Posts Tagged ‘Penny Arcade Adventures’

The Telltale Hothead – or the commitment of episodic games

At the moment, I’m following episodic games from two developers: From  Telltale Games (TTG) it’s Sam&Max, Wallace & Gromit and soon Monkey Island (Yay!)(I have also bought SBCG4AP, but I’m not enjoying it). From Hothead, it’s Penny Arcade Adventures, based off a Cthulhu-noir version of the fictional versions of the two creators of the webcomic/blog Penny Arcade.

But while both make great games, it would seem that there is a fundamental principle of episodic games that Telltale has understood, while Hothead hasn’t.

Where the Telltale hearts are

Episodic gaming as a viable format (as opposed to a genre) was, more or less, invented by Telltale. True, there may have been attempts before exiled geniouses from LucasArts released the first game based off the comic Bone. But it wasn’t until Telltale started releasing their episodic games that the format could be taken seriously as a finansially sound way of delivering games to consumers.

To be quite honest, Bone isn’t even a true episodic game – at least not yet. Only two episodes have been released, and even though I haven’t heard TTG declare it officially “dead,” they seem to have moved on to other projects.

Rather, the true birth of the episodic format was Sam&Max – Episode 1 (they tried rebranding it as one game with the title “Save the world,” but I couldn’t even find that name on their own site). The first of the six episodes was released in October 2006, then the rest of the episodes were released with approximately monthly intervals until April 2007.

Since then, TTG have released three-and-a-half seasons of episodic games: Sam&Max season 1 and 2, Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (SBCG4AP) and Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures (episode three of four will be out Tuesday). Common to all of them are:

  1. All games are released with more or less a monthly interval
  2. There is a lot of recycling of settings and characters, with some changes.
  3. The stories within a season have a common structure. This is most evident (to the point where it was slightly annoying) in S&M:1 – in the other games, there has been more variation in the plot structures. Still, though…
  4. Certain themes and storylines have run through every episode, while still giving each episode its own unique story – in other words, you can play any episode and enjoy it, even if you’ll get more out of playing them in order. In this way, the games are similar to a tv-series: you can watch one episode of “Buffy” or “Sex & The City” and enjoy it, even if the big picture is only revealed when you watch many episodes in order.
  5. You can buy one game at a time, or all of them at once (in advance) and receive a discount.

These are of course very different in cause and effect. Number 2 and 3 are mostly done to ease production – making 3D characters and locations is a costly and time consuming affair, just as writing a complete script is easier if you have a mold to make them by. Many tv-series seem to do this as well. The fourth is the artistic one, the one that makes it feel like a season, instead of just a collection of very similar games. And number 5 is both a way of making sure the cash is rolling in, and a way of making it accessible to people – they don’t need to find their credit card once a month, but receive a link directly to the download.

The one I want to focus on here, is number one. I remember one of the Telltale developers saying, that they belived, an episodic game was only episodic if it had a very rapid rate of release. Once a month seems reasonable; more often seems suicidal, while more rarely will mean that people forget the last game, and lose the anticipatory drive that makes the game “live.” Besides, if you want people to pay in advance, you gotta make sure they can see the goal ahead.

What the Hothead didn’t consider

Just like Telltale, Hothead had a great starting point for their venture into episodic gaming: The Penny Arcade brand, along with Tycho and Gabe’s creative drive, which has proven to be considerable, including fruit-molesting robots, a demon-and-cat versing duo, a series of fictional (as in, not-existing) fantasy novels with a considerable, real, fan-core, and the Carboard Tube Samurai. And with great brands come great responsibilities – if they succeed, they can reap the benefits manyfold, but if they fail, they will go down hard.

And they have been nothing if not abitious. Where TTG made a conservative (but in their case, excellent) choice of making adventure games, based on their own engine, with only a few mini games thrown in, Hothead chose to make an action-adventure with a very innovative combat system, combining semi-turnbased combat with many little minigames, together making combat a delicious middle road between turn-based and button mashing.

They also made a great story with many different characters, and mostly new settings in each game. The story, on the other hand, is very connected, and we are clearly getting one chapter in a continuing saga each time. The story is, mind you, very well worked out, beutifully recreating Tycho and Gabe’s usual blend of “realness” and far out, surreal crazyness (the first game features a urinologist (urinology as in “the lore of urine”) beset by hoboes and a cult of mimes, worshipping a Cthuluesque mime god).

I loved the first two games in the series, but now, it’s annoying me. Why? Because I was told it was episodic, and now I find out, it’s not.

The first game was released in May last year. The second was released five months later, in October. That is a long game for an episodic game – but I accepted it because of the huge amount of new material, and the promise that one game would be released every six months.

That promise has not been delivered on – and it seems unlikely that the third episode will be out anytime soon. A Hothead representative wrote on the PA forum:

Last year we were pretty singularly focused on getting Episode One and Two out. This year sees a whole bunch more on our plate: we’re in full swing on DeathSpank and are working on getting Swarm off the ground as well. And we spent a bunch of time hiring a new boss!

In other words, they are not releasing the next episode, because they are too busy working on other games. Clearly, to Hothead, PA Adventures are a series of four connected games, to be developed and released independently.

The fall of the Arcade of Pennies

And thus, Hothead fell short. They didn’t deliver the episodic game they promised.

Telltale Games knew from the start that an episodic game has not been released until the last episode is out. Hothead, on the other hand, thought that “episodic” mean cutting the game into bite sized chunks, allowing you to cash in earlier, and to learn from the first episodes so that you may improve in the second. But while those things are true, it also means a release streaching out many months and a tight deadline with little room for testing and resting. Once you release the first episode, you gotta deliver – every month on the clock.

This doesn’t mean that I have decided not to get the last two episodes of  Penny Arcade adventures. What it does mean is that my enthusiasm for the game has diminished considerably, and thus, the amount of viral marketing I can deliver. And it means that I will be more sceptical towards other titles from Hothead.

On the other hand, Telltale can release almost anything, and I’ll try it. They have been loyal to me – now I’m loyal to them.

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For another take on episodic games, go watch Zero Punctuation’s review of The Orange Box.

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