuma makes money off advertising, including flash ads that users click while the game downloads and eMusic tracks that blast from your tank radio as you rumble through Baghdad. Although the game looks crude compared with what you’d buy in a store, its topicality makes it intriguing. Kuma’s team needs only three weeks to produce an episode. To date, around 10 million episodes have been downloaded around the world.

Shooters like Kuma War or Half-Life have an easy time going episodic. Just craft a mission and throw in some back story, then blast your way through baddies and get to the next level. End of episode. But what about other genres? Sports games are already kind of episodic: Every year, millions snap up the latest season of Madden football, despite owning last year’s version. The bigger challenge is for immersive titles. Games such as Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are tough to parcel into four-hour portions. The GTA titles allow you to wander around a whole city—would an episode restrict you to a 12-block radius? And how do you distill a game about a war against a demon horde that can only end when you slam shut the gates of hell? Sounds too hard to me.

If developers want to win big with episodic gaming, they need to do more than merely dice up pre-existing genres. They need to think episodically from the start. In short, they need to become more like TV producers.

Telltale Games, for one, is trying to do just that. The company focuses on character and narrative, facets of design that are often neglected in games. In October, Telltale will release the “pilot” of Sam & Max, a humorous romp about a dog-and-rabbit detective team adapted from a Saturday morning cartoon. (Six episodes are planned for “Season 1.”) If the first two episodes of Telltale’s other game, Bone, are any indication, the pilot will play like interactive animation. Bone, a puzzle-solving choose-your-own adventure, is full of puns, veiled references, foreshadowing, and dream sequences—all traditional cinematic storytelling tools.

People get hooked on TV shows like Lost and 24 because of character and plot. My guilty pleasure each week is Entourage. For a while, I resisted the show’s pull, but then, it reeled me in. Would Drama flub another audition? Would Turtle land a record deal for his rapper? If game developers can pull off the same feat, someday soon I’ll be jonesing for a weekly fix of Halo 3. Let’s just hope I’ve got time for it.