The digital revolution in gaming has given rise to many new aspects when it comes to purchases – micro transactions, DLC, bug fixes, you name it, any game can now be altered thanks to additional code and assets being delivered via the internet. However, there’s one aspect of this world that wouldn’t be able to exist were it not for our willingness to accept that games will now always come with extras, and that is the episodic game.
Well, that’s not quite true… episodic games have been around longer than you think, in fact they can trade their heritage all the way back to the 1970s. Temple of Apshai featured several expansions all using the same game engine, could that be classed as a true episodic game, it’s open for discussion and I could see why some would agree it is, and some wouldn’t. Next up came a game called Diabolik, an adaptation of a novel split into eleven episodes, then in 1998 we had our first true taste of a DLC-based episodic game: Wing Commander: Secret Ops. The game didn’t do so well, probably due to the limits of internet connection speed at the time, but it was a first step into a larger world.
The real game-changer was when Valve started releasing Half-Life 2 Episodes. Of course, Valve already had the infrastructure in place to deliver the content, the Steam platform was in place to sell their own games, and this was long before they started hawking other people’s games and becoming the biggest distributor of PC games on the market. But it wasn’t Valve that really made the world aware of episodic games, that honour belongs to Telltale.
Telltale weren’t the pioneers of episodic gaming, neither were they the first, but the clever storytelling trick Telltale used was to focus heavily on the narrative and produce their games using the same structure a TV show would – leave the audience on a cliffhanger and release in seasons. For the most part it’s worked. Telltale have a healthy portfolio of franchises they have adapted, including but not limited to, Back to the Future, The Walking Dead, Fables, Game of Thrones, Batman, Minecraft, Guardians of the Galaxy, and that list will continue to expand as the company goes from strength-to-strength and people see just how well these new types of episodic games can get their stories across.
Undoubtedly though no one would play a Telltale game for the action, they’re played for a story fix in the universe you love.
Telltale weren’t the pioneers of episodic gaming, neither were they the first, but the clever storytelling trick Telltale used was to focus heavily on the narrative and produce their games using the same structure a TV show would – leave the audience on a cliffhanger and release in seasons
So as we move into an era where we are seeing more and more games released in an episodic format, is this something we can come to expect? Well, certainly it’s a new way of distributing games, the internet has seen to change the way we game forever, so why shouldn’t we think about new ways to have our games delivered to us? I am all for the episodic format if it fits the story being told, the only issue I would have with games becoming an episode-only release is the season pass. Yes, that’s right, those cursed words every gamer hates – season pass. Whilst I have no problem with a season pass if it’s good value for money, what would stop an unscrupulous developer from putting all of their efforts into making the first episode of a game great and then cutting back on the rest? Why would they care? They have your money, your committed for the game, and with an episodic format they can put 1/5th of the effort into making the game knowing they have a full price paid for one decent episode of a game. I’m not saying this is being practiced, but DLC is always a mixed bag in content. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s terrible, it feels like a bolt-on. Take, for example, the DLC for Arkham Knight, this DLC was not cheap. Not by a long shot, and we were promised fulfilling new story content, and what did we get? A mission with Batgirl that was over too soon, and a couple of features with Robin, oh and a few costumes of Batman. All that for the price of the game again. Warner Bros. know that Batman is a massive seller, he’s now the figurehead of DC Comics, long surpassing Superman quite some time ago, and they also knew that the Arkham series was extremely popular, having reinvigorated interest in superhero games, but I felt they abused that trust they had built up with the consumer and overcharged for something that was basically developed as the main game was developed.
Another franchise that tried out the episodic format recently was the Hitman franchise with their newest game starring Agent 47, the originally titled – Hitman. Whilst something of a soft reboot, the community reacted badly to what they felt was a poor product on release. Issues on PC with frame-rates and high spec machines being unable to run the game as expected, led to criticism of the episodic formula for the franchise. Also a lack of content whilst waiting for each episode to release caused further bad feeling amongst the Hitman-loving community. After all, who wants to have to wait months for a AAA title to give you the next level. At least with a company like Telltale they have built their business model on releasing chapters of their story in episodes. It’s what we come to expect, but for a game franchise like Hitman, where users are used to being able to play through a whole game without the need to wait, then it’s courting disaster to change what the player-base is used to.
for a game franchise like Hitman, where users are used to being able to play through a whole game without the need to wait, then it’s courting disaster to change what the player-base is used to.
Let’s move onto another AAA title that was similar in the way it released its story content, and I am talking about Destiny. The game launched in 2014 with roughly three hours of single-player content (story-driven missions). Of course there was multiplayer supplied, and Raids and Strikes, but I’m not a huge fan of the multiplayer environment. Some people live and die by multiplayer, but I prefer a story-driven game to keep me satiated, and Destiny just didn’t deliver on that. The next two DLC packs were also poor in giving us more story. We had to go online to actually understand what the story behind the game was truly about, and even then it was all based on Grimoires to push the story along. It was only with the release of The Taken King that we were given a sizeable meal to digest. Following that we had the Rise of Iron to finish off the tale, but if this was a three-course meal I would have demanded to see the manager.
I believe the key with episodic gaming is to know the audience you are appealing to. It’s never going to work cutting up a AAA game into chapters and trying to sell them individually. The audiences are already too committed to the franchise to welcome that change. Imagine if Call of Duty went episodic, the internet would go into meltdown. As it is they are a game series that heavily pushes DLC and not quite the story-driven behemoth some other games are. But then if you take a company such as Quantic Dreams, responsible for Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls, and the upcoming Detroit: Become Human, then the episodic format would work marvellously. The other factor to take here though would be the cost. Produce a game that is roughly the same amount of playtime you would get from a £40 purchase, then that game’s cost per episode should be roughly £40 divided by number of episodes to give you a reflection of how much an episode should be. But there’s always the option to throw a few more sheckles onto the cost of the episode just to make a little bit more profit from your consumers. It’s business, and that’s what a lot of people need to remember, that some studios are gamers who want to make great games, and some are companies that want to make as much money as possible and are happy for inferior products to go out the door.
So, Devil’s work? Yes, if you’ve got a company that’s run by Beezlebub, but a winner? For some games, yes. At the moment episodic games are an experiment, but will the AAA adopt the distribution model? Only time will tell.