Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Episode Problem

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 2, 2010

When Robert Jordan was still alive and his Wheel of Time series was The Hot Thing in fantasy (I guess that was a while ago, huh?), I deliberately avoided it. My wife finally coerced me into listening to the first book on tape when I had a long commute a few years ago, but I am still holding with the first book. When asked, I simply responded that I was afraid the author would die before the series was concluded – a concern that was completely justified, in retrospect, although now my friends are more excited about Brandon Sanderson’s conclusion to the series than the last few books Jordan penned himself.

It took me a while to finally take the plunge and start reading the Harry Dresden series, too. Again, it was partly the same concern, about jumping into a planned series that didn’t have a conclusion yet. However, I was finally convinced, and read through the entire series, JUST in time to be stuck with the massive, horrible cliffhanger / shocker in the latest novel of the series, Changes. D’oh! I knew my mistrust was not misplaced!

Anyway, I don’t know if my paranoia about incomplete series is entirely unique. Maybe it has been bred by seeing too many promising TV series unceremoniously canceled, or playing too many video games that end in loose threads with the expectation of a follow-on that never happened.

Or maybe because, as a follower of the indie / hobbyist scene, I’ve been overwhelmed with promises of trilogies that only saw one or two releases.

Maybe it was the childhood trauma of having to wait three years to find out what happened to Han Solo.

Whatever the case – I find myself paranoid about unfinished stories. Intellectually, I realize the silliness of this problem. I have voluntarily abandoned many stories (especially with games and TV shows), and not always out of a lack of interest. My response is probably not a rational one. When dealing with “episodes” – parts of a greater story – if they don’t stand on their own well enough, it probably indicates a poor story in the first place.

But the end result is that I find myself resistant to playing what is advertised as the  first game of a planned series. My immediate thought is “unfinished!” Unless I somehow find reason to trust the developer, I will often wait until at least the second game proves the developer’s intent and ability to make good on their promise.

With the “Orbs of Magic” sub-series, starting with Aveyond: Lord of Twilight, Amaranth Games had already proven itself with previous game releases. While the other Aveyond games did make up something of a series (especially if you include the free “prequel,” Ahriman’s Prophecy), they weren’t advertised as being a part of anything. They stood alone quite well.

I don’t know how then-newcomer Basilisk Games convinced me that all was well with Eschalon: Book 1. That’s pretty much the textbook case for the sort of titles / series I would avoid (if only the game wasn’t so good…). Right away, it sends a signal that it is only part of the larger series, and might not stand on its own very well (but probably better than the second or third book…). Fortunately, I played it anyway.

And it’s really more of a perception problem anyway, as in many cases the second or third “parts” of the game series stand alone just fine, providing plenty of background for new players to get into the thing.

And a s a side note, does anybody remember how “The Bard’s Tale” was originally supposed to be part of a series, ‘Tales of the Unknown“? It was volume 1. The series just became “The Bard’s Tale.” It’s a good thing that my friends didn’t refer to it by its full title back in the day when they got me interested in it.

One advantage to making a game appear to be an integral part of a series is that each new release can encourage players to go back and play earlier games in the series. You don’t get that with more “loose” series – the release of Madden NFL 2010 probably doesn’t trigger a surge of buying Madden NFL 2009. But this benefit is probably overshadowed by the number of people who won’t buy the sequel until they’ve finished the original.

Of course, here I am doing pretty much the same thing with Frayed Knights, which is probably why I’m obsessing over this little problem right now. Are many gamers like me in this respect? Is it really a problem? And if so, what can be done to overcome it?

Filed Under: Production - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • Bad Sector said,

    I hate episodes too and it has to be a *GOOD* game (or movie or book or whatever) for me to consider it before there is a conclusion to the story. That doesn’t mean i like it and in some cases, especially in games, it might take a lot (consider Half Life 2: Episode 3 which so far has taken as long as a full game) or get dropped (consider SiN Episodes which produced only one episode and the development stopped because Ritual didn’t had enough money to continue and was bought by MumboJumbo to make match-three games…).

    But as a developer i can see the appeal and i am guilty of that since both my last ‘downloadable’ game (Nikwi) and my previous Flash game (Rombo) end in a promising state (ok, Rombo actually ends abruptly with a “to be continued…” which is much beyond “promising” :-P).

  • GuiguiBob said,

    George R.R. Martin “A song of Fire and Ice” triggered this in me. I couldn’t muster the will to invest myself in any series for about 2 years. Favoring one shots and finished series. I lament the fact that fantasy stories don’t know how to be short and have an ending. It’s all well and good to have an epic storyline and all but the book should begin by standing on it’s own.

