Will you pay $2 to kiss a game character? 'Episode: Choose your Story' - The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.
Originally featured on Gamasutra
Mobile gaming market is flooded with RPG, Strategy, Match3, Infinite runners, card gathering. But time to time some new genres stand out.
Riding high on the US app store chart is a new genre which is bridging the gap between storybooks, games & time-shifted TV.
At first glance, 'Episode -Choose your Story' seems like a more evolved successor to the narration based Hollywood Kim Kardashian game, but it's clearly on to something else..
The interactive story-telling platform is fast transitioning into time-shifted TV format than a game and has a large female audience; and fan following among tweens, teens and moms.
Browsing through the app/game feels like looking at content on Netflix or Hulu where you see slick, polished posters of different drama series and episodes ranging from mystery, murder, adventure, romance to other young adult themes.
Browsing and selection of UI is similar to popular media and video consumption platforms like HULU and NETFLIX (as seen below) which resonates with most young players existing mental model - of how to consume this content - and creates a strong mental model of time shifted media content rather then just a game or interactive comics.
It is interesting that the UX/UI is designed more closely to resemble a " time-shifted" media consumption platform rather then game UI or comic browsing apps.
Progressing through a story episode is quiet simple. Just select a story episode, keep tapping and when a branching point occurs in the story flow, advance ahead based on choices made by the player. One story can have multiple episodes, like a series season, which require you to earn/purchase passes to watch them.
Why is this format such a hit?
It seems to tap into an existing & ever growing millennial mental model: Time-shifting TV
Time-Shifting: Traditionally is the recording of (TV) programming to a storage medium to be viewed or listened to after the live broadcasting. Typically, this refers to TV programming but can also refer to radio shows via podcasts.
This is a growing trend among millennials and trailing millennials.
Consuming narration based media content shifting on mobile amongst teens
On-demand consumption of such media & ability to control (play, pause, share)
Quick binge watching of 2-3 episodes at each sitting
Drama, mystery, romance, murder themes that act as driving force
Episodes app seems to be incorporating all these key attributes very well.
Flow of the actual content is quiet similar to chatting apps such as Snapchat, What's app, Instagram and Facebook with short dialogues formats rather than long form text found in books. This resonates with the smartphone users today and young audiences who spend a majority of their time reading and writing short form messaging on day-to-day basis.
Tweens are not averse to reading. They engage heavily in all sorts of short form textual consumption on a daily basis.
Content is pacey, the stories move quiet fast. Themes are designed around contemporary issues & lifestyle of tweens and young adults.
Captivating branded & non-branded storylines
Thought provoking hedonic LGBT content
Themes - romance, mystery, murder, sex genres
Visuals - fashionable, trendy, suggestive, chic
High Investment in User Generated Content & Prosumer Model
Developer is pretty serious about integrating UGC. It is apparent in the sophisticated editor built by them in order to encourage players to write and design their own stories and not too much effort on publisher's backend to integrate them within their eco-system. This turns the consumers in to the producers or Prosumer.
Investment in live-op tools & ability to push content on the fly is highly sought after by all developers today, & is regarded essential for content pipeline.
Episode site actively promotes player participation and encourages them to write content:
Players can create online account and have access to a powerful content creation online tool as seen below:
Java script and HTML based editor with ability to add animations, characters, error handling!
This online editor is one of the most robust & extensive set of tools any mobile developer can provide for content creation to it's player base!
Developers seem to be popularising this format as they recently launched a "Payments" option for their top writers who may be high social influencers in being able to drive large volume of players to their content and app.
This investment seems to be required, to cope with content burn-down. As despite replays most stories can be consumed quickly in binge gameplay for most engaged players.
However, even though the use of prosumer model is quiet interesting and seems widely successful here, there could be a downside to this. How? We will see below.
Monetisation has some..
Questionable & seemingly amoral, hard currency gates?
The game has two hard currencies: Gems and Passes
Gems - Used for in-game sinks mainly at story branching points, crucial decision making, buying dresses etc.
Passes - Used for unlocking subsequent episodes in a story chain. They also act as energy mechanics earned over a cool-down period to avoid rapid content burn down which can also be purchased from the store by engaged players.
One advantage of Passes as energy mechanics is that while the player is waiting for a pass to unlock the next episode of the story they are currently watching, they can start watching a different brand new episode. This way player is encouraged to pursue multiple stories at the same time. The Game also shows you occasional ads that cannot be skipped.
However it is the nature of hard currency sinks which can raise eyebrows.
Stories began with asking players for their Sexual Orientation which will play a deep role in shaping up the unfolding story:
From a pure UX perspective, there are few strong concerns and suggestions here:
Adapting UX for Cultural Sensitivity:
Having worked on IP's and games that have been launched globally in multiple geographies across the world, one thing to be very careful about is cultural sensitivity; things like colours, phrases, content can have different context and acceptance across geographies. What may be amusing or acceptable in one culture may turn out to be offensive in another.
LGBT themes, unfortunately, for the time-being have different level of tolerance across countries & cultures. High acceptance in certain western countries but extremely low tolerance in many eastern countries.
While I tested the app in New Zealand store (where acceptance is high), I am not aware if there is a different sensitivity or filter setting in countries which are not so tolerant.
Good UX needs to ensure that players with different cultural background see content which they don't find sensitive or offensive. This is not only good for the players as it shows the developer respects their local beliefs, but also helps avoid any backlash affecting the apps popularity.
UX Take : It might be such filtering of content affecting the storyline in different geographies already exists. But if not, it should be high on developers radar.
Suggestive Adult Content Exposure to Tweens
This can be a more serious issue IMO as a large player base of this app are teens and potential tweens, which raises following questions:
Is it morally ok to make such suggestions to such a young impressionable player base?
Are such choices masquerading as a game getting past parent's radar?
Are soft references to suggestive adult/sexual content finding their way to young minds? (I will show elaborate examples of this below)
Age gating might be there, but such optional (Are you age 18+ etc?, pop up permission) controls do not guarantee filtering. Any impressionable kid can press accept and get into the app.
Hard Currency sinks seem to be promoting and inserted at most opportune hedonic moments!
Player is being given a opportunity to kiss her friend in the story, but for a HC cost!! That directly translates into real money purchase flow due to scarce availability of HC.
In another instance there is suggestive sexual behaviour as described in the scene above, which prompts players to achieve suggested gratification via HC sink!
Other branching pay points include:
PAY money to save your character's dirty secret or face the consequences of revelation! (Yes it's that direct!)
PAY money to save your character's friend's dirty secret or face the consequences of revelation!
PAY money to buy hot dresses or look shabby and face social shaming. First day of school or college in the game plot shows other characters actually taking a jab at you if you show up shabby. Peer pressure and social shaming.
These pay gates endorse :
Hedonic moments for sensual gratification
A very direct and extortionist F2P model
Teach impressionable players it is OK to pay up for hiding dirty deeds!
If not filtered may severely impact the minds and decision making choices of young target audience
Having worked in education gaming and created mass adopted educational games for US schools from K-7 to K-13 audiences, I know how strict COPA compliances and laws are for content filtering as well as psychology of this demographics. I did not see any such warning in this app.
But here is the real danger: If the suggestive content & deliberate hedonic monetisations tactics are left unchecked can it lead to conversion of this platform to suggestive soft porn content?
This app could very easily turn in to a soft porn animatics media rather than rich quality content, time-shifted media platform, which will be a real shame.
I suspected during my research that young players who create their own stories in order to make them popular (& earn rewards) will resort to include more suggestive, daring & shady plots.
And it does seem to be the case. Youtube is rife with such suggestive and revealing story videos:
And it did seem even the game's own community forums erupted with such issues becoming mainstream, below is an example of a complaint by community members:
To be fair, it does seem that the developers seem to be cracking down on such stories when they receive complaints but it still leaves room to do a lot more.
The hedonic monetisation tactics mentioned above appeared in the very first story played!
Filtering and gating for tweens to protect them from suggestive sexual content is superiorly lacking. Also note that the characters portrayed in some stories are high school crowd itself indulging in such behaviour.
Checking each and every story as the platform grows will be an ardent task and a clear set of rules and limitations will be required for it.
This app is pegged suitable for 12+ years audience on iTunes, not to mention the exposure to much younger demographics on shared family devices.
Presenting interactive narration based game content as "Time-Shifted TV" model is a first in gaming genre and opens a frontier for whole new range of possibilities.
Potential Application: Replicating the format in popular IP driven mobile games inside their Event Systems might be an interesting experiment
Star Wars: Galaxy of heroes, Marvel Contest, Walking Dead are just few examples of IP driven games popular on app store.
Current - Star Wars: GOH Event System, normal gameplay based events
Potential - Star Wars: GOH Event System. A new Episode mode can be launched to offer events with narrative content and branching option similar to Episodes app:
Choosing any episode will give players interactive, immersive story driven narration content with short burst of branching gameplay activity wherein the focus will be more on the stories:
Selecting small missions will trigger gameplay, otherwise will move the story forward:
Lessons to be learnt here
This Episodic or time-shifted TV approach could be a good way to retain & monetise (done responsibly of course! unlike the examples showed above), especially for IP driven content and games out there, which the app store is not lacking in.
Rather than hitherto introducing new movie content as masked events, Episodic approach can create deeper links and richer engagement arcs, giving a balance of gameplay and immersive story plot which IP fans crave for. It can trail the live TV seasons very closely.
Robust user generated content platform tools with real time implementation can be one of the most successful examples of involving players in your content pipeline.
Too direct hedonic monetisation tactics that is definitely exploitative for a F2P economy, giving it further a bad name.
Suggestive explicit content might be getting passed on to impressionable young audiences, right under their parent's nose masquerading as a casual game!
Real danger of such a promising platform turning in to suggestive soft porn animation media like Japanese Hentai. Which is downright scary.
The developers are really onto something incredible here. As I mentioned before, promise offered by " Time-shifted" media paradigm & UGC integration is tremendous! But if unchecked, this can be easily eclipsed by the rising threat of suggestive content & hedonic monetisation.
I really hope the developers are aware of these issues and are working to mitigate them.
Few months after publishing this article I saw some recent updates on the App and it's good to see Devs. are responding to issues mentioned above, user generated stories and stories with mature themes now come with not one but 3 distinct warnings upfront! Something which was completely lacking in previous versions
Players now see 3 distinct warnings if the content contains mature themes or suggestive languages, which was utterly lacking in previous updates.
Even though this can still get past parents radar and is not as effective, especially if kids are directly interacting with the app. It is a positive start in the right direction.