Welcome to Episodic Content’s 2015 wrap-up. This is the first in what I hope will become an annual tradition—a look back at the content that defined Episodic Content over the past 12 months, and a sneak peek at what’s in store over the next calendar year.
Episodic Content: General Overview
Since 2015 was Episodic Content’s first year of publication, I thought I’d spend a minute discussing the blog’s purpose and goals. My name is David L. Craddock, and I love video games. Playing them is pretty cool, but more than that, I love talking to the wizards behind the curtains of my favorite games. I write books in that vein, such as Stay Awhile and Listen: Book I and Dungeon Hacks, but those books require years of research, interviews, outlining, writing, and revising to come to fruition.
As a complement to said books—and as a way to support myself financially and mentally while I toil away on those larger projects—I decided to start a blog where I could serialize shorter accounts of game development. Enter Episodic Content. Where Stay Awhile Listen was a novel-sized endeavor, the stories I publish on Episodic Content are more like novellas: still rich in content, but with page counts measured in multiples of 10 instead of 100.
Every account you read on Episodic Content is nonfiction. The real deal. To write each story, I talk with as many developers involved in a particular game as possible, and weave their quotes from our interviews through a narrative built from my detailed research and writing style. Stories are published chapter by chapter, week by week, on the blog. Following an indeterminate amount of time after a story has run its course (usually several months) I bundle a story’s chapters together into a cohesive book and publish it electronically for digital platforms like Kindle and iBooks.
Episodic Content is free to read. If you enjoy the stories, please consider chipping in every month through my Patreon, or sending a one-time donation through PayPal. It’s a nice way to show your support of and appreciation for the time and effort I put into researching and writing these stories.
Serialized stories comprise the backbone of Episodic Content, and we came charging out of the gate for our first year. Here are links to our first four complete stories, listed in order of their publication, along with short summaries:
- Angels, Devils, and Boomsticks: The Making of Demons with Shotguns — As a kid, Nicholas DiMucci dreamed of growing up and creating the world’s next mega-best-selling video game. As an adult, he’s got the money for an education and the passion to make his dream come true. There’s just one problem. He’s deathly afraid of math.
- Anything But Sports: The Making of FTL — When industry trends stifled their creativity, Ma and Davis broke away from the pack and invested every last hope, dream, and cent into creating a game they wanted to play.
- Hunting Shadows: The Making of Gabriel Knight — Jane Jensen and other principals involved in the Gabriel Knight trilogy of adventure games give firsthand accounts of how the beloved paranormal investigator modernized the adventure genre by blending character development with mature storylines and brainteasers, elevated the genre to its apogee by combining game development with Hollywood cinematography, and inadvertently triggered the end of the golden age of point-and-click games.
- And Then There Were Two: The Making of Rebel Galaxy — In 1993 and 2000, Erich Schaefer helped spearhead the design of the seminal Diablo and Diablo II hack-and-slash RPGs. In 2005, Travis Baldree created Fate, a colorful homage to Blizzard North’s opuses. The success they enjoyed spurred them to create a litany of spiritual successors over the years that followed. Feeling stagnation creeping in, Erich and Travis left Runic Games, the company they had co-founded with Erich’s brother, and embarked on a journey to create a new type of game—one far removed from sword-and-sorcery exploits.
I considered trying to pick a favorite from the bunch, but I can’t do it. Be they novels, nonfiction tomes the size of Stay Awhile and Listen, magazine articles, or serialized stories like the ones collected on Episodic Content, my writing projects are my babies; asking me to choose a favorite child is like asking an artist to choose his or her favorite color. One sticks out more than others at different times and in different circumstances, but they all play a part.
However, seeing as Episodic Content is predicated on behind-the-scenes stories, I will share some information on how each story came together.
Angels, Devils, and Boomsticks
Angels, Devils, and Boomsticks might be the most unique story I wrote during Episodic Content’s freshman year, in that it chronicles the making of a relatively unknown game, Demons with Shotguns, compared to the likes of FTL and Gabriel Knight. That’s what makes it special to me.
Nick DiMucci, the creator of Demons with Shotguns, is a great guy who I met through Shacknews.com, the online community we both call home. He’s earnest and passionate about games, and he overcame many of the same struggles I had to conquer in my long-ago pursuit of a computer science degree—namely, a crippling fear of math, which I was convinced would hold me back from realizing my dream of programming games.
My dream changed, but Nick’s hasn’t, and he’s worked damn hard to make a go of it, and produced a damn fine game in the process.
Anything But Sports
Every time I set out to write anything more ambitious than a grocery list, I strive to try something new. A new writing voice, a new type of structuring—something that makes a project stand out from the ones that preceded it. Anything But Sports was an experiment in metaphors and juxtaposition for me. Justin Ma and Matt Davis, the creators of FTL, lived in Shanghai, one of the biggest cities in the world, during most of the time they spent developing the game. They left their jobs at 2K, one of the biggest publishers in the world, to create FTL. I thought it would be both fun and appropriate to use Shanghai and some of its smaller, art-focused covens as a metaphor for the videogame industry at large and Ma and Justin’s game, respectively: a tiny passion project developed against the backdrop of a multibillion-dollar industry.
