micro episodic game design

I've been pondering whether it would be possible to produce a game in the idiom of a web comic, which is to say, three updates a week or more, with one or two authors.

At first glance it looks really, really hard. With a traditional (static) web comic it's pretty easy to put a number on how long it takes to produce each update. An hour to brainstorm the joke, an hour to sketch it out and complete the planning, and maybe a few hours to implement.

With a micro-episodic game, your players are supposed to come back every other day and play a little bit more, right? Is it possible to develop fun/deep gameplay, without driving away your audience? The average web comic audience, after all, only needs about 10 seconds to grok your latest update; value is delivered over a span of weeks, or during long binges as a new reader plows through the archives. Your game needs to stand up to both modes of play.

With a traditional game, value is delivered primarily through the novelty of the gameplay or the puzzle.
Comics tend to be character driven, and a good comic can coast for a while with no plot at all if the audience is invested in the characters. A game would need to capture that level of good-will. People need to want to come back each time to see what happens next.

Assuming you can solve that problem, you immediately hit another problem. In a comic, if a reader doesn't get or like a particular panel, they can skip it. A micro-episodic game would need to be very careful to not throw up any roadblocks for players. If players can get stuck and become frustrated, you have no audience.

In order for the game to be meaningful, there have to be choices. But in order for the micro-episodic format to function, each update has to be applicable to every player, regardless of their previous choices.

Web comics are not very bug-prone. A micro-episodic game certainly sounds very bug-prone. The game design and tech design would need to be very defensive and robust.

So. Like I said it looks really really hard.

Perhaps obviously, I'm looking at things like homestarrunner.com and mspaintadventures.com for comparison and inspiration. Those two sites are very successful at delivering many semi-interactive experiences on a regular schedule. Are there others I'm unaware of? Actually, I'm not sure I want to know. I like to jump into things like this without doing a lot of research first, because research tends to be depressing. ;-)

The game that's taking shape starts off very, very simply. It uses a character that grows as you make choices, in response to your choices, and you grow your character over the entire span of the game. The essential mechanic is navigation, you have to navigate to the next screen. Maybe the front edge of the game is always a "loading" screen which means that you're at latest. Probably you can navigate backwards and reverse (some of?) your choices to explore other options. There's a "reference" save game that anyone can use to jump into the game at the latest point. Maybe it's pulled from the community, maybe not. Or maybe that's not necessary, or maybe only at the start of chapters. We progress from blank screens to mazes to simple choices to character development, and as we go we introduce game mechanics that will stick around for the rest of the game.

Advanced ideas:
* navigation from late in the game back to early screens
* massively multiplayer
* time travel, revisiting old locations
* community driven content generation
* algorithmic/interactive content generation

Sounds fun. And still really really hard.


  1. "In a kid's yard, a tree without a tire swing is like a proper gentleman without a monocle. That is to say, HE CAN HARDLY BE CONSIDERED A TERRIBLY PROPER GENTLEMAN AT ALL." So true.

    I can imagine a simple DAG-structured (directed acyclic graph---wait, scratch that, it could have cycles if the player gets stuck... ha ha!) (or tree-structured?) version of something like mspaintadventures.com where the game is only semi-interactive and the gameplay is very limited in terms of "items" "state" "goodies", etc. but the real game is strictly meta-game: Discovering/Mapping all the hidden URLs/links/actions/click targets (actually obfuscated javascript would make this harder to machine-mine exhaustively :-). In otherwords, a game entirely made of easter eggs (with no losing states and users can bookmark all states they've ever Discovered). And some easter eggs would be dead ends on the tree and you just hit the back button and get back on the main trunk. (In fact, the auto-Mapping feature could be a user-friendly interface widget thing that may even explicit and sometimes give hints to undiscovered states? and allows comments like a blog? Perhaps only shared with other users of level N - 1 so as not to give away too much?)

    The idea of writing/creating a web comic with an adventure-game component never occurred to me but now that you mention it (and I see mspaintadventure.com) it seems totally natural and frankly like a submarine method to get OCD non-gamers or casual gamers like myself into it---I have to read it all! I have to consume it all!

    Anyway I don't know that this is as hard as it sounds when the game state is almost completely stripped away and the entire graph of game states == URLs... BECOMES the gameplay: compulsive web surfing on crack. Basically just Reward users for bad strategy and for going down bad paths, for entertainment value. You could even track the percentage of the game graph they have "discovered" (see aforementioned auto-map/tree interface idea). So yeah, the game would be its own walkthrough (like finding/looking up/watching easter eggs in homestar runner animations). In fact, maybe the gameplay would be social where players get points for being the first to unlock certain sub-graphs (secret episodes, etc.) It might discourage new players who haven't read the entire archive since they will never reach the HEAD (new content) but a clever way to "change the game" so to speak is to add new branches to old storylines and let the newcomers be the first to stumble on those (and force old-timers to come back)? Like in HRwiki where the Chaps brothers goof, it gets wikified, and then Bros Chaps re-post a video with the fix.

    So something like Wikipedia (but with a more focused community like Stack Overflow or Metafilter) meets Web Comic meets Adventure Game meets Google Reader (for sharing, starring, commenting, marking as read). Could be highly addictive.

    Crucial to the game is the Map/Navigation widget which would basically encompass the "read" state of all "rooms" (whether this user/browser has read/watched this, etc.). Think about Homestarrunner.com. It would be kind of nice to have had a system all these years for each user/reader/viewer to mark each video as "read". I would have used it all these years.

    Idea: when users get enough reputation (from advancing, discovering and sharing game tree/graph branches, or whatever) they could gain Creative/Modifier powers and be allowed to add new content (like Stack Overflow rep allowing editing of arbitrary posts) for others to Discover, gain rep, and grow the game universe economy.

    We should chat this up in person.

  2. Oh my did I just accidentally introduce you to mspaintadventures? That site stole like 3 or 4 work days from me when I first found it.

    Also, great ideas. I think you're right that navigation widgets could be crucially important, especially for a heavily branched game. I was trying to figure out how to avoid branching, but you lay out a compelling case that it could be done well if you take an rss reader approach to your auto-mapping...

    The first two MSPA adventures follow a more branching pattern, but he moves away from that pretty quickly as he starts up Problem Sleuth, and more towards a single narrative. I can see that devoting a lot of time to updates on multiple branches would be really difficult, if you're trying to maintain forward momentum on the main plot/mechanic.

    But yeah I'd love to talk this over with you, we could sketch up some good stuff.