BY SAMUEL GUGLIELMO
Episodic games continue gain popularity in the industry. As both independent and big studios continue to release games in episodes or chapters, whether or not this is a feasible platform is questionable. Various games have switched from normal releases to something else. Square Enix appears to be the biggest company promoting these changes, with two games originally intended to be full releases being cut into episodic games.
The biggest one is probably “Hitman.” The sixth game in a popular series, “Hitman” has gone through a rather strange release schedule. Originally the game was supposed to release complete in Dec. 2015. After getting delayed to March 2016, it was also announced the game would only have its first half released, with the second half being added slowly, for free, over the course of the year. Then, shortly before the release, Square Enix knocked the price of the game from $60 to $15 and announced it would be released episodically. Now users would only get the tutorial and the first mission, and a new mission will get released every month for another $10 each. This isn’t Square Enix’s only push into episodic games: the remake of “Final Fantasy VII” will also be episodic. Though Square Enix has claimed that every episode will be the size of a full game, we’re still not sure about the pricing and real size of the episodes. Square Enix has also published “Life is Strange,” a smaller episodic game about a girl in high school who discovers she has time traveling powers.
Yet it seems strange that Square Enix is going with this strategy. What’s in it for them? It’s probably not to charge more: in the end buying each planned episode of “Hitman” will only cost $65, which is only $5 more than a typical release. Even then, you can also just buy all of the episodes directly for $60. Yet Square Enix may also be making more money from it in the long run. A $15 game is a much easier impulse purchase than a $60 game. Plus if anyone finds themselves interested in that $15 intro, then dropping another $10 for a couple of months isn’t too bad.
In theory, episodic games should allow faster turnaround time for new content, but that’s not always the case. Delays for episodes can be a real problem, with plot elements and gameplay elements being forgotten between episodes. “Hitman” may end up guilty of this: while the second episode is slated for release this month, one of the game’s directors admitted that they may not be hitting their monthly goals. “Hitman” isn’t the only game guilty of this: “Kentucky Route Zero” has been on episode three for nearly two years now, with episode four still “coming soon.”
While it’s doubtful that “Hitman” will ever be canceled, there’s too much money riding on it, it’s still a possibility. Recently, “Sons of Anarchy: The Prospect” was released on iOS and Android devices. The game was going to be a 10 episode series based on the extremely popular TV show. Despite this, the first episode didn’t sell and the publisher recently pulled it off of Apple’s store, refunding the game and canceling future episodes. Similar has also happened to “Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma”
Yet what other reasons are there to go episodic? The developers, Io Interactive, say that the idea came shortly after the release of 2012’s “Hitman: Absolution.” By making the full game at once they didn’t have time to see if gamers would like the changes they were implementing into the franchise, and because of this “Hitman: Absolution” was not received well by fans of the series. On the other hand, if one episode of “Hitman” isn’t well received due to mechanics, it’s much easier to go in and fix something up for the subsequent episode.
There is also the argument gamers can’t pay attention. Many games frontload their content, putting the best stuff in the first half of the game. Developers have said anywhere between only 15-20 percent actually bother to finish a full game. Yet by making a shorter episode, somewhere between 3-5 hours, there’s a much larger chance that people will get to the end of an episode and purchase the next one. Keeping player’s attention is important, both for the publishers who hope they buy the sequel and the developers who would like the players to experience their whole game.
Whatever the case, “Hitman” won’t be changing back to a full release. The traditional full release business model isn’t going to go anywhere, but it’s very likely that we’ll be seeing more episodic games releasing alongside them. Big titles aren’t making the push yet, but “Hitman” may end up being the game to convince them to.