Justin Ma told me, politely, that he wasn’t a huge fan of the metaphor. When I asked him for more feedback, he said he’d talked to other people who like Anything But Sports, and went on to admit that he was simply uncomfortable reading a story about him. And I get that. I can’t read anything I’ve written after I’ve published it; it’s just… weird. It feels narcissistic, and also, it can be embarrassing. I can’t read my first published book (That Which Shall Not Be Named) because… ho, boy, is it ever a first published book. David Brevik, lead designer on Diablo, confessed to me that he shares this affliction. Millions of people around the world herald Diablo as one of the best game ever made; when he plays it, all he sees are warts.
I should mention that Justin was also kind enough to point out some factual errors I made in early drafts of the story, and generously gave his time to help me get them straightened out. I didn’t make these errors in an attempt to sensationalize. My stories are written as literary nonfiction (real stories that read like novels), but I never sex things up on purpose. I just slipped up. It happens! Fortunately, Justin helped me get things back on track.
Some debates define epochs in videogame history. Ask any kid (such as yours truly) who grew up during the 16-bit era, and they’ll regale you with tales of playground battles fought under the banner of Sega or Nintendo. Sierra versus LucasArts is the “16-bit wars” of the adventure boom that hit from the late ’80s through the early ’90s. Although I appreciated LucasArts’ style—and count Full Throttle as one of the best point-and-click games ever made—I fell firmly in the Sierra camp, and the first two Gabriel Knight games were the main reasons why.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was a great game. The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery (aka “GK2”) is perhaps the greatest point-and-click adventure of all time. Bold words, but I won’t take them back. Getting to pick the brains of Jane Jensen, and principals like Will Binder (director, GK2) and Dean Erickson (GK himself in GK2!) was a dream come true. Writing the story of how GK2 and the two games surrounding it was even more surreal, and a total blast.
And Then There Were Two
Erich Schaefer and I go back several years. I’ve been talking to him off and on since 2008, primarily for my Stay Awhile and Listen series of books about Diablo and Blizzard Entertainment/North. I’m not trying to curry favor when I say that Erich is one of my favorite designers in the biz. He’s smart, humble, and blunt—not in a rude way, but in a “the whole truth and nothing but” way that makes my job that much easier.
When I learned he and Travis Baldree had split off from Runic to do their own thing, I knew I had to tell that story. Erich’s been a proponent of smaller team sizes for a couple of decades, now. It was a pleasure to learn what he and Travis managed to create as a team of two: an expansive, breathtakingly beautiful and engrossing space sim.
Stories: Previews for 2016
Stories will remain the centerpiece in Episodic Content’s table setting through 2016 and beyond. Here are some of the stories you can look forward to, none of which have been given proper titles.
The making of…
- Splinter Cell
- Rogue Legacy
- Shovel Knight
- Veil of Darkness
- Dungeon Hunter 1-3
And now, my usual caveat: publishing schedule subject to change. I have a ton of book projects due to publishers in 2016, so I need to keep Episodic Content’s schedule fluid. There may be periods where I’m unable to tend to the blog. However, I plan to do my best to update it regularly. I’m a workaholic, and one of the ways I relax is to shift gears between projects. The stories I reserve for Episodic Content tend to come together fairly quickly, and are perfect for cleansing my palette between largescale projects like Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II and the next installment in Gairden Chronicles.
As I’ve mentioned once or twice, stories take dozens of hours to research and write. To fill the gaps between serialized chapters, I publish interviews with developers and other individuals connected to the games industry—meaning, speed runners, writers, collectors, and anyone else I find interesting. My blog, my rules!
Publishing interviews is easy. I transcribe the interviews, I go through and tidy up ambiguous pronouns and typos, I check facts, I write an intro, and I dump the transcript into Episodic Content’s WordPress interface. Boom. Done.
That’s not to say I don’t put time or effort into the interviews. I do. Transcribing takes lots of time. If you’re not familiar, the rule of thumb (at least in my experience) is that transcribing an audio interview takes approximately 1.5-2x as long as the length of the interview. Some audio files don’t come out clearly, some interviewees don’t speak clearly… Stories take time to write; interviews take time to type out and format.
As much as I enjoy doing the interviews, I’ll probably be cutting down on them in 2016. Quality over quantity. Plus, I need to make room for new types of premium content. Two new types, specifically.
New Content: “Arcade Perfect”
These days, the differences between two versions of the same game are cosmetic. On average, multiplatform games run at higher resolutions and framerates on PS4 than they do on Xbox One. Big deal. I miss the days when two ports of the same game sported differences that couldn’t be summarized in a bullet-point list. New levels! New special moves! Different color palettes!
