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Episodic games. They typically refer to that genre that basically is Telltale Games, but us Otaku have been familiar with them for years in the form of episodic visual novels. Is there a problem with this type of staggered release? Well, today on The Anime Harvest, I’m going to say yes (oh, spoiler aler- damn, too late).

Youtuber Blunty posted a short video about this two weeks ago, which is probably worth watching. I agree with the gist of what he says about the release schedule of Telltale’s games, but am not whole heartily behind him. In brevity, I haven’t seen the issues with the Telltale engine he talks about (though I’ve only looked at their The Walking Dead series, which has a bit of an awkward visual style anyway), and I think he compares games to TV too much. While the term “episodic”, used in the context of these games, clearly has origins not completely separate from television, the use of the word does not discount the fact that videogames and TV are completely different mediums.

All that being said, would a more planned and predictable release schedule be beneficial to the industry on both the consumer and producer sides? Do hens wear ties? Yes!

In a superficial attempt to pretend I’m not completely ripping off someone else’s video, I’m not going use Telltale as an example, partly because I’ve never actually played their games first hand. Besides, a far more egregious example, in my opinion, is the current release of the Higurashi– Hey, hey, stop complaining. Look, I’ve got five more volumes to go in my episodic notes, so this place will be Higurashi ridden for a few more weeks anyway. After that, no more Higurashi! It’ll be Umineko!

After smoothly recovering from that tangent, I wonder when Higurashi Watanagashi-hen will be released. On May 15th of this year, MangaGamer, a small publishing company that translates visual novels, released the first chapter of an updated version of the Higurashi visual novel series, with the promise that thirteen more would follow as they are translated. In the nearly five months since then, the second chapter still has not been released, or even been given a release date. If you dig around their website, you will eventually find they give project status in their staff blog (http://blog.mangagamer.org/project-status/), and Watanagashi-hen is just about done, but even if it comes out tomorrow this development time has been absurd, especially considering they’re just translating the thing.

Before this, the first chapter of the visual novel had its own issues. While it’s hard to find detailed dates now, I remember around November or December of last year, release dates were repeatedly pushed back until MangaGamer just labeled it “coming soon,” and stayed silent for months. Delays aren’t uncommon in the games industry, and typically a development time of five months would be incredible, but for an episodic game, this is unacceptable.

When you buy the first part a story driven episodic game or visual novel, largely what you are buying is a promise, that the rest of the story will eventually be made available. On its own, chapter one of Higurashi, Onikakushi-hen, has next to zero value. It is one small part of a much larger story, and if you don’t get to complete that story, it’s about as good as the first chapter cut out of a novel. People buy each chapter because they’re interested in buying the next chapter, but the next one has to be released within a reasonable amount of time.

I’m not saying episodic games should be released on a TV-like schedule; TV schedules are largely obsolete, constrained to an arbitrary time frame, and need to be released week by week for the practical concern of filling their timeslot. Frankly, we’re better off now that largely independent content creators are redefining the model online by producing content that’s as long or short as it needs to be, and releasing on what they believe is the optimal schedule for their particular work. That said, what we’re seeing here is an example on the opposite extreme, and it shouldn’t be done.

When I say a reasonable amount of time, I don’t mean an arbitrary number of days or weeks; I mean not five damn months. At least not in this case. Different mediums have different demands and different life cycles –movies need, and can remain relevant in people’s minds for, a year or two between releases, books too– but for these kinds of episodic works, games, I’d say a month, two tops. They’re not particularly long, typically require the player/reader to remember details, and almost always have flags (decision points for branching paths) which are very important for the player to remember. A release gap of more than a couple months is too much time for the player to forget these things, and jeopardizes their experience.

In the case of Higurashi, where MangaGamer has promised fourteen chapters, five months per chapter means a total release span of nearly six years; over three years for just the eight core chapters. And people are supposed to buy the beginning now, on the promise that the end will be out in 2018? And that’s if they’re even still interested, and MangaGamer hasn’t dropped the project. In the less than a year since I first touched anything Higurashi related, I’m already almost burnt out on the stuff!

I know that the original release of these same eight arcs took four years, and after a couple hours I even figured out that four is more than three; I understand that proper production times sometimes need to be a lot longer than proper release schedules, and that no one is going to dedicate years of their life to a project without getting any feedback or gauging consumer interest just so it can all be released at once. Hell, I myself am working on my second Bannedstory project right now, and will the first part be released before the whole things done? Well before. Will it be released before the second or third parts are done? Before the planning and character designs are done? Do yandere maintain healthy relationships? No. No they don’t. I need less otaku rhetorical questions…

Mediums that have this ideal-production-time ideal-release-schedule disparity generally don’t succeed, and it’s amazing the episodic visual novel market has managed it. When you do face this problem, you have to manage your releases responsibly, and MangaGamers “release them as soon at they’re ready” approach just doesn’t cut it. If it really takes this long to translate, then they should hold off on releasing chapters while still working, and reduce the release gap between each of them. That is, if it really takes this long to translate.

Localization is an underappreciated and too often criticised art, but, in the case of a pretty direct translations like Higurashi (this isn’t 4kids, having to bring in artists to take out all the guns, or trying to pretend onigiri don’t exist; MangaGamer knows its English audience can pick up on Japanese cultural elements and wordplay), it really shouldn’t take this long. As I said, MangaGamer is a small company, and they don’t put all their resources into any one project. Going by the project status page I mentioned earlier, it looks like Higurashi is just one of sixteen projects they are currently actively working on. But even if this is the fastest they can possibly finish chapters, it’s not the fastest it can be done. As I said, the first chapter of this series was a promise that the rest of the story will be made available within a reasonable amount of time. If MangaGamer cannot fulfill this promise to everyone who already gave them money for a yet incomplete experience, they should not have made it by selling the first chapter. They should not be the company responsible for publishing this; they should have left it to someone who can get it done.

For an episodic game, the release schedule can be a core part of the experience. A little down time between chapters is good, but too much ruins engagement and retention of the story. Release schedules can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be handled in the haphazard way we keep seeing, where publishers and developers announce they’re doing something, and they’ll just release each part when they get around to it. It requires planning, communicating with your audience so they know when to expect the next part, and putting in a little bit more of the work before you start getting the money.

At the beginning I said that this would be better for both the consumer and producer side of the market, but so far I’ve only really talked about things publishers and creators can do to help buyers. Well, that does help both sides of the market. I’m an idiot, and a hypocrite, and despite all the criticism I’ve made about the Higurashi release, am I going to get Watanagashi-hen when it does come out? Does Full Metal Panic need another sea- err, yes. Yes I am. But is anyone going to still be interested in three years from now? Six years? Are those who are interested going to bother waiting for these official translations? No. they’ll pirate a fan translation, or watch a let’s play, or just get bored and forget about the whole thing. And that’s a really big problem for episodic content, because episode two never outsells episode one. Once an episodic game gets its fan base, it needs those fans to keep coming back. So releasing episodes on a reasonable schedule would help both sides of the market.

Don’t Lose Your Way