Pete Davison: He’s Having an Episode

Posted on May 5, 2011 by

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Episodic gaming is, for many publishers, the “holy grail” of digital distribution. If they can figure out a way to hook a player in and keep them interested in their piece of interactive entertainment, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t keep going and going and going until people lose interest — like a TV show.

But the trouble is, a lot of developers have great difficulty releasing episodic content in a timely manner. Valve are obviously right out with their years elapsed between Half-Life 2 episodes and the conspicuous lack of Episode Three. Telltale are closer, with their monthly episode, but it’s still not quite the same as a TV show.

Oddly enough, the games that have pretty much got it spot on are two games buried deep in the heart of the App Store that you’ll probably never pay any attention to. But I’m here to tell you that if you’re the slightest bit interested in exploring a bold experiment in episodic interactive content, then you really, really need to try out Cause of Death and Surviving High School, two games built around the same basic visual novel-style engine but which manage to be very different from one another.

Cause of Death is a full-on interactive detective show. It’s presented very simply with static backdrops, text narration and character portraits, but it works extremely well thanks to the attractive artwork, well-written (if overly-peppered with exclamation marks) dialogue, strong characters and excellent music. It’s also interesting in that you regularly switch between different characters — including the victims of crimes, which is an interesting approach. Gameplay is extremely simple, consisting of reading text and occasionally making choices, some of which are against a time limit (and for some of which the correct option is to not make a decision) and acquiring “Detective Score”. Acquiring enough points in each chapter unlocks bonus scenes, so there’s plenty of incentive to do your best.

Surviving High School, on the other hand, is very different, despite using the same game engine. It’s more of a social/dating sim, based around a character you name and choose the appearance of yourself. There’s a lot more “branching” to the story depending on who you talk to, who you choose to date and decisions you make. And there’s a lot more minigames which would be pretty cheesy in a computer-based adventure game (wordsearches, pop quizzes, that sort of thing) but work extremely well on the iPhone’s touchscreen. Again, it’s written with some very appealing (if stereotypical) characters who all have a story to tell. Plenty of replay value, too, as decisions you make mean that you’ll see certain scenes and not others.

But that’s the game you download. The really interesting thing comes in the episodic content. The app you download is “Season One” of the respective game, which tells a complete story and is a satisfying experience in itself. Beyond that, though, there’s a new episode that “airs” every week and can be downloaded for free while it’s available. And past episodes are available “on demand” for a fee — in the case of Cause of Death, you can buy the whole of Season Two for under two quid and it’s then 59p per pair of episodes after that. Haven’t checked Surviving High School yet but it’s probably something similar.

This, right here, is the correct way to do it. Weekly updates mean that people will stay engaged with the game, especially as they’re free while they’re “airing”. Episodes on demand allow the developers to make some money from the games, which can then be ploughed back into development of further episodes or new titles. And because the tech of the games is so simple, it probably doesn’t cost that much to make new episodes — meaning both games are probably nice little money-spinners for EA.

Regardless of how much money EA is making off them, though, they’re both excellent titles for fans of the visual novel style of gameplay, and I will certainly be exploring the further episodes in more detail. Both games have free, ad-supported versions available (and they’re only 59p each for ad-free versions, so they don’t exactly break the bank) so why not check them out?

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Posted in: Pete Davison