12/20/2012 04:54 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Episodic Gaming Has Its Revenge

By Noah J. Nelson

Last month we filed a story with National Public Radio on the transmedia strategy that heralded the release of Microsoft's Halo 4. During the reporting for that story I got to interview the CEO of Machinima, Allen DeBevoise. Machinima was the distribution partner for the webseries DeBevoise, which was a big part of the campaign.

That series, by design, brought viewers right up to the "doorstep" of the video game. Ending just moments before the game begins, the series sets up characters in the game in a way that intertwines the two properties seamlessly.

We talked about the relationship of things like webseries and videogames when DeBevoise dropped this thought on me:

"I think one thing that's going to be interesting is: is there a new form that will evolve? Which is narrative episodic content meets narrative episodic gaming."

Episodic gaming. If I had told you at the start of 2012 that Spike TV's Video Game Awards' Game of the Year prize would go to a game that was released episodically you would have called me insane.

The path of episodic gaming has, for the past decade, been a road littered with broken promises. The mighty Valve's experiment with episodic content in the form of Half-Life 2's "episodes" failed so badly it's a punchline in Kickstarter videos.

Yet the format has not been completely abandoned. Telltale Games, makers of that VGA Award winner-- The Walking Dead-- has successfully built their studio around episodic adventure games built from licensed properties. Not only did they revive the lost Sam & Max franchise, they built episodic adventure games for Back to the Future and Jurassic Park as well.

(That the VGA went to a souped up adventure game is a feat unto itself. It also doesn't hurt that The Walking Dead is an exceptional bit of story crafting in games.)

There are strong narrative thrusts in these games. Formats that lend themselves to narrative structures borrowed from television. The Alan Wake games, cult hits on Microsoft's XBOX 360 platform, use the "previously on" trope to frame the opening of each of its chapters. The first game in that series was released as a singular product, but that internal structure suggested distribution possibilities that the game's publisher only tentatively explored later in the standalone downloadable game "Alan Wake's American Nightmare."

Halo 4 includes its own entry into a freshly burgeoning episodic game genre. The disc ships with access to the first "season" of a "Spartan Ops", a weekly collection of cooperative multiplayer missions that are framed by an animated narrative. The story carries on from week to week. The creators hope this gives gamers an incentive to keep coming back to the game long after launch.

Yet what DeBevoise suggests is something even bolder than what can currently be found on consoles and PCs. He sees a fusion of TV and games that goes a step beyond licensed spin-offs.

"A good example I give is at the end of last season of [TV's] The Walking Dead when the horde arrives on the farm. Could there have been a level you could have played right then and there in a future kind of model? As opposed to the video game being a completely separate narrative."

Having spent the past two years hovering around the tech infused parts of Hollywood I can say that this dream may not be DeBevoise's alone. The race to define so-called "second screen" apps by both major production studios and technology makers shows that the next generation platforms are being built that could achieve this kind of entertainment convergence.

Next year will see the release of a property with this ambition, a collaboration between the SyFy Channel and the game developer Trion Worlds called Defiance. Whether or not yet another massively multiplayer game-- which is what the game side of Defiance is-- will be the proper format to bridge the two mediums is a good question. Whether or not Trion Worlds is financially strong enough to pull off the project is another. They recently laid off developers on their other MMO product, Rift.

More likely to bridge the gap will be the kind of product DeBevoise described. A game that extends an existing media property in a easily digestible manner. Launched from a second screen app as the credits roll.

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