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.