Creating an original IP is a challenge for anyone. Creating an original IP with a junior team and extremely limited funding is a life-or-death challenge.
The first obstacle you need to solve is how much content you can make. If you have a 10-hour story planned but only have enough money to create two hours of content, an episodic approach sounds like a smart way to go. Essentially, we are talking about making a pilot – except instead of trying to sell your show to a television network, you are trying to sell it directly to the viewers.
In TV, most pilots are never publicly screened if they fail to sell the series to a network. This means that the production quality is lower than it would be in the initial series. This does not apply to episodic games. A new indie studio cannot publish a half-done title and hope that someone might pick it up. Players have more games available to them than ever before and the quality from triple-A to small-scale indies is constantly rising. So developers need to give that pilot episode everything they have.
Since the public rarely sees a pilot on TV before the show has been greenlit, there isn’t a need to market it as a whole to the viewers. In games, very few are going to spend their hard-earned bucks to buy a game that ends in a cliffhanger and might never continue. This is why you need to plan ahead how many episodes a season will have. If you don’t have the money upfront to make them all, make sure you promise at least a conclusion to the story.
"Making a good pilot, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best is not enough."
Our initial plan was to launch five episodes of The Detail. The first episode launched in late October 2014 and the second in late May 2015. There was a half-a-year window between them. The simple reason for this was that we had some overly optimistic expectations for the sales of the first episode. Once the harsh reality hit us, we had to have some temporary lay-offs and wait until the sales were enough to pay for the second episode. It was done in 10 weeks, with all the revenues being paid as salaries to the employees.
The episode itself wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as the first one. This brings us to the next pitfall. If it takes you forever – six months in this industry – you must deliver an episode that raises the expectations for the rest of the season. We barely managed to make it over the fence. There was a slight, temporary increase in sales with the launch of the second episode, but that died down soon.
We had to do something. The first two episodes had actually sold over 100,000 copies at this point, but most of them were sold during Steam sales. The figures sounded nice but the revenue was actually pretty low. It cost the team $40,000 to make the second episode and we barely made that back.
As a business case, The Detail wasn’t capable of sustaining the company. Canceling the show was the only option on the table. Thankfully, we had taken precautions right from the beginning, selling the series pay-per-episode instead of the more traditional season pass model.
Before we made any ill-judged announcements about canceling the series after two episodes, we started to think about the ramifications it would have. This was our first product. Canceling it
mid-story meant that we would have been one of those TV networks that just look at the numbers and forget about the fans. After all, in the games industry it is the fans who make the difference between success and failure.
We decided to do one final episode for The Detail’s first season, cutting down the planned five-episode arc to just three. Another 10 weeks and $40,000 later, we launched the third episode.
Now we have an episodic game in the market, a complete product instead of a partial will-this-ever-be-finished season. Yes, it could have been better. Yes, it could have come out in a much tighter schedule. But let’s look at the benefits it has. First, now we can market it as a complete game. Secondly, the quality and visual style of our narrative has opened some extremely interesting opportunities. Finally, we gave the fans a conclusion to the major plot lines. If the game breaks even in the next 12 months, it’s not a bad debut, even financially.
There is one major lesson to be learned from our endeavors in episodic gaming: the so-called ‘Friday night death slot’. The term refers to a graveyard slot in American television, which condemned to death most of the shows aired during it.
As a small indie studio making episodic series based on your own IP, that is your slot. Just merely making a good pilot, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best is not enough. You need to stand out. You need marketing. You need to deliver episodes at a steady pace. Still, at the end of the day, you might need to cut your losses and try something different.
So, make sure you are ready to fight for those few viewers; they are all you’ll have in the beginning.