Is the Episodic Model the Way Forward?

Published: October 14, 2015 1:00 PM /


Game-over The Walking Dead

In our current digital stage, nothing is ever simple. No longer does a game come out featuring a complete and rounded story, perfected to the point of not needing a patch to fix it or a DLC to give the consumer a finite end. Games don't have expansions anymore, they have "additional content." Less than 10 years ago, we had games like Metal Gear Solid 2, Persona 4 and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, boasting bold, fulfilling experiences that, when they eventually reached their end, we knew they were done. Not only now do we see every game release with an army of additional content to wreck havoc to your wallet, but some release with the intention of needing these purchases to play the original game. That isn't to say that every game does this, but as time goes on, we are seeing more releases with this model. Like DLC, episodic gaming is very much about the additional purchases. In most release models, the episodes are spread out, with consumers needing to buy the complete series over a period of time, or wait for the final outcome to release as one package.

Although, recently episodic games have become very popular, they have been around, in a smaller capacity, since 1979, with the first game in the Dunjonquest series Temple of Apshai. However, this model didn't actually catch on until the early beginnings of online gaming and one of its first homes, Steam. Valve released the Half Life 2 episodes—still waiting on the third—using Steam, which paved the path for other developers to utilise the method of episodic gaming, one in particular, which based it's whole development model on this idea.

Steam Logo
Steam allowed developers to experiment with the idea of episodic releases

Of course, in a conversation about episodic games, it is very difficult to leave out the fan favorite. Telltale's direct approach to storytelling focuses on characters and relationships, using a choice and decision based system that affects the overall outcome of the game. Using licenses like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, Telltale has brought the idea of episodic gaming to console and PC gamers alike, aiming to captivate through short bi-monthly episodes. Whether they achieve this goal is another story, with long, almost irregular gaps between episodes, many consumers lose interest in the one selling point of a Telltale game: story. That isn't to say that the story of a Telltale game is a bad one, just that the time taken to receive it can have a negative impact on the impact of the story itself. Looking at myself as an example, I am very pressed for time to play a lot of games. I tend to play games once, and upon completion, never go back to said game. Therefore I find it very difficult to keep up with episodic games.

One thing that makes Telltale Games brilliant is the value for money in one of their games. For a full season of The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, consumers can expect to pay £3.99 per episode—less than £20 for the full experience. This is the equivalent of a full retail game for half the price, and no one can argue with that!

walking dead
Selling over 30m across multiple platforms, The Walking Dead is the most successful episodic game to date.

Telltale isn't the only modern developer to utilise this release model. Just this year, Dontnod Entertainment released the interactive drama Life is Strange—find out what we thought here.This has so far sold over 2 million digital units, showing that not only licensed games sell in an episodic form. Life is Strange uses the classic Telltale approach to storytelling, but uses a unique gameplay element of being able to rewind time at any moment to give it an individual feel.  

The main issue that I and others find with episodic gaming is that they all seem to use the same gameplay and storytelling style. All games produced by Telltale, and every game produced in the style of them seems to be an interactive drama; a drama in which you control a variety, or in some cases just one, character and the aim of the developer is to develop an emotional bond between the player and the character. Although this is a successful genre, I feel that to use the full potential of the episodic model, developers need to attempt something a little different.

I would love to see something like God of War or The Legend of Zelda undertake this. Just imagine, a bi-monthly story with concentrated 2 hour stints as Kratos, or single dungeon adventures as Link, giving consumers new ways to play—with actual gameplay instead of quick time events. The first game of this calibre to attempt this is IO Interactive's 2016 title Hitman. Hitman is releasing with 3 of the 6 locations at launch, with the other 3 coming as monthly episodes. Although this isn't fully episodic, it shows that games can use this model, while not being interactive dramas exclusively.

Like in every form of media, sometimes there just isn't the funds or need to finish a project. However, in an episodic model, it is very easy to leave a half released game out on the marketplace. In the past, Telltale's Bone, Ritual Entertainment's SIN Episodes, and more recently Sonic The Hedgehog 4 have been testimony for this. Unfortunately, this is the biggest problem that would become prominent if the episodic model became more popular in game design. Like game support for current games and additional content for others, poor selling episodic games would be left behind, leaving those who have invested in them with incomplete products and wasted capital. This makes the idea of episodic games seem risky and almost dangerous for those wanting a complete experience. 

With the final episode of Dontnod Entertainment's Life is Strange releasing next Tuesday and Telltale Games' Minecraft: Story Mode beginning yesterday, it seems like episodic gaming is in full force. But for how much longer will episodic gaming be at the forefront of our industry?

What do you think of episodic gaming? Life is Strange or Minecraft: Story Mode? Let us know in the comments below.

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