    What I like in longer sotries is when the individual parts close their main plot threads. You can have background threads to pick up in the next volume but one should always be able to pick the middle part of the series and not be lost.

  • devon said,

    I take it you never started Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin then :)?

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m okay if a story ends with the villain running away and saying “I’ll get you next time.” but not with the main character hanging from a cliff saying “I’m losing my grip… tune in next time to see if I survive.”

    Even if the story never continues, I should feel satisfied.

    If you look at the Dresden Files, he ended each episode with a satisfying conclusion to the current problem. The episodes were tied together by the shadowy forces in the background that are slowly forming a picture. This minor story arc inside a major one allowed me to enjoy each book on it’s own merit, yet still feel like they are linked.

    Sure, he blew that satisfying conclusion habit in the last book… but at least by this point I trust that he will complete the next one.

  • David W said,

    I’m with McTeddy on this. It’s ok for a story not to end with the total and complete saving of the universe – fact is, that’s somewhat unrealistic anyway (not that magic is, but…). What I hate is for it to fail to end at all. In math terms – the story ends at a local maximum.

    What I really look for, though, is at least an intermediate conclusion. Maybe I didn’t defeat the Big Bad, but at least I slowed him up and took out a lieutenant. And story-wise, the protagonist needs to have a break. Not happily ever after, but at least better than the start of the story, and at a stable place. Dresden Files was good about that, until now; similarly, Discworld, Honor Harrington – most of my favorite series, actually, pull that off. Even Harry Potter did that for all but the penultimate book; yes, Voldemort was still ‘alive’, but his plans have taken a setback and Harry’s had a chance to visit the infirmary, see his friends and Dumbledore again, and life goes on.

  • Silemess said,

    I don’t like being left on the cliff hanger. In TV land, it’s done to make sure that they are renewed for another season. I don’t watch much TV until it makes it to DVD for precisely this reason, I’d rather watch a series that started and ended planned, and was able to secure the funding it needed to make it through.

    Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy was a marvel in that he secured the funding he needed to make three separate movies. Imagine how it might have turned out if the studio just bankrolled each movie individually? How many actors might have returned every 2 or 3 years to film the next film? How much would things have unavoidably changed?

    In a game, if we set out to save the world, we save the world. Now, if we had to do it by making a deal with the devil and that leads into a second story arc for a second game, great. At least then we don’t feel like something was left out of the original game or that the game was left incomplete so as to force us to buy the next.

    But McTeddy summed it up best: “Even if the story never continues, I should feel satisfied”

  • Spaceman Spiff said,

    I so know this.. I’m still waiting on book #5 of David Gerrold’s “The War Against the Chtorr” series.. (of 7 planned)…

  • Jay K. said,

    The difference between your two examples (at least as I remember them) is that Harry Dresden books hold by themselves. True, they reference earlier works, but you can read one and enjoy it by itself.

    Robert Jordan books pretty much have to be consumed in order or you are completely lost. Heck, I am lost sometimes after consuming them in order.

    So, I would imagine you could do a set of games that are more like Harry Dresden and get away with it. I would imagine it would be easier and better selling than the a game series that required a special order. Thinking back on it, Ultima is exactly like this.

  • ngthagg said,

    I only have a problem with episodic content if I can’t pick it up easily after a break between episodes. The Wheel of Time is bad for this. A Song of Ice and Fire is awful. (I got the most recent one, A Feast for Crows, last Christmas and couldn’t read it without re-reading the series. I may never got back for that reason alone.) J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, is the master of this. A memorable cast, restricted geography, a consistent timeline (ie, one school year per book), and good recaps made it easy to pick up a new book even after many years.

    Those same principles should apply to a game. With the sorts of conversations you have in Frayed Knights, you have an excellent tool to meet some of these conditions.

  • Calibrator said,

    Silemess about Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”:
    “Imagine how it might have turned out if the studio just bankrolled each movie individually?”

    Perhaps the second and third part wouldn’t even exist?
    That’s exactly the fate of the Ralph Bakshi version: The second part never materialzed…

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I can’t stand getting invested with episodic content either. All too often there is a gap of years in between episodes, especially in movies. It makes the story choppy and hard to follow unless you read or play all the previous episodes immediately before starting the new one. And if you are going to do that, why not wait until all the episodes or books have been released and then just go through them all once, back to back?

    I have several series – games, books, TV shows – that I am approaching this way right now. I keep them on my radar somewhat, checking up every couple of years to see the progress being made, and if it is still worth anticipating them.

