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Still Makin' It Up - Part 4

MAY 23 2011 
Still Makin' It Up - Part 4
Space Lizard's ever-more-desperate look into game design continues.
Author: Space Lizard

Last time: Difficulties with difficulty.

Today's music choice: Hunting. For, what else, bounty hunt maps. It was supposed to be sort of a dichotomy of styles that play off each other (sort of like the NPCs who give you the bounty hunts in the first place). I'll probably touch it up some in the future.

Progress Report: My June 25th target is looking less and less likely. I've been implementing little sidequests you can do when your allies reach certain personal/battle trust milestones to give the player gifts or upgrade their primary weapons, and holy moly these are taking a long time. After that, I still need to implement their personal interaction scenes (as well as the ones for the new characters from this episode) and then I can get back to implementing the main missions again. After that, though, everything's coming up Milhouse.

Episodic games are an old standby. Remember Doom? Commander Keen? Uh, Jill of the Jungle? It was a popular method of distribution back in the shareware days. Nowadays, it seems like Telltale Games is the only developer still embracing it, and they're pretty much a niche-filler as it is. Unless you think Sonic 4, "Episode 1" is actually accurate, in which case I've got a bridge downtown I'm trying to sell.

I've been trying to deliver my current game in episodic installments as well. But why? I'm not profiting from it, so it's not the psychological barrier of "paying $10 five times over the course of a year instead of $50 up front at once." I'm also not under the gun for a firm release date. Hell, I spent years on The Reconstruction. That is part of the reason, though. Having a semi-regular release schedule will keep my audience and myself from losing interest (in theory anyway). Part of why my last one took so long was my habit of working on it furiously during days off from work, then getting burned out and forgetting about it for a month or so. And I really don't want to still be working on this thing when I turn thirty.

The flip side, though, is that my method of storytelling lends itself to segmented episodes anyway. I'm actually playing with that in I Miss the Sunrise too - I end each episode with a little teaser stinger scene for the next one. Naturally, the flow is kind of lost if you already have the following episode installed and immediately jump to it, but I haven't thought of a good way around that.

My other, more relevant reason for chopping it up this way is for testing purposes - I suck at testing, see, and being able to have players find bugs on a small scale before they're replicated into an entire project seems like a good idea (and believe you me it's never been more true than in Episode One. Holy moly.) Oddly, very few bugs that have been found so far are mechanical in nature - most of them are one-time instances, which is arguably worse.

So, I've got timeliness, content control, and testing. But, would I do it this way again for the inevitable cap on the trilogy? Not a chance in hell. So many things get added and potentially mangled between episodes that I have a half dozen update triggers set to run once when a game is loaded even before the episode begins. Stats fluctuate (especially with tweaking the weapons), new materials and media need to be accounted for, the documentation and web pages and installer program need to be updated, I need to make sure very old saves still function properly, and God forbid someone finds a bug from an old episode. It's way too much hassle for one lonely little hermit, but I'm already knee-deep, so I'll keep it up until this project's complete (for real). The plus side is, I've planned for the ability to keep adding on post-game content as demand allows, since doing battles and mission maps themselves is relatively easy compared to the thing on a whole. We shall see, now shan't we?

Telltale Games gets away with it because (a) they're an actual studio and know what they're doing, (b) they're mostly into adventure games that stand alone and don't have a lot of data back-and-forth, (c) they're budget priced anyway, and (d) they don't have to expect as many "surprises" from their gameplay engines, as far as I can tell. Meanwhile, just think of the hell that would erupt if Final Fantasy XV were announced as episodic. Or, look at Half-Life 2's "episodes." It seems like "episodic" is just a codeword for "when it's done" more often than not. It only works if releases are done in a somewhat timely manner, are reasonably priced and lengthed, and have a narrative that specifically fits the segmented structure.

From now on, if I want an episode of something, it had better be Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Next time: Episode Two looms. It looms, I tell you! So, uh, let's talk about art styles. Realistic, abstract, you name it!

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