Last year I attended the Annual Videogame Lecture at BAFTA's swanky central London HQ. The event saw Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux look back over his career in videogames in an effort to contectualise his vision of the medium's future. Rather oddly, that vision involved Coronation Street.
For those of you unfamiliar with British television, Coronation Street is a soap-opera set in working-class northern England. Known to its fans as "Corrie," the show follows the affairs, scandals and sordid daily lives of the street's residents. My wife loves it, as does half the country. Week after week it sits at the top of the viewing figure charts. It has done for 40 years.
However, it's also complete nonsense. Currently, the storyline concerns the aftermath of an underwear factory explosion, where an escaped convict held a woman (who used to be a man) hostage, following a failed attempt to push her husband (who didn't used to be a woman) into the canal. See what I mean?
It is far, far removed from the everyday concern of videogames.
So when Molyneux presented the crowd with a selection of slides detailing his influences, the auditorium was surprised to see a still from Coronation Street projected onto the giant screen behind him. We all laughed.
But he wasn't joking.
Speaking with his usual passion and enthusiasm, Molyneux went on to explain his Corrie fascination, citing the show's ability to reinvent itself night after night and to change, evolve and adapt while remaining essentially the same over the course of four decades. That it has essentially re-sold the same product over and over without demand ever waning didn't escape his attention either. "One of the most successful television shows of all time," he called it, before going on to muse, "what if we did the same thing in videogames?"
Molyneux was talking, of course, about episodic games. They exist already, but it is arguably only the smaller publishers that have perfected the system. The likes of Telltale Games, with their bite-sized point-and-click adventures have adopted episodic gaming in a way that has evaded the likes of Valve, whose Half Life 2 episodes are a failed promise, despite the blistering quality of the actual games.
A big-name publisher with an AAA release has yet to fully come to terms with episodic gaming, at least not Molyneux's vision of it.
Since his lecture that night, Molyneux has experimented with the Corrie-isation of his games, by releasing Fable 2 in downloadable chunks. It's been heralded as a great success. But the game wasn't really created to be chopped up in such a manner. The episodes were cut from the full game according to a predetermined size and length, as opposed to any bespoke design. It was the prototype of Molyneux's model. Fable 3 promises to go a step further.
Speaking earlier today at the Game Horizon conference in Gateshead, England, Molyneux announced the plans for the latest entry to his Action-RPG series. The opening chapter of the game, referred to by Molyneux as the "pilot," will be available for free. It will be one hour of content that will end on a cliffhanger, designed to tease to entice the player to purchase the next chapter. Just like Coronation Street.
It will be the first AAA game developed with the intention of an episodic release, where the next chapter will be available to play not after a two years or a month, but almost immediately.
Fable 3 will also be available as a retail release, as Molyneux believes what he calls "the gift market" is currently too important to loose. But, if the model is successful, expect to see future Lionhead games released purely as downloadable chapters, the production of which will be prepared in advance and only halt when the demand for further episodes drops. It could conceivably continue for years, just as gaming's biggest franchises do, but without the long and costly wait for a sequel. It would be the realisation of Molyneux's vision.
So whether episodic is adopted as a prevalent mainstream publishing method remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain; episodic gaming is on the rise. So if you're sat at a console in the near future and you find yourself in a pantie factory hostage situation, you've got Molyneux - and Coronation Street - to blame.