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Episodic games have been around for a while, but many of the titles have left negative impressions on people. In the past few years, titles like The Walking Dead, and Life Is Strange have all started to turn the heads of fans and skeptics alike. While there are some major pitfalls to avoid, episodic game development allows for more flexibility and growth for many developers.

History

Backtrack fifteen years or so ago, and what you find is that games had a clear-cut development and support path. A game was released as a stand-alone title, and if it did well, a sequel was soon put into the works. If a title did really well, sometimes an expansion pack would come out, which created an extension to the existing game. This would generally add hours of gameplay, a suit of new characters, items, and challenges, and cost about $20-$40.

The game box for Starcraft and its expansion

Starcraft was released in 1998, and later that year the expansion was also released. The expansion required the original game to play, but provided nearly an equal number of missions, as well as new units and abilities. Image is copyright Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

Soon after downloadable content (DLC) was introduced to gaming, expansion packs started to become more of a legacy model and all new content was distributed through DLC packs for various prices. As more and more content started to be released in this model, most gamers cried foul, feeling like they were being delivered half finished games and expected to shell out for the final pieces.

While the DLC/season pass model has worked well for AAA titles, who can guarantee content packs even before a game is released, smaller developers can’t quite keep pace. New intellectual properties (IPs) from large developers also pose a great risk where the reception of a game is unclear until the title hits the hands of customers. The episodic game model has come as the solution for these circumstances, but it’s not as simple as being “good” or “bad” directly.

The Good

When a new developer hits the scenes, it’s hard to get a sense for what customers want or need until they can get their hands on the product. With the episodic game model, episode 1 can be released in a similar fashion to a short run for a new TV series. It gets released, people give feedback, and then development can head in the direction that fans want it to. This allows for indie developers to create a game that people want to play, and not just what the developer thinks they want to play.

The cover art for Life is Strange

Life is strange was developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix. It comprised of 5 individual episodes. Each episode had an individual story, but all 5 were linked together with an overarching story line. Image source.

While episodic games help developers, they help customers as well. Instead of purchasing a game for $60 new and crossing their fingers in hopes for a good game, consumers instead spend $10-$15 and can play the whole first portion. If they decide that they like the game, the other episodes can be purchased in order for them to experience the rest of the story. On the other hand, if the title ends up not fitting their preferences, they can finish to the end of the chapter and call it quits there.

The Bad

There is an inherent risk when developers are releasing a portion of a game, and depending on the sales of that single episode to support further development. Sin Episodes, Bone, and Incecticide are all examples of games that had future content cut short for one reason or another.

Final Thoughts

Episodic games are still a fairly new concept, and they can be positive or negative based on the situation and the scope of the game/IP.

The Walking Dead game cover art

The Walking Dead by Telltale Games has become a hugely popular episodic title. Support has pushed TWD into a third season, slated to be released in Fall 2016. Image source.

Square Enix has confirmed that the Final Fantasy VII remake will be released in full-game length episodes  but fans are skeptical of the idea. The title could prove to be a major influence on the public’s thoughts on episodic games, or usher in a whole new model.

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