In Defence of Episodic Games

by Justinas Staskevicius
Published: Last Updated on

For many of us, games are one time purchases. Maybe a DLC or major expansion comes along a few months after release, but the game you bought on day one is more or less the game that exists years down the line. As video games have grown as a medium, publishers have experimented with alternative forms of release. While many of these are gimmicks or cash grabs by design, one in particular, is a massive creative shift: episodic releases.

While we at Goomba Stomp have been critical of episodic releases in the past, there are certain benefits to this new wave of releases.

telltale-games

Episodic games are nothing new — they have been around nearly as long as gaming itself — but in recent years the style of episodic games has evolved as a storytelling medium. Telltale Games made waves in 2012 with the release of its episodic title, The Walking Dead. Since then they have been at the forefront of this stylistic evolution, but they are far from alone. Indie titles like Kentucky Route Zero and Life is Strange, as well as high-profile releases like Hitman, have reviewed very well to date, proving that good things can come in bite-sized portions.

If traditional releases are a Netflix binge session, then episodic games are a weekly dose of HBO. One thing that this format creates is “water cooler discussions.” Episodic titles introduce that to gaming. Smaller sections of a story walled off for a month or more at a time allows for more discussion opportunities, often five or so, in between episodes. Suddenly a player does not need to make it to the end of the game to be active in the community without fear of spoilers, they merely need to keep up to date, which is a much lower barrier to entry.

episodicgames

The forced pacing also allows us to engage with a game for a longer period. It is harder to simply devour and move on from. Instead of feeling like Batman for a weekend, Batman: The Telltale Series —the third episode of which just released lives in our minds for months. We get to be Batman for months, and who among us doesn’t want that?

Massive quality titles release with such frequency that it can be hard to keep up. Not only do triple-A releases require a massive time sink, they can also be restrictively expensive for many. Episodic games spread out these demands over months, making it easier to slot in an episode either in-between large titles or as a palate cleanser when you want to take a break from a large game without stepping away from it for too long.

walking dead game

Yes, there are problems with episodic games. It is not ideal to have to wait years between releases, nor is it great for companies to gamble with the quality of future episodes based on the revenue generated by previous episodes. Being part of the zeitgeist as each episode releases, however, is a feeling unlike any other within the medium. Episodic games can mean your favourite franchise releasing several times in a year without sacrificing overall quality.

Many games could release in an episodic format, with sections in the hands of players earlier. Games like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End could easily have been split up into several episodes due to the narrative chapter-based structure of the game. Not all games naturally fit into the template however. Open world games in particular, would suffer for obvious reasons. This is not a call to make all games episodic, but there certainly are benefits to the structure that we have only, as a community, begun to scratch the surface of.

  • Justinas Staskevicius

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2 comments

Will Stribling October 29, 2016 - 1:03 am

I think that story-driven games are the only one’s that should be released episodically. TellTale has illustrated multiple times how well that can work, and I agree that it adds new layers to discussion. I am not a fan of gameplay driven or AAA priced titles being released in this way, though. I can’t imagine any benefit to gamers if a game like Uncharted, as