Way back in the dark days of Britain's Industrial Revolution, Charles Dickens used to hawk individual chapters of his jumbo-sized novels-in-progress on street corners for a few pence each.
Charlie wisely understood what comic strips, classic Saturday-matinee flicks and TV have since exploited to the hilt: Keeping people nailed to the edge of their chairs with episodic content is a brutally effective marketing technique.
TV junkies know exactly whereof I speak. All through last season, we endured the closing credits of our favorite shows, just to catch the scenes-from-next-week teaser sequence, hoping to get a glimpse of what was "next." Did Santos beat Vinick? Did Meredith Grey and McDreamy hook up again? Did Clark survive his latest kryptonite tango?
Now, at long last, PC gaming is starting to catch on to the phenomenon. In the last month, we've seen two PC titles — Half-Life 2: Episode One and SiN Episodes: Emergence — go the short-and-sweet cliffhanger route, with varying degrees of success.
Gaming is great at setting up sequels (hello, ending of Halo 2) but ridiculously slow at delivering the goods. These days, the development cycle of a computer game ranges from one to four years, depending on a bunch of things, including the genre, the game engine and the staff's ability to hit deadlines. In an industry that often moves faster than Kathy Griffin at the sight of a TV camera, that's an eternity.
Cranking out shorter pieces of an ongoing story not only allows developers to cash in on their games as they develop code (and, assuming the episodes sell well, finance future episodes in the process), but also keeps the story lines and characters fresh in gamers' minds. Short episodes can be priced at $20, rather than the $50 to $60 price tag usually attached to new releases. In other words, they're likely to find a broader audience.
It doesn't hurt that Half-Life is one of the most famous PC gaming franchises, well, ever. Episode One picks up right where HL2 ended, and if it has to contort in some seriously weird directions to explain how Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance survive the explosion that seemed to off 'em both back in 2004, the payback of four to six hours of tightly scripted action gaming makes it all worthwhile. That's less true of the first installment of SiN Episodes, but that has more to do with generic gameplay and story line than anything else. (Plus, the original SiN came out in 1998. Our memories aren't that long, guys.)
For years, developers have been wringing extra life out of their popular and successful franchises under the guise of a different "e"— expansion packs. The original Half-Life spawned two such products, Opposing Force and Blue Shift, neither of which advanced the main story of what went down at the Black Mesa Research Facility — they just told the same tale from different viewpoints. (Frankly, they felt like cash-ins.)
That's an important distinction. Instead of waiting until 2008 to find out the fate of the G-Man, we're getting our answer now, we're getting a dose of great gaming and (here's the critical part) we're left dying to find out what happens next. Later this fall, when Episode Two hits, we'll get our answer.
I'd love to see this episodic trend continue. Gaming's biggest and best franchises — Zelda, Quake, Sonic, God of War, Resident Evil are ripe for a tune-in-next-month firstname.lastname@example.org