Packed into a small conference room inside a bland Rockville office park, four video gamers map the time-defying journeys of brothers Ethan and Victor Miller.
The boys’ mother passed away in the midst of her time travel research, leaving them to voyage through history and grapple with the ramifications of any changes they make along the way.
That’s the premise of “Tempus Chronicle,” the inaugural creation from Tista Games. The young firm aims to sell video games that are released to players in weekly installments.
The pilot episode sends the brothers through the bowels of the RMS Titanic on its maiden, and final, voyage. Next week, they could find themselves in Ancient Egypt. Perhaps then they’ll venture to the year 2112.
“We’ve been used to episodic content that keeps us engaged since the days of Charles Dickens all the way up to today with ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Homeland’ and all these other shows that everyone watches,” founder Aunim Hossain said.
“So there is a hook of narrative that we’ve been brought up with to say, ‘I can’t wait until Sundays at 9 when a new episode of “Game of Thrones” comes on because I want to know what happens.’”
Traditionally, major video game publishers have developed games in much the same way movie studios produce blockbusters. They spend millions up front in production and marketing costs, then send the final product to stores and cross their fingers.
“You only have three to four weeks to really get your sales, and that’s because there are so many games that are coming out,” he said. “You’ve really got to monetize while you can because the user base will stop engaging with your product.”
Hossain hopes the Tista Games model can turn that cycle on its head by taking a television-centric approach: Produce segments of the game one episode at a time in order to keep expenses low, then scrap those games that fail to resonate with the audience.
Tista isn’t alone in its approach. Atul Bagga, a senior research analyst at Lazard Capital Markets, said the fastest growing segment within the video game market is made up of games that are released to customers gradually over the Web or mobile devices rather than purchased once on a disk.
“You play your game whereever you want, whenever you want,” Bagga said. “It’s an ongoing experience rather than a one-time, one-session experience.”
Popular overseas, but here?
That method has long been popular in countries such as China and South Korea, he said, driven by the widespread use of Internet cafes.
But this style of gaming has yet to match the high-revenue hits to which video game companies in the United States have become accustom, Bagga said.
“This is still at a very early stage in the Western market, so companies are still trying to find ways to monetize games,” Bagga said. “So as of now, overall monetization is lower, but they can potentially get to better monetization as the market matures.”
That’s in part because of the well-ingrained habit of playing video games on a console in the living room and receiving the game as a tangible product — a disk. In the virtual world, you pay for a game that you’ll never hold in your hand.
“People are more willing to spend 60 bucks on ‘Call of Duty’ than they would on ‘Angry Birds,’ ” Bagga said.
Hossain brings a business pedigree to Tista, including an MBA from Harvard Business School and a stint as a product manager for San Francisco-based Zynga, the maker of such popular games as “FarmVille,” “Words With Friends” and “Bubble Safari.”
Tista has raised roughly half of a $250,000 seed-stage round of venture capital. The money should allow them to finish season one of “Tempus Chronicle” and build a platform where other developers can release episodic video games.
Hossain opted to base the company in the Washington region over locales such as Silicon Valley that he said may have seemed like a more obvious choice because the area boasts video game talent and relatively lower living costs.
Maryland is home to a sometimes-overlooked powerhouse of video game companies, including ZeniMax Media and its publishing arm Bethesda Softworks, whose headquarters is just down the street from Tista.
Maryland’s digital media industry, which is broadly defined to include game development, Internet publishing, online education and e-commerce, employed more than 32,000 people in 2008, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the Department for Business and Economic Development. Its direct economic impact was estimated at $5.5 billion.