In a little ballyhooed interview recently, Gabe Newell, the head honcho behind Valve, stated that the company will be supporting their games post-release by including updates which are substantially smaller than the previous episodic content. The move, which was apparently inspired by the TF2 team’s continual work with the community, won’t mean the end of large releases, but it does mean that Valve will be producing more frequent DLC for its future titles. Although in some ways this is a rather innocuous piece of news, it also speaks very powerfully to a number of ways the video game industry is evolving, both for better and, possibly for worse.
First, it’s probably best to take a look at how exactly we’re defining episodic content and why it is falling by the wayside. Although it has existed since the beginning of PC gaming thanks to expansion packs, episodic content in its current form is a relatively new concept. Following in the footsteps of .hack, Valve’s Half Life 2 was the first major release to make waves as a game with episodic follow-ups. Not only did the initial game sell like hot cakes, both of the subsequent episodes sold well and demonstrated that there was serious potential for AAA games to be supported episodically.
From there, other developers and publishers started to join in and release episodic titles with serious success: Rockstar released a set of two episodic games to go along with GTA IV and TellTale Games founded an entire company on episodic adventure games. The idea is the thanks to shorter development cycles and lower production costs, companies can churn out episodic games with less risk and have happier developers in the process.
At the same time as episodic games were beginning to gain serious acceptance, microtransactions were beginning to pick up steam on Xbox LIVE, resulting in effectively two separate ways to add-on content. Although they’re much maligned, the fact that Valve is willing to move away from large episodes and towards smaller, microtransaction-esque, releases shows that the gap between those types of add-on: the episodic single player and the small microtransaction, has been closed. In effect, we’re in the process of reaching a true a la carte game experience, and it will be interesting to see how different companies attempt to leverage this fact (hopefully there are fewer overpriced map packs and more legit DLC). However, the fact that the content is becoming smaller, rather than bigger, indicates that the microtransaction is the most economical method for developers to support their game.
However, that’s only part of what’s happening with this announcement, the far more interesting is the reason that Valve decided to make the switch: to be able to quickly respond to information they gather from users. While this sounds quite good in theory, it hints at the beginnings of metrics based gaming starting to take legitimate hold in the mainstream video game industry. For those of you who don’t know about metrics based gaming, it’s the idea that companies use the actions that players do in-game to reinforce and tweak gameplay to provide reinforce certain behaviors (read: playing the game more).
While on one hand this is awesome(who here doesn’t love themselves a good game of Farmville?), but on the other it presents a very dangerous and slippery slope. After all, if all you’re doing is changing a tried and true gameplay philosophy then the only possible result will be more of the same. This works for a while (hiya Call of Duty, which is still fun), but unless someone is willing to change the formula then it will become stale.
Now, it doesn’t make sense to run around in fear that Valve will stop producing good games, that’s just utter bollocks, they’re still the best developers in the world. Similarly, the fact that they said they’re still working on large scale AAA projects means that the quality games will be a long time coming out of the prolific developers. However, when taken together with many other things happening in the industry, Valve’s decision to go this route is indicative of a disconcerting shift that many developers and publishers are embarking on.