"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

Publication date: 23 March 2010
Originally published 2009 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


You know what's wrong with episodic games?

They're not episodic enough.

The first kind of episodic gaming was expansion packs and sequels. They're like movie sequels; usually full-sized and full-priced, and they don't come out very often. Three Fallout games took 11 years; Quakes 1 through 4 took nine years.

Sometimes there are quite a lot of expansions and sequels, giving series like the various Battlefields, the Ultima games, Final Fantasy, the interminable series of EA sport games, and so on. They're like a long movie series, and they're not what I'm looking for.

Now we've got explicitly episodic games - relatively small and cheap chunks of game, released in sequence to complete a story in not very many instalments. They're like a TV miniseries, and they're closer to what I want, but still pretty far away.

What I'm waiting for is episodic games that work like a regular TV series, going on and on with no definite end in sight. Or, at least, with a planned end that's some years and many, many episodes away. We've got the framework for them already - it's just currently supporting a different kind of game.

Now that MMORPGs with monthly fees are big business, they can pay for constant expansion of the game world. World of Warcraft and City of Heroes are each more than five years old now, and Eve Online is almost seven, but only in the same way that Law & Order is 19 and Neighbours is 24. Current players get a game that's the same as the original in basic concept, and they can play the original parts of it more or less unchanged if they want to. But there's far more stuff to do now than there was when the game was new.

What I'd like to see is an open-world game - a Grand Theft Auto, Fallout or The Elder Scrolls: Something-Or-Other - that has new stuff for you to do every few days, or even daily. Just click a "What's New?" button, and the auto-updater checks and tells you that crooked cops are collecting a big shipment of something down at the docks, or a herd of zombie elephants has been sighted to the north, or whatever, and would you like to have a look? If you would, the new stuff downloads, and away you go.

At the moment you only really see things like this in the MMORPGs, and the new content tends to come in big lumps - expansion packs. Day-to-day changes are more likely to be minor power and difficulty adjustments, and people who'd rather play a single-player game are left out in the cold entirely, except for periodic bugfixes, if they're lucky. But there's no reason at all why add-on content should only be available in games that have thousands of people sharing a server. Why not offer similar perks to single-player gamers?

One way to help this happen would be user-created content. That's been around for a long time - about half of the Duke Nukem 3D user-base seemed to be making levels for the game, and some of us even remember user-made Lode Runner levels. And there are lots of games today with free world-making tools.

No teenager in his bedroom is likely to create a whole new city for an open-world game like GTA IV, of course. But just look at the dozens of non-commercial Total Conversions for 3D games out there. A mod-friendly open-world game with a Metacafe-style reward system for people who make popular new content could have cool new stuff popping up by the hour. And if you're feeling adventurous, you could click a Random New Adventure button, and play something that's only been made available half an hour ago. Perhaps it's good, perhaps it's awful; either way, you get to vote after you've played it a bit.

(And if it's awful, that's not necessarily bad. Anybody who's messed around with user-made levels and mods for games knows that terrible and/or gleefully unfair levels can be absolutely hilarious, as long as they're not blocking you from getting to parts of the game that you actually like.)

New content wouldn't necessarily have to be whole clearly-defined missions, either. Which is good, because even when a software company hands out their own world-creation tools for free, it's very difficult to make whole new "levels" - missions, adventures, dungeons - for modern 3D games.

There's a ton of player creativity out there waiting to be tapped, though. Just look at the few games that're driven by player-made content, like A Tale in the Desert and Second Life.

So people could, for instance, just design a new non-player character, using a CoH/Champions-Online sort of editor, and provide their own voice-acting for what happens when the player talks to the new NPC, threatens the new NPC, shoots the new NPC with an arrow, or runs the new NPC down with a car.

Making tons and tons of distinct NPCs - or monsters - is a serious workload for game companies. This is a large part of the explanation for the strangely repetitive nature of the random townsfolk - and monsters - wandering around even in giant "AAA" open-world games.

If a game company tries to make a genuinely "natural" NPC population for your open-world game, you rapidly run into one of those combinatorial explosion problems. You don't just have to make different character models and animations, but you also have to give each NPC at least some interaction with all of the other NPCs they may encounter. If you don't do this - and pretty much nobody does - then you get the standard "aphasic pedestrians", who stop and talk with each other, but only say random things from their standard repertoire, so they sound completely mad.

A lot of the pedestrian-polishing job is a relatively simple elbow-grease task, though; modelling, animation, voice recording. A couple of thousand kids who want to break into the game industry really could do this stuff, quite possibly up to the standard of the AAA studios.

This is partly because these standards aren't terribly high. GTA San Andreas apparently had 4200 lines of dialogue in it, but you still kept hearing the same people saying the same things as they walked past. GTA IV, which cost as much to make as a summer blockbuster movie, has added a zero or two to the end of all of San Andreas' numbers. Its pedestrians have more to say, and randomised clothing, which really helps. But it still doesn't take long for a GTA IV player to discover that every busker in Liberty City plays the saxophone, there are exactly two kinds of soapbox speechifier, and so on.

In the olden days, storage space for tons of voice acting was a serious concern too, but 96-kilobit mono MP3 is more than good enough for voices, and you can fit a whole day of that into one gigabyte. That's long enough for five or six full performances of Hamlet, so I'm pretty sure it can accommodate a few more talkative NPCs.

There's already a grey zone between the bugfix and the expansion pack, most pleasingly explored in PC games whose authors let you play, usually for free, before the game is actually "finished". (There's also the evil-mirror-universe version of those games - the ones that're released as full-priced commercial products before they should have been. Many of those games never get fixed.)

More-than-a-bugfix-but-less-than-an-expansion-pack "downloadable content" is now common, but the better it is, the more likely it is to cost money. Which is fair enough, since it does cost money to make, and it usually doesn't include features that should have been in the game in the first place.

But there's plenty of precedent for meaningful free updates. They tend to come from the two extremes of the game-development industry - mega-companies like Blizzard can afford to patch new stuff into very old games for free, and so can little indie-game developers, who can keep adding stuff to already-released games for as long as they like, without a boss whipping them on to the next project.

The Internet is already full of wonderful stuff that people made for free. All we've got to do is find a way to elegantly slot such stuff into games.

And then...

You know when you walk out of a great movie, and you're sad that it had to end?

Games don't have to.

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