As game consoles become more like cable television boxes, maybe it's time for video games to start becoming more like cable television shows.
Earlier this year, major cable providers Comcast and Verizon both announced that they'd start delivering some of their programming directly through the Xbox 360, forgoing the need for a cable box for at least some of their channels.
It's a move aimed directly at erasing the line between television and gaming and how people consume their entertainment. And it's not just television making that move, the video game industry too is looking to blur that line.
Last year, Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment wowed gamers and critics with a narrative-driven action game that was broken down into episodes like a television show. The biggest difference, besides having control of the story you were watching unfold, was that the entire "season" of Alan Wake was delivered on one disc.
Last week, Remedy began showing off their next visit to the world of Alan Wake and took a bit of time to talk about the challenges of creating video games that are like television shows.
Last year's Alan Wake told the story of the titular author slipping into a self-created world of horror and mystery inspired by the works of authors like Stephen King. Alan Wake's American Nightmare is a standalone American Gothic tale inspired by shows like The Twilight Zone and urban legends.
It's also delivering on a promise made by the original game: It will be a download-only, self-contained "episode."
While Matias Myllyrinne, CEO of Remedy, declined to verify that Alan Wake 2 was in the works, he still talked about its hypothetical potential. He thinks, for instance, that it still might be too soon to release an entire game as a series of downloadable episodes over the course of a "season."
"I'm not totally convinced gamers would be quite ready for Alan Wake 2 as single chapter download," he said. "From a production point of view we would still need to have the entire game done, even if doing weekly installments. But it's certainly an interesting line of thought and we'll see how the future unfolds and where ecosystems, gamer preferences and the market as a whole go.
"Personally, I think this would creatively be an awesome move and would allow people to share these 'watercooler' moments after an episode is released. And it could be an awesome way to pace the narrative."
In general, Myllyrinne added, today's gamers are becoming more accustomed to the idea of getting games in a variety of ways for a variety of reason.
"Alan Wake was a perfect fit for episodic delivery but ultimately it's about what gamers are ready for and what they want," he said. "For the original Alan Wake's narrative, we went as far with that as we felt comfortable — for now, we're excited to change gears with the property. We've always wanted to entertain the broadest possible audience in the best possible fashion — we're passionate about that and it has fuelled the development of Alan Wake's American Nightmare."
Unspoken is the notion that American Nightmare is a way for the developer to safely test the waters for big games delivered in tiny pieces. Pacing a game through weekly deliveries of chapters could do a lot for the industry. It would, for instance, deal with the issue of a portion of the gaming population that struggles to fit their hobby into their lives.
Games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can take up hundreds of hours of a person's free time. While certainly entertaining and an entertainment bargain, the idea of buying a game that can take up so much time can be a turn off to some.
The original Alan Wake delivered a page-turner of an experience, neatly tying up each of its chapters with a cliff-hanger. It kicked off each new chapter with a television-esque round-up of what had happened earlier in the game.
I'm certain that delivered weekly, such a video game could not only entice an audience eager to more easily limit their gaming time, but also drive interest and buzz much like a popular television show does. It could also allow for experimenting with lower costs games backed by commercial breaks.
Episodic gaming isn't the entire future of video games, but it needs to be an aspect of it.
Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.
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