One of the new columns I’ll be running, Arcade Perfect, provides a rundown of the original version of a game, and then explores how the ports of that game differed from the original in ways both minor and major. I’m really excited about Arcade Perfect. As a gamer who grew up during the heyday of the 8- and 16-bit consoles, deliberating over which version of a game to buy was one of my favorite pastimes. Well, it was stressful back then; 12-year-olds who get paid $30 every two weeks for their paper routes only have so much money to blow on video games, and can’t afford to choose subpar ports. Today, I look back at those debates with nostalgia. Oh, the trials and tribulations of a (pre-)teen who cared more about his videogames than getting a date on Saturday night!
A big part of why I do what I do is because I find technical limitations fascinating. Now that modern consoles have achieved hardware parity in virtually all ways except the superficial, it’s easy to forget how different platforms used to be. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, for example, had legitimate strengths and weaknesses that gave one platform or the other an edge in more than one case.
With any luck, I’ll learn how to create videos and upload them to YouTube, which should give Arcade Perfect higher circulation. I think the option to see the games I scrutinize will drive home the oftentimes night-and-day differences between ports of games bearing the same name.
We’ll dig into some of my favorite games in depth when Arcade Perfect kicks off in early 2016.
New Content: “Sequel-itis” (Name Pending)
One type of article I don’t offer on Episodic Content is the traditional, scale-of-8-to-10 game review. I’ve reviewed and previewed countless games, and frankly, it’s boring. Having to break a game’s good and bad points down into numbers is boring, and soul crushing, and dumb. That said, I’m going to do something similar in Sequel-itis, the second of the two new types of premium content I’ll be introducing in 2016.
I’m big on franchises. Zelda, Mario, Dark Souls, Batman: Arkham, BioShock, Diablo… I love these and other properties, and I love debating the finer points of each installment in a franchise even more. Some games in a series have stronger storylines, while others refine a game system (i.e., a mechanic) that was almost-but-not-quite perfect in previous entries.
I know what you’re thinking: how will Sequel-itis be any different than a review? Like every other type of publication on Episodic Content, Sequel-itis concentrates on game design and culture. Rather than evaluating games based on time-honored and laughably vague categories like graphics and fun factor, my goal with this column will be to perform a deep-dive into each installment of a series, comparing and contrasting shared elements of games within the context of the series’ evolution.
The shared elements placed under the microscope will vary based on each series. Here are examples of some franchises I plan to discuss, and elements that might be evaluated:
- BioShock: fusion of philosophy, world design, and enemy behavior
- “SoulsBorne” (Demon’s/Dark Souls and Bloodborne) series: world design; breadth of gameplay possibilities achieved through weapon selection and build customization
- Mega Man (8-bit style) series: stage design; weapon variety and efficacy
My objective with Sequel-itis isn’t to rank entries in a series, but to discuss my own opinions about the games I love, and why I feel X game system or Y form of storytelling works better in one game over another. Where possible, I’ll try to get developers who worked on one or more of the games to weigh in on how a series evolved from game to game; and like Arcade Perfect, I think a video complement to written Sequel-itis articles makes sense… provided I can find my way around recording and editing software.
Kinda-New Content: Podcast
Binging on Serial and lots of audiobooks in 2015 opened my eyes (and ears) to how much I enjoy listening to stories. When I exercise, when I run errands, and when I’m just too busy to sit down and read words, I can listen to them. I’d like to extend that same opportunity to Episodic Content’s growing base of readers.
Here’s how I see podcasts working. Once a story is set in stone, I’ll record my narration, omitting quotes from developers. Conducting interviews over Skype provides me with clear audio files; using timestamps, I can splice developer quotes into my narration, letting you hear behind-the-scenes anecdotes and tidbits straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. It’ll be like Serial, but with less murder! I hope.
The first Episodic Content ‘Cast will feature my reading of And Then There Were Two, replete with quotes from my interviews with Erich Schaefer and Travis Baldree. Please bear with me as I set about learning… pretty much everything there is about producing, uploading, and providing a podcast. I don’t have a home studio. I’m a writer, not a professional podcaster or YouTube/Twitch streamer. I’m excited to learn all this stuff, but it’ll take time. I think the effort will pay off, though.
Those of you who still prefer to read stories, don’t fret: you’ll still find them on Patreon, the blog, and, eventually, as standalone eBooks.
Although Episodic Content’s audience is still small, the blog is growing. I received excellent feedback on several stories, saw stories being shared across social media, and have been given encouragement to keep on keeping on. 2015 was a great first year for the blog; with your help, I hope to make 2016 even better.
Thanks for taking the time to read this update. I love to write, I love games, and I hope those passions shine through every word of mine you read… on those subjects. Any other context would be inappropriate.
Happy reading, and happy gaming,
~David L. Craddock
Choose Your Destiny