Saturday, January 06, 2007

Short and Sweet

The official reviews of Sam & Max’s second episode are in. I didn’t review it after I played it mostly because I was busy, but also because I played it back in December, via GameTap, before it became widely available. I’m in pretty good agreement with the reviews that I’ve read (link, link, and pdf – near the end): the game is a good second episode, and fans of the series will like it. It is noticeably easier to solve the puzzles, which fit together a bit more loosely, allowing for better casual play. The dialog is, if anything, better than the first episode, tapping further into the odd wit and dry surreality of Purcell’s world.

If you don’t know what to expect, the first two episodes of Sam & Max are:

  • Short – 2 to 4 hours of gameplay, including hearing all of the banter and descriptions, depending on your speed of play
  • Casual – Easy to play (one-button), easy to understand (clear interface), easy to solve (light puzzles)
  • Wacky – They are, after all, Freelance Police

This all well and good, but the question remains: are they worth the money? Let’s do some comparison and analysis to find out.

Money Talks

Let’s compare the cost per episode for Sam & Max to other available episodic content. It took me 3 hours to complete the last episode, sucking as much entertainment value as I could from the game, and without getting stuck for more than 10 minutes (twice, I think). The cost: $9 USD. This gives us $3/hour of entertainment. If we get a season pass ($35 USD), and assume that all the episodes will give us about the same amount of play time, totaling 36 hours (the first was about 3-4 hours, I didn’t play it in one sitting), we wind up with $1.94/hour.

So what do we have to compare it with? iTunes sells episodes of television at $2 USD, which amounts to 44 minutes of entertainment, usually. DVD collections usually clock in at about $2 per episode as well, and some animated stuff is only 22 minutes per episode.

An episode of Sam & Max, based on play time, is equivalent to 3 or 4 episodes of hour-long TV drama. The cost is roughly equivalent to what you would pay for a season of your favorite show on DVD. The price seems right to me. Cheaper actually, as 24 episodes of television is only 18 hours.

Timing is Everything

So what about the release schedule? So far, there have been 2 episodes. There was a gap of 2 months between the pilot and the second episode. The intended schedule now is to release the remaining 4 episodes once every month. At the equivalent entertainment time of 3-4 hour long TV episodes (commercials do not count as entertainment), this would be the close to the one episode per week format of most shows. Especially since many primetime shows produce 22 to 26 episodes to show over 32+ weeks, leaving the occasional programming gap. Except for winding up with all of your entertainment time bunched into a single session (or a couple of shorter ones), this seems timed right to me.

It’s All What You Like

This leaves a final question: is time spent playing a game as entertaining as watching television?

If it isn’t, then why are you playing? Some people like to watch comedy, some drama, some romance. Some like to play platformers, or shmups, or shooters, or MMOGs, or adventure games. If you don’t like the format, then the entertainment is never going to engage you. You can’t force someone to like a show; all you can do is offer it to them.

Rent Control

This leaves a final comparison. Thanks to a plethora of rental options, I can watch all the TV on DVD I want for much cheaper than the purchase price. I use the Canadian equivalent of NetFlix to rent and watch a whole lot of movies, many of which I may never own. What equivalents are there for games? I can see two clear options:

If episodic content starts to show up on consoles – perhaps delivered via online services like Live – then collections of these episodes would likely become available through the traditional disc formats as well. These would be just as rentable as DVDs.

Subscription game services, like GameTap, provide a single monthly cost to play any of their available games. This includes all past and current episodic content. The concept is very similar to a subscription rental service, but the games are available immediately (pending a download) and you can “check out” as many as your hard drive can hold without having to return them between.

Telltale’s Got It

I don’t know if someone at Telltale did this math when they were laying out the overall plan for Sam & Max. I don’t know if being comparable in price, length, and schedule to existing episodic formats mattered to them when they laid out their business plan. All I know is that Telltale has worked out a system that, to me, is just as valuable as TV. They have also married it to a story that suits the format. I continue to look forward to the rest of Sam & Max Season 1, and I have high hopes episodic games in general.

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