Changing games one episode at a time

BY SAMUEL GUGLIELMO
Features Editor

Over the last few years video games have gone through many changes. One of them has been the addition of episodic games. An episodic game is when you buy the game one episode at a time, with episodes coming out between 2-4 months between each other. Each week it seems like there’s new episodic games coming out, like Telltale’s recent “Minecraft: Story Mode”. Yet when did this start, and how will it change gaming going forward?

It’s arguable where the first episodic game came from, but one of the earliest examples would be the 1979 roleplaying game series “Dunjonquest”. While it doesn’t quite fit the modern definition, they chose to release several short connected games rather than one big one. Likewise, the 1981 roleplaying game series “Wizardy” had a similar release. While both series didn’t start the big trend that we see today, they are the earliest examples of a company releasing smaller “episodes” rather than full games.

The first real episodic game came from space sim series “Wing Commander,” with the 1998 release “Wing Commander: Secret Ops.” The first episode would be sent free to anyone who wanted it, and then Origins System would put up more episodes to buy. Unfortunately, the experiment failed as the game was hampered by a 120mb download size which was, for its time, massive. After this, episodic games were a relative rarity that few companies were willing to try.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the attempt was made again, by two different companies: Valve and Telltale. Valve’s effort was an expansion pack to its revolutionary game “Half-Life 2”, called “Half-Life 2: Episode 1”. The idea was to keep releasing shorter episodes instead of making a full game so there would be a quicker turnaround time on new content, but after the second episode, despite good reviews and sales, Valve decided to delay the third episode several times until eventually cancelling the idea. Telltale’s attempt was in the form of “Sam & Max Save the World,” an episodic adventure game that would write a few of the basic rules that Telltale would go on to follow.

A surge of horror games would be the catalyst for the popularity of episodic games. Games like “Alan Wake,” “Alone in the Dark,” and “Siren: Blood Curse” would separate their chapters into episodes that would start with recaps of the last episode and end with previews of the next, similar to a TV show. It seems funny that “The Walking Dead” would become such a massive hit in both comics and TV and then would go on to be one of the most influential episodic games. While Sam and Max made a small impression, The Walking Dead would become the big episodic game that would show people how to properly utilize the idea, and it would be the inspiration for many future games.

There is both a good way and a bad way to make an episodic game, and it is noticeably changing how the game industry works right now. Some of the ways aren’t for the better. Capcom released “Resident Evil Revelations 2” in the form of four episodes, but since they released one episode a week there was a feeling that there was no reason for the episodic release other than being able to slap “episodic” onto the game to quickly cash in on a popular trend.

Sometimes the wait between episodes becomes a little absurd. Telltale got into trouble with the long wait time between the first and second episodes of several of their games, including “Tales From the Borderlands” and “The Wolf Among Us.” Smaller independent developers are more vulnerable to this problem, with games like “Majestic Nights,”  “Kentucky Route Zero” and “The Detail” having episodes that are between 7 to 13 months apart.

Sometimes, episodes are used to ship an unfinished game. After a massive Kickstarter success, “The Broken Age” had millions of dollars for its development. Yet, halfway through development, Double Fine realized they had run out of money. Their solution was to release the first half of the game as “Act 1” and use the money they got from that to fund the second half of the game.

Other games have tried this too, which leads to the biggest downfall to episodic games: getting canceled before all the episodes are out. Similar to “The Broken Age,” “Woolfe – The Red Hood Diaries” was broken into two halves after a successful Kickstarter. Unlike “The Broken Age,” the first half reviewed very poorly and received little money. Months later the developer canceled the second half and shut down, leaving this story unfinished. Games with similar fates include “SiN Episodes” and “Insecticide.” Even large companies aren’t immune to this: Telltale themselves abandoned the unsuccessful “Bones: Out from Boneville” after the second episode, while Sega’s plans for “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” to be 3 episodes was canceled after the second episode underperformed.

But a lot of good can come from episodic games as well. By producing shorter “episodes” rather than full games, developers have the ability to have faster turnaround time in releasing the next part. They can easily try elements out and adjust them on the fly. If something doesn’t work for one episode, it’s more than easy enough to tweak or change it for the next.

It also allows developers to be more experimental. Most episodic games are on the cheaper end, nearly every game I’ve listed before charges $5 for one episode, meaning it’s easy for gamers to justify buying something new. Telltale really brought episodic games up using old adventure games as a model, a genre that we really haven’t seen much of in current years.

Each episode can also change how the next one goes, something that hadn’t really been done in games until recently. Decisions made in one episode can have consequences somewhere else down the line. An episodic format isn’t required for this, but by planning ahead of time and keeping the engine similar it’s much easier to avoid problems, like Bioware’s “Dragon Age: Inquisition” being incompatible with save games from earlier entries to the series.

By using some similar tactics to TV shows it’s also easier to get people involved in the series. A lot of the episodic games end episodes on cliffhangers, dramatic scenes, and other gripping moments. By spending episodes developing characters rather than feeling the need to squeeze in new gamepaly segments, getting to care about the characters becomes easier and there’s a better retention rate between episodes rather than between two different games.

However you feel about episodic games, it’s something that is happening and is changing how games work. There are both good and bad things about them, and even if episodic games fizzle out one day other games are going to learn and adapt from them. Games are still looking to Hollywood for inspiration, but it seems TV is also working its way into the format.

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