If Tom Mustaine has his way, gamers will soon see their favorite titles conclude not with "game over" or "the end" but "to be continued."
The next game from Mustaine's Ritual Entertainment, a first-person shooter called "SiN," will be released as TV-style episodes. They'll have cliffhangers, recaps of previous installments and a story path partially steered by the player community's response to past episodes.
"The promise of episodic [releases] is something that people have been really clamoring for, for some time, and we're at the convergence of technology and software to make this happen," said Mustaine, 29, who serves as studio vice president of the Dallas company.
Mustaine joins a handful of other development studios working on a wide range of games — from an adaptation of a kids' comic to a cell-phone-based legal drama. They're hoping 2006 will be the year games stop getting delivered exclusively in full gulps and instead as evenly spaced sips. Each game will be available primarily by download and will come to gamers one chapter at a time.
"SiN: Episode One" will be released in the spring with an estimated four to six hours of game action. It will assign the player to hunt down a drug lord and is expected to unfold into a sprawling adventure in the ensuing episodes. According to Mustaine, the first episode will cost gamers less than $20 to download off "Half-Life" maker Valve's Steam on-demand online service and will require a pipe fat enough to download what will be at least a 1.5 gigabyte game.
The second of a planned nine episodes is scheduled for release six to eight months after the first, with a multiplayer installment released in between. That pace is lightning-fast considering the one previous "SiN" game was released in 1998. Mustaine's team had been plotting a non-episodic sequel but plans have changed since then.
Episodic gaming, which long seemed just a dream, is becoming one of 2006's most eagerly traveled new directions. Valve recently confirmed that the "Half-Life" saga will continue as a Steam-based episodic series, with episode one launching in the spring. A second episode, which Valve started developing at the same time as the first, will follow in the fall.
"For a game developer this is the greatest way to make games," said Erik Johnson, team leader of the episodic "Half-Life" launch installment. Johnson, Mustaine and other developers raved about the speediness of development and the ability to focus on and enhance the relatively short game experience.
"If you asked developers who are doing non-episodic stuff what their number one regret is of any project they worked on, it is that they didn't have the time to take the project to where they wanted to get it to," Valve Marketing Director Doug Lombardi said. "That's because they had so many pieces to lock down before the budget ran out. And episodic [releases] free you from that. It's a manageable size of content, a manageable team. Get it right, get it done and publish it."
The Valve team acknowledges it's struggling with how to handle recapping previous episodes in a way that doesn't involve the very non-interactive movie scenes the company has eschewed for a decade. Recaps are "hard for the guys who say cut scenes are old-school and made a living off of saying that," Lombardi said. The team hasn't figured out how to get around them just yet.
While game makers have spoken theoretically about episodic gaming for years, at least one genuine precedent occurred in September when Telltale Games released the first episode of "Bone," a game based on the comic book series of the same name. Telltale turned the comic into a point-and-click PC adventure, telling the story as a series of puzzle- and dialogue-driven set pieces, with some primitive arcade games thrown in for good measure. The game received mixed reviews but enough attention to net a half-million trial downloads, according to Telltale CEO Dan Connors. It also exposed one weakness of the new approach: Skilled gamers could all too quickly conquer what was already designed to be short experience.
Connors said the team learned from the criticism of the first installment and has removed the arcade games and made the main narrative quest more intricate for the second "Bone" episode, "The Great Cow Race," which is due later this month. Such is the ability for developers to react and improve the games from episode to episode in a quick handful of months rather than the year or more that would come between traditional sequels. The third episode is on tap for the summer.
Connors says Telltale is already eager to try something different. "We're going to start [approaching it as if] we'd be going into a [TV] season," Connors said. "If we get enough teams rolling, you could have one coming out every month."
The idea would be to stockpile a "season," roll it out monthly and then go dark during development. With other series in the mix, Connors said Telltale could someday provide a new episode of a different game every week. "What Telltale is setting up is kind of a sitcom studio," he said, noting a desire to eventually craft new episodes using an established lot of virtual sets.
Another game maker, Capcom, is planning a crime-based episodic game. In the fall it will reissue 2005's "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney," a critically lauded Game Boy and Nintendo DS series, as a sequence of primarily multiple choice, dialogue-driven courtroom and crime-scene dramas playable this time on cell phones. A small team of five in Capcom's Los Angeles office are working on dividing the first four cases of "Phoenix" DS into digestible installments that will be doled out at a minimum of once a month. If the cell-phone series catches on, it might extend to translations of other "Phoenix Wright" adventures released on the Game Boy Advance in Japan.
Developers working on episodic content said planning a game as discrete episodes has also inspired them to tweak a convention. "When we first started looking at the episodic model we realized we could tell episodes out of order," Mustaine said. "We talked about doing entirely different game play types, like having a third-person episode."
Mustaine said his team even considered making an episode support cooperative play, letting two or more players simultaneously experience a new chapter as different characters. For the first few episodes, however, Mustaine is promising only straight-up single-player, first-person shooting to help the team get its footing. "Being the first is always a double-edged sword," Mustaine said. "The big thing is not being the pioneer with the arrows in the back. We want to be the pioneer who found the new world."