    Valve is a triple A game developer and pretty much pioneered the concept of downloadable, episodic games, but they have totally dropped the ball. It has been three years since Ep. 2 (Which, yes, ended on a cliff hanger.) and we are still waiting for Ep. 3. We don’t even have verification that it is being worked on or exists! Honestly, at this point I would have preferreed for them to skip all this “episode” mess and just jump right from the end of Half-Life 2 to Half-Life 3. They certainly would have had the time to do so at this point. They are using the episode structure to excuse an excessively long development cycle. Screw that. Valve had better believe I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid on any new episodic games from them until all the episodes are available.

    Tell-Tale games is one the only developers I trust enough to buy episodes from before all have been released, because they have established a track record of quality releases on a consistent schedule that doesn’t slip.

    As far as books are concerned, I think a lot of author’s need to get over themselves. No story NEEDS 10,000 or more pages to be told. That’s ridiculous. I forget who said it, but I always remember the quote, “A good writer says what needs to be said clearly, and in as few words as possible.” This is what editors are for. To tell the Robert Jordans of the world (God rest his soul) to cut the crap and finish their story. If the author still wants to use the world they have developed, fine, but make them separate stories.

    I blame Tolkien (for many things, but especially) for setting the precedent of rambling on for dozens of pages on things unrelated to the story at hand, sometimes whole chapters. What editor let Tolkien include “The History of Tobacco Farming” in the Lord of the Rings? Shakespeare didn’t interrupt Romeo and Juliet to give a discourse on the history of poisons, and Homer didn’t bring the Odyssey to a thundering halt to “set the scene” with a lesson on ancient shipbuilding techniques! Arggh!

  • Chris W. said,

    “Homer didn’t bring the Odyssey to a thundering halt to “set the scene” with a lesson on ancient shipbuilding techniques!”

    No, but he did bring the Illiad to a screeching halt with a multi-page digression on Achilles’s shield. 🙂

    Authors who were paid by the page, such as Dickens or (especially) Victor Hugo are especially bad for this. Check out the almost completely unrelated novella on the Battle of Waterloo in the middle of Les Miserables, or the long lectures on the history of architecture in the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

  • Random said,

    The ending of Dresden was a slap in the face. Just thinking about it makes me feel uneasy. Brrrr.. [kinda spoiler] I think it’s the same kind of statement from the author that Conan Doyle made with Sherlock Holmes. Only he does it in the penultimate book to prepare readers to accept that the next book will be the last. Or I’m wrong, and it will go on for books and books again. [/spoiler]

    Anyway, there’s still plenty of good series to read that are finished in a similar fantasy-detective genre: the Garret’s files from Glenn Cook, Hawk and Fisher, or Nightside (which is strangely similar to Dresden) from Simon R. Green or the Vlad Taltos serie from Steven Brusk.

    But, the thing with finished series is that, when you finish the last book, well, it’s finished. No more new adventures with Garret, Corwin, Merlin, or Miles for me. Sorry Fafhrd, but I know you by heart already.

    At least there is still a turtle swimming in space to bring me news from an universe I love.

  • Kylotan said,

    does anybody remember how “The Bard’s Tale” was originally supposed to be part of a series, ‘Tales of the Unknown“? It was volume 1. The series just became “The Bard’s Tale.”

    Are you saying you never saw The Bard’s Tale 2: Destiny Knight, or The Bard’s Tale 3, “Thief Of Fate”? I assure you they exist, and I am half-way through BT2. (In fact, it’s my longest-running game, as my current save game is for a session originally started in late 1999.) They can be enjoyed completely individually, however, and there’s little in the way of continuity across the games.

    As for the Robert Jordan books, I got half way through but lost interest, partly for the same reason. I am now holding back on reading the rest until Brandon Sanderson finishes the final book (which itself was expanded to three books!)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Ah, you missed my point. The series was originally intended to be called “Tales of the Unknown” – but the name didn’t stick. So we didn’t have “Tales of the Unknown Volume 2: Destiny Knight.” That title was dropped.

    I had a chuckle over the “final book” getting turned into three books. Anybody NOT see that coming? 🙂 Anyway – yeah, one day I may read the whole series. But there are other series I’m more into. Like a new Miles Vorkosigan novel coming out in just a few weeks!

  • Kylotan said,

    I thought ‘Tales of the Unknown’ was the subtitle for the first in the series? I’m not at home with my cherished 80s games sadly so I can’t check! But I agree; episodic content poses problems for the player, doubly so when you signpost it by way of the title.

    And yeah, the Wheel of Time amazing book expansion could have been seen coming. I just hope Brandon lives long enough to deliver them all!