When Soma was first looking at the video game business about four years ago the biggest barrier to entry was cost and distribution. That may look like a subject-verb-mismatch but the two things are so intricately related that they might as well be seen as a single issue. Indie games cost less to make but had no realistic way to get to the public; to get out there you needed a big distribution channel, to get distributed you needed a publisher and to interest a publisher you needed to spend $500k or more.

But as I was coming to grips with this problem something new was just appearing on the scene – digital distribution.

On-line distribution via the web had  been around and tried many times but most indie shops found it pretty disappointing. The noise floor was just too high and getting your site noticed still required a major-label sized marketing budget. Steam was the thing that first caught my eye, it was targeting the PCs which presented its own questions but the distribution model was what  really excited me. Steam basically solved our distribution dilema, at least in principle, and also opened my mind to something I’d never considered – episodic content.

Since then this idea has really taken off in XBLA, Wii-Ware and the iTunes App Store. Soma Games had no notion of building iPhone games when we started but when that phenomenon popped I saw a sudden open door and we rushed in. If you haven’t caught this yet in other places, Soma Games is all about the stories. I have a bunch of tales that I want to spin through a medium that I love.

Now some tales are really suited to being told in several short chapters as opposed to one long narrative. Most of Charles Dickens’ work was originally published as a series of magazine stories and only assembled into books later. I think this is particularly true when you want to tell a story from multiple angles or with multiple interconnected plot lines. But telling a totally linear story in a video game is already a challenge, telling several parallel stories through an interactive medium…that’s really hard.

The problem is distribution. If your reader has to wait too long between episodes they lose track of your story-line and lose interest in your characters. Movies have suffered from this problem all along which is part of the reason there’s the sequel syndrome. For the most part, video games have had the same problem, but I’m convinced that has now decisively changed and we’re embracing the digital distribution explosion as an opportunity to tell tales in rapidly published sections.

When we launched G back in May we let everybody know that it was part one of a multi-part series. With F now in production I can’t wait to roll out chapter two. But without the arrival of widespread, rapid digital distribution – this model never would have worked. I look forward to more and more episodic content in games. I think it’s a great way for developers to get their work out in the market and for players to engage with a franchise over a much longer and more satisfying block of time.

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3 Comments
  1. The digital distribution system really is revolutionizing games. Especially what Valve has done with Steam and the ability to pre-load games and instantly play them upon release, as well as the achievement system and DLC craze. It seems like nothing is bigger than the digital PC market. It’s no wonder consoles are trying their darndest to act more like PCs! Custom maps, DLC, social interactivity and data sharing, social networks like PSHome and XBL… It’s revolutionary. We’ve reached somewhat of a plateau in the graphics arena, now the hurdle is immersion and player interactivity, something that should have been first a LONG time ago!

  2. Good insight John. I think this model can have some huge benefits for games and developers AND players – could be a very win-win kind of thing. What seems unclear is whether or not gamers will accept the format since games have mostly been one-shot deals to this point. The change may be jarring…

  3. Not only do you get to tell a grander story through episodic content, but I think you also get the opportunity to take into account consumer feedback in a more relevant way. Hearing critiques of an episode allows you to (potentially anyway) make changes that address those concerns in the next episode, or make it more clear why you did what you did. Having a “season” of a game (like Telltale seems to do) also allows you to spread out your story over a given amount of time, giving you better control of pacing, and builds the tension. Take any serialized television drama as an example. Without the promise of finding out what happens next week, the story would fall flat.

    That’s quite possibly the best reason for it, but the other would certainly be the fact of keeping your product in the minds of consumers on a much more regular basis. If they get into a mindset of expecting it every few months or so (or whatever the development schedule is), you hold on to them more effectively than if you put them off for two years.

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