Long ago, before the Internet destroyed the music industry, bands would sometimes release EPs. Extended play records are brief collections of songs that are too long to be singles, too short to be albums, and a perfect way to remind an ever-distracted audience that a band does indeed exist without having to put a whole lot of work into it. In other words, a tasty little diversion between the full-length LPs that got all the attention and made all the money. You know, in the past. Long ago.
Right now I'm playing a downloadable game called Bastion. A few weeks ago I played a downloadable game called Trenched. Soon Microsoft begins its annual "Summer of Arcade" promotion, releasing a high-profile downloadable exclusive through Xbox Live Arcade every week for over a month. I'm downloading a lot of games, and it got me thinking about music and how records are made and sold (or not sold, these days). On many levels these are the EPs of the video game world, and just as I had a weird preference for EPs in high school I now generally prefer downloadable titles to retail games. EPs and downloadables are similar in a few ways, but the differences hammer home how far apart the game and music industries are.
Also, in this analogy iOS or cellphone games like Angry Birds or Tiny Wings are like flexi discs, or those cardboard records that came on the back of cereal boxes.
A perfect EP is short and to the point but like a good album has its own concrete identity and sense of cohesion. Many EPs are just random collections of outtakes, radio sessions, or tossed-off covers, but a good one strives to be its own little mini-album of brand new material. It's an opportunity for a band to try new things, or just a chance to deliver a concentrated shot of what already defines them. There was a brief window in the early to mid 1990s when big-name indie rock bands pumped out superlative EPs with something approaching regularity. Pavement's Watery, Domestic, the Archers of Loaf's Vs. The Greatest Of All Time, Polvo's Celebrate the New Dark Age, and Further's Grimes Golden EPs came out in a three-year span, each one representing perhaps the pinnacle of that band's career. Guided by Voices alone released over a half-dozen EPs between 1992 and 1996. It was a new golden age for young people who loved short but substantial collections of slightly obscure rock'n'roll.
This is the first console generation to emphasize downloads, but Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network quickly established feasible markets for smaller games. As I grow older and value my time more I find myself preferring downloadable games like Pac-Man Championship Edition DX and Trials HD, games that offer experiences that are as significant as any hugely marketed $60 retail game, without wasting everybody's time on a poorly told story, while also falling outside the relatively small range of genres that make up the industry's top tier. We're at a point where the single most important question for almost any new full-price game is whether the killing is in first or third person. There's so much commercial pressure on the highest levels of this industry that there's very little room allowed for experimentation or character. Publishers will allow risks with digitally distributed games because the stakes are so much smaller, or often just snap up stand-out games made by small independent designers, as Warner Brothers did with Bastion and Sony did with this spring's Slam Bolt Scrappers.
Double Fine Productions makes the comparison between EPs and XBLA / PSN games explicit. Tim Schafer's design house didn't rush straight into another big boxed game after 2009's Brutal Legend, but started work on three downloadable games. Costume Quest, Stacking, and Trenched are three very different games released through downloadable services over the last nine months. They play nothing alike, but all bear Double Fine's trademark humor and attention to both character and detail. Essentially they are video game EPs, keeping Double Fine busy while letting them try out new things between Brutal Legend and their upcoming Sesame Street game for Kinect.
Of course it's ironic that digital distribution made video game EPs possible, considering the same innovation basically revitalized the importance of the single within the music industry. And not the traditional single, with a b-side either on the flip or padding out the CD or cassingle in a vestigial remembrance of vinyl, but true one-song single downloads through iTunes or Amazon.
It's not even just when time and money is tight, or those all-too-often moments when I can't bear to hang out with Lt. Baldy O'Hateface and his squad of space gun goons again. I'll gladly fire up a game like Bastion over almost any so-called AAA titles, just as I'd happily splurge on EPs back when music was still a thing people paid for.
When Joystick Division associate editor Garrett Martin was a boy his Daddy would use him for alligator bait. He rambles on about video games every Wednesday in his column Run Button.