Ask “lapsed” gamers why they don’t play anymore, and one of the most common answers you’ll get is some variation of, “I don’t have time.” Whether it’s because of children, significant others who don’t play, the pressures of career or myriad other reasons, getting older can sometimes feel synonymous with “becoming less of a gamer.” Many older players I talk to struggle to finish one 20-hour game, let alone a dozen a year.
“Alan Wake,” released in May on the Xbox 360, offers a hint of what the future of gaming could look like, if game publishers would take a few risks and distribute their games in regular, 2- to 3-hour installments released every couple of months.
“Alan Wake’s” game disc features six, TV show-style episodes. Each begins with a recap of important elements from preceding chapters, similar to what viewers saw at the beginning of each episode of the TV show “Lost.” Since the game’s release, developer Remedy Entertainment has released one additional episode, “The Signal,” which arrived during the last week of July. Another, “The Writer,” is planned for September.
“The Signal,” free to download for anyone who bought “Alan Wake” new, continues the story of the title character, a writer who spent the main game searching for his missing wife in an eerie Pacific Northwest setting reminiscent of David Lynch’s early ’90s TV show “Twin Peaks.” It brilliantly expands on some gameplay ideas introduced in the final chapter of the main game, while de-emphasizing some of the item collecting that detracted slightly from the core experience.
Despite the new wrinkles, Alan’s battles against what the game calls the Dark Presence gripping the town of Bright Falls remain as suspenseful and twisted as the main game. As I played through “The Signal” last week, I was struck repeatedly by the thought that I’d love to play a suspenseful game that was serialized in installments, with each release being promoted the same way networks market new seasons of TV shows. While I don’t have the luxury of time necessary to replay full, disc-based releases, I definitely plan to run through “The Signal” again to grab unearned achievement points and bone up on the plot before playing “The Writer” next month.
Counting “The Signal,” “Alan Wake” now has seven episodes. The first six are virtually begging to be split up and serialized as downloads over Xbox Live, similar to what Microsoft did for 2008’s “Fable II.”
Make the first one free to hook gamers, promote the heck out of it and Microsoft would be bound to generate a larger audience for a great game that underperformed at retail. (“Alan Wake” was released the same week as “Red Dead Redemption,” a bigger-budget, better-marketed title with higher review scores that was available for more than one console.)
Episodic gaming isn’t some radical new idea, either. While it doesn’t make sales figures available, San Rafael-based Telltale Games could be considered the guru of episodic gaming. Its games, throwbacks to the cleverly written point-and-click adventure genre that raged in the late ’80s and ’90s, have found a cult following and critical success. Its sale of games on a subscription-based model, with each installment in a four- or five-episode series arriving every six to eight weeks, provides a clear example of an alternate business plan for the games industry. Subscriptions sold in advance could remove uncertainty and prevent games from being canceled in the middle of their runs like unfortunate TV shows. (Telltale’s games in the “Monkey Island,” “Sam & Max,” “Wallace and Gromit” and “Homestar Runner” franchises are available on the PC and various consoles.)
That’s not to say episodic or subscription-based games should displace traditional retail titles that arrive on discs and take dozens of hours to complete. Epics dozens of hours long like “Fallout 3” or “Red Dead Redemption” still enjoy massive audiences, even if some players take months to finish them.
But at a time when many gamers struggle to complete the newest “Grand Theft Auto,” it wouldn’t hurt to look for new ways to rope as many players as possible into the industry’s most gripping interactive narratives.