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Episodic gaming over the years has become more and more popular. You could credit this to either the economic slowdown, or the pressure from publishers to release content quickly, but no matter the cause, episodic gaming is now a reliable and valuable way to release games. In this feature, we’re going to look at what exactly makes a game episodic, the pros and cons of episodic gaming, some examples of episodic gaming, and what the future holds for this release strategy.
Episodic gaming is when a game, or game series, is released in multiple, smaller, and cheaper parts, with a few months to develop each part. This is in contrast to standard game release and development, where one long, expensive game is made in about 1-3 years. Normally, the overall price of the whole package is less than that of a full game, has the same length overall, and is released in small parts over time. It’s more like doing television that film.
There are several reasons to make games in an episodic fashion. For one, it’s a much more reliable purchase for the consumer. If you were to buy a full game, say, Call of Duty: Black Ops, you’d have spent $59.99 for one game that took two years to make. If you didn’t like Black Ops, you would have lost sixty dollars. Now, if you bought Tales of Monkey Island: Chapter 1, an $8.95 game that took six months to make, and not liked it, you’d have only lost nine dollars. It’s a much safer buy for the consumer, with less money to lose. It’s also good from a development standpoint, with criticisms and suggestions for one part making it over to the next. If players didn’t like the back tracking in Part 1, there could be less in Part 2, and only six months later. If you didn’t like fact that you could equip Danger Close and a Grenade Launcher in Modern Warfare 2, you’d have to wait for a year or more for that to be altered. Episodic gaming also gives us a reliable schedule. Rockstar Games can delay their games several times, because 1-3 years is a long and easily delayable schedule. If a developer has six months to make a short game, with pre-owned assets, you can reach that deadline with ease.
Some of the problems with episodic gaming only appear when developers get lazy with the schedules, Half-Life 2 Episode 3 being a prime example. The Half-Life 2 episodes were meant to get Valve to release their games on a much more efficient schedule, but after Episode 2 in the Orange Box, Valve has been putting off Episode 3 for so long that there may not be an Episode 3. There have been rumors that Episode 3 has simply been turned into Half-Life 3. Episodic gaming only works when the schedule is followed effectively. Another problem is from a pacing standpoint. If you cut up Bioshock, a 12 hour game, into 3 parts, each 4 hours, the game wouldn’t feel right at all. There are certain pacing tricks and options that are simply cut off when you do episodic gaming. You have to have a unique pacing arc for each episode, rather than one long arc for a 12 hour experience. Therefore the experience can feel quite disjointed when all the episodes are played in one sitting.
There are the obvious episodic games, such as most anything made by Telltale Games. Each one of these games has a number after it, has a lower price when bought as a pack, is released on a reliable schedule, and adds up to around the same length as a full game. The Penny Arcade games try to follow this as well, but the lack of a third installment does invalidate it’s status as truly episodic for now. The Penumbra games, though they have no numbers, were released in three installments, with a smaller length and price for each individual part. Overall, it was about the same length and price for a full game. The Half-Life 2 Episodes are a pretty bad example of episodic gaming, but are worth mentioning. They are of a high quality, but they don’t follow a schedule, and they added up to a higher price than a full PC game at release. There are many other examples of episodic gaming, if the rules are loosened a bit. It is arguable that the Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City were episodic, as they were released on a tight schedule, added up to around the same length as a full open world game, and revolved around one story.
Right now, Telltale is firmly in the driver’s seat for episodic gaming, but that couldn’t always be the case. If Valve got their act together on Episode 3 and successfully released new episodes that were of the same quality of the other Half-Life games, Valve could easily be in a position to sell well. Another form of episodic gaming is on the horizon though, as evident by Starcraft II. Starcraft II is a 60 dollar product, but it’s the first installment of three Starcraft IIs, with the other two focusing on the Zerg and Protoss. I’m not going to go into the rant of “Wings of Liberty is not worth the money”, because I don’t agree with it. However, it is easy to see other games released like this if Starcraft II is successful, which it probably will be. It’s harder to call this episodic, but since all three games will go under the Starcraft II title, the thought does come to mind.
So, in short, episodic gaming certainly has a place in the modern gaming industry, but I don’t think it should be the main way to sell games. I love 20-30 hour games, and episodic gaming would all but eliminate those experiences. If we were to compare games to film, full games are like movies, and episodic games are like a television. The most memorable experiences in film are not in television shows most of the time. The most memorable experiences are the classic movies, which last longer than 20-45 minutes. I think the same holds true for games. Releasing games in an episodic method is still worthwhile, and something I hope the industry explores further.