There are many different schools of thought as to how gaming should be presented. Some people like epic, long storylines. Others prefer bite sized casual experiences. Still others will combine the two and let a story be handled through a series of smaller episodic experiences. Telling a story across multiple games isn’t something new.
It began in the earliest days of sequels where players would pick up with the lead character after the events of the original in a new title. But many of these games weren’t created with the intentions of being long form stories. They were just stories taking place in the same universe of one that happened to be a commercial success. It wasn’t until more recently that games specifically began being created to tell a story across multiple releases. This would lead to the advent of episodic gaming.
The advantages of episodic gaming extend to both the developer and the consumer because of the nature of the format. First and foremost for the consumer is the reduced risk associated with purchasing a new game. For the most part, episodic games are cheaper than full retail releases so if a player purchases the first episode of a game and doesn’t enjoy it, they only spent money on the first episode instead of the entire season. Some developers and publishers will actually even allow players the first episode for free to reign people in. This tactic was used by XBox’s Live Market Place on Fable 2 and is going to be in effect this month for PlayStation Plus subscribers with the first two episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
For developers, it is a great strength of an episodic game because it keeps the title in the front of the collective conscious for a longer period of time. Normally when a game comes out, the majority get their hands on it and finish it in the first month. After that, interest wanes. In an episodic game though, there is renewed life to a title as each episode releases and it ends up being discussed for a longer period of time. There isn’t as much of a focus on marketing to keep a franchise being discussed when no new content has been released in the down time between sequels.
Developers also get a reduced initial overhead when creating the game. Because for most episodic games, all the episodes do not need to be complete when the first episode is launched. That means that voice actors, composers, animators and other staff don’t need to have to be fully compensated before the project has been completed. Developers are able to take the stream of income from the game to pay off debt as well as cover upcoming costs at the same time. This reduces the barrier to entry for smaller developers as well.
One of the other greatest advantages to developers which ends up becoming a benefit to players is that the episodic nature gives time to make ongoing creative changes to the title. Unlike full retail games which have a completed narrative before release, later episodes of games are still being created when early ones are being played. This means if something isn’t working creatively, there is time to change it. If some character doesn’t resonate properly, that character can be “fixed” or even killed off before the end of a season.
There are some inherent risks to episodic gaming though. The first is that there is no sure thing that if a player purchases the first episode of a game, they will buy the remainder. This can be because of the quality of the game or other factors. A player may not have the disposable income they had when episode five releases as they did with episode one. A player may not log on to their XBox for two weeks and see the episode has been released. And sometimes, people just forget.
The other main risk of episodic gaming is the scheduling. When an episodic game is launched, schedules become much tighter than they normally would be. With a traditional release, major hiccups will lead to a delayed release. With episodic games, pushing back an episode means that players are going to have to go longer without getting their next experience which can result in a loss of purchasing interest either because they become annoyed by the delay or because they simply stopped thinking about the title and after being away from it for long enough, the spark wasn’t there anymore.
Depending on what kind of games you play, the phrase “episodic gaming” can have two very distinct reactions to you. Adventure game fans have been treated to some of the finest gaming experiences of their genre in recent years because of this format with The Walking Dead and Sam & Max. On the other hand, shooter fans have a running gag every E3 because Half-Life 2: Episode 3 may just never be released, or so it feels. But like Telltale has shown us, when done right, episodic gaming can be a strong format that helps drive a studio. It has benefits for both the consumer and developer and in the right hands can be a viable format for the future of gaming.