Is Mark Rein Right?

At the Develop Conference in England Mark Rein (from Epic) questioned the business model for episodic content and game releases. Some of the developers and publishers in the audience didn’t take too kindly to his comments and heckled him. Apparently a few called him a dinosaur…


After reading a few of Mark’s comments posted on gamasutra.com about the episodic issue, and an interview with him posted on gamesindustry.biz where he claims that next-generation development costs have been overstated by larger publishers, I am inclined to agree with Mark.

Episodic Content: How many of you downloaded and played the new HL2 episode that was released recently? Was it worth the $20? What if the full HL2 game was segmented into smaller bits that were released every six months for $19.95…would you have bought them all? What if they were only $9.95?

I think episodic content is great as a *supplement* to a full game, or maybe as a method of delivering new content for an ongoing title like an MMORPG (but free episodes…people already pay for MOGs with monthly subs or item malls).

Mark commented that it is much more difficult to brand, market, and distribute a game based on episodic release, and I think he is right. Can you take a normal game’s marketing budget and split it into ten pieces to market ten different episodes? Will your marketing be as effective and have the right market penetration? Doubtful.

I think there is a time and a place for episodic content, but not as a replacement for our current distribution models (including Valve’s steam which is nicely suited for episode distribution).

Rising Costs: I totally agree with Mark here. Costs should be expected to rise by some amount every year to cover the rising cost of living, standard salary increases for long term employees, workstation and software upkeep/updates, etc. etc. But the larger publishers are saying that next generation development is increasing by massive amounts…

There are a number of ways to keep costs down and it seems that the “big boys” aren’t bothering at all. I think that people are getting greedy and trying to milk the industry for as much as possible. It wouldnt surprise me at all to discover publishers or developers padding the costs for new projects for different reasons.

Well anyway. Thank you Mark. It is refreshing when someone that has a name and some weight in the industry calls everyone else to the mat and challenges some of the idiocy going on.

PS, those guys that called you a dinosaur are total morons. I’d be willing to bet money that their companies are losing money, or will put out some episodic games that will fail miserably. Evolution in action baby. Frag ’em.

Nicodemus

5 thoughts on “Is Mark Rein Right?”

  1. The title of this article should have been: “What if Mark Rein were right?”

    Remember, you cannot run out of ink while blogging.

    Your comments are really good, however.

  2. I haven’t downloaded any episodes yet. I’m concerned that I’ll end up paying more for the same amount of content I used to get from buying at the store. Let’s continue with your example of halflife 2 as episodes:

    Buying Half Life 2 at the store was either $49.99 or at most $59.99. On that scale then the entire halflife 2 game would be three episodes. If there are six episodes your now paying $120 for the same package.

    Let’s not forget that your downloading the game too, so no retail expenses to deal with. All in all, it’s got the potential to be a sweet scam. Time will tell if we consumers let it be a sweet scam.

  3. He might be right in some cases, but the real world example of the two companies I’ve worked at say he’s wrong.

    Asheron’s Call has been releasing fresh free content every month for years. That kept people subscribed for a long time. We never had as many subscribers as other MMGs, but 1999 to ~2002 we did have the lowest churn. People who subscribed tended to stay. Even if they were only popping in once a month to see what was new.

    Neverwinter Nights Digital Distribution modules ($5-$10) paid for the last few patches by the Live Team. Which seems to argue the exact opposite of what he’s saying – in order to continue supporting the game, we used the profits from episodic content.

  4. I think you misunderstand the concept of “episodic content”.

    Releasing updates or new content every month for an MMORPG is not the same. It isn’t episodic, and it is already paid for through the regular monthly subscriptions (or whatever other revenue channels a MOG might have). Any developer that doesn’t support a MOG with regular content updates, doesn’t have a clue. Regular expansions are also not episodic content.

    Your NWN modules also don’t classify as episodic content. Each module is relatively unrelated to the others, and they are different from the original storyline.

    So, neither of your examples are appropriate, and they don’t offer a valid arguement that Rein might be wrong.

    I should say though, that there are exceptions to the rule…episodic content may very well work for some properties, but Rein’s point (and I concur) is that the model in general is “broken”…it sounds good on paper (like in-game advertising) but in practice isn’t very stable or good for game developers and consumers.

    The NWN digital distribution modules are an interesting idea, and it looks like that approach is perfect for NWN. I wouldn’t call it episodic by any means (because it isn’t) but I wouldn’t quite classify it as expansions either (expansions are generally quite large and substantial)…I think just calling them Story Modules is probably best.

    Am I just splitting hairs here? What is the difference between a story module and episodes?

    Story Module = self contained story.
    Episode = Story *split* into pieces.

    You can get any of the NWN modules and play them on their own, and in any order. It isn’t necessary to meet any prerequisites from playing or completing a previous one, and you won’t be lost trying to understand what is going on with the story because you missed something.

    With episodic content, you are paying for a story or game, in parts. You need to get them in order to logically progress (would you read comic books out of order? What about watching LOST episodes in a random sequence?)

    I am sure there are opportunities for releasing episodic content over the Internet…I’ve heard about a lot of experiments over the years with various media types (including web “tv” shows and so forth), but none of these seem to have had any staying power (wonder why?).

    While you can make stories episodic, I don’t think it is a good idea to do that to a game. Stick with modules with new stories, or expansions with loads of new content.

    Just my two cents.

    Nicodemus

  5. As a related aside, has anybody ever looked at the .hack series of PS2 faux-MMORPGs? They’re the first example of epsodic content that I can remember seeing; decent games that retailed for $50, but made it exceedingly clear you were only playing a fourth of a game.

    Valve could have likely gotten away with that with the Half-Life 2 episodes, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some studio ends up trying.

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