Content Held For Ransom

by Christopher David Lawton

KQ1“I just don’t like the idea of my content being held for ransom,” I say, our conversation approaching an end.

“Well, that’s up to you,” she replies, effectively ending it.

The topic of our conversation is the upcoming release of King’s Quest, the latest entry in the classic point-and-click game series, and one of the games I’ve been fairly excited about this year. This new King’s Quest game is episodic, as are many adventure games these days, and the first episode is set to drop tomorrow. This morning, though, we’re talking about whether or not I will be buying it when it does drop.

It isn’t that I don’t want the game, by any means. I’ve been playing the King’s Quest series for most of my life, King’s Quest VI remains one of my top ten games of all time, and everything I’ve seen of this game looks like a fantastic return to the Kingdom of Daventry. I am excited to play it at some point. The question at hand is whether or not I’ll be playing it tomorrow. My wife and I are working very hard to pay off debt right now, and part of working hard to pay off debt is being very meticulous with our budget. While there is an opportunity to occasionally bend the rules for a cup of coffee or a snack, we usually don’t make purchases without at least running it by the other to ensure that we’re both on the same page. It’s kept us in the black for the three years of our marriage, and it’s enabled us to pay off quite a bit of debt in that time. Point is, I haven’t purchased a game on release date in a few years, and the new King’s Quest is the first one I’m considering.

It’s the nostalgia, man. The nostalgia has me by the short hairs.

My issue is not the episodic thing. I get the episodic thing, and I support the episodic thing. With an episodic release, everyone benefits. Players can enjoy these classic niche game as sections are completed, developers can take a little more time developing each section, and publishers don’t have to lay down all the money at once for an entire game. Many of these games are only going to appeal to a certain group of gamers, which invariably creates risk. Releasing the game episodically helps offset that risk for everyone involved. Everyone wins in this scenario.

My issue is how Sierra is handling this particular episodic venture. To understand the following, I need to drop a little bit of knowledge regarding “genre.” When we traditionally think of “genre,” we think of the type of game: action, sports, RPG, etc. Genre is more complex than that, though. By definition, genre is simply a type of classification, complete with rules that define that classification. For example, there are rules that define what makes a sports game a sports game. If you change those rules, it becomes a different genre. Likewise, there are rules that make a video game a video game. If it doesn’t fit within those rules, it becomes a different genre of media. Using this definition, “episodic” is a genre, and as such, there are rules that define what an “episodic” game is. I would argue that the rules that define an episodic game include (naturally) episodes, but I think it goes deeper than that. As I mentioned above, I think one of the defining aspects of the episodic genre is that the player has options in how he or she consumes the content.

Now, like most episodic games, King’s Quest does provide customers with options. They can buy each episode for $9.99, or they can buy the “Complete Edition” for $39.99, which includes all five chapters as they’re released, along with an exclusive playable epilogue. It’s that last component that concerns me. Per the game’s description, only those who purchase the complete edition will have access to the epilogue, and those who don’t… won’t.

Now, I understand the idea of rewarding those who get fully on-board at the beginning. Many episodic games do this by providing art books and wallpapers and other fun prizes for investing in an entire chunk of episodes before they’re released. However, King’s Quest is the first major episodic release — at least that I can find — to actually make story content the prize for investing in the entire chunk. To me, this is akin to releasing two editions of movie, and only putting the end of the movie on the super special edition Blu-Ray. If you bought the regular version, your movie cuts off ten minutes from the end. Does Indiana Jones escape with the holy grail and save Papa Jones’s life? Guess you’ll never know. You should have ponied up.

I’m being a little overdramatic, perhaps. I’ll admit it. I don’t know how long the epilogue is. I don’t know what it adds to the story. I just know that it’s gameplay I won’t get to play, and narrative that I won’t get to experience, unless I pay the $40 bucks upfront, even though in doing so, I will only get 1/5th of the game right off the bat. I’m paying full-price for 1/5 of the game, with the remaining chapters to be delivered to me at some point over the next 18 months.

KQ2Now, as I mentioned a little earlier, one of the defining rules for the genre of episodic games is that inherent within the genre is a system that offsets risk for all parties involved. However, in this case, it feels like the balance shifts a bit. The developers can still take their time with each piece, and the producers still don’t have to pony up all the money at once. But, the players? The players get screwed. Yes, we can still pay for each piece of the game as before, but we’re punished for doing so. We don’t lose out on little extras, like development art or a soundtrack. No, we lose out on story content.

It feels like they’re holding content for ransom.

Now, I don’t want to tell Sierra how to sell their product. It is their product to sell, and they can sell it how they wish. It just feels like a misunderstanding of how the episodic system is supposed to work. They want the sales, but they don’t want to do the work ahead of time. It feels like a betrayal of the unspoken agreement that we all enter with episodic games. Actually, I think it’s more than that. This new iteration of Sierra is a division of Activision, which makes the whole issue a little clearer. This sounds exactly like a big corporation’s idea of how it thinks the episodic system should work. Low risk for them, and them alone.

Again, overdramatic? Perhaps, but I don’t think I’m off-base.

I have a number of issues with this. For starters, I don’t care for purchasing games that don’t exist yet. While I understand that the main components have probably been completed, who knows if I’ll ever get to play them? Activision only recently re-established Sierra. Who’s to say that they don’t de-establish them in a month or two? Yes, chances are that won’t happen, but stranger things have happened in the video game industry. If you’re asking me to invest in something this far in advance, I better have some form of guarantee that you’re going to go the distance. This is similar to my issues with Kickstarter, but even with Kickstarter, the risk is part of the equation. If you choose to invest in a campaign, you do so knowing full well the risk involved.

We’re dealing with different rules here.

Additionally, how do I know that I’m going to even want to play the rest of the chapters? Again, games like these are niche games. They only appeal to a certain group of gamers. Now, as a long-time fan of the series, I’m probably much more likely to buy the entire series because of nostalgia, but there’s risk even there. This is the first King’s Quest game not designed by Roberta Williams, who has long since retired from making games. What guarantee do I have that I’m even going to enjoy this new iteration? Yes, this is a common risk in video games, and one that has burned me in the past. But, we’re dealing with a genre of game here: episodic. And one of the defining aspects of this genre is a low risk for all parties. In this case, though, again, the player either buys into the whole package at the beginning, or he or she misses out on content.

This stuff just boils my blood, I guess.

I don’t know where this leaves me. I’ll probably still buy the Complete Edition despite my frustrations and/or reservations. That probably makes me a hypocrite, but that’s an issue for an entirely different post I guess. King’s Quest has been too important to my childhood to pass up the opportunity for a new entry into the series. I just hope this isn’t a sign of things to come for episodic content. It can be a fantastic way to ease a niche game into a market that may or may not support a full-scale release, and I’m sure it will exist in some form going into the future. I just don’t like to see the player screwed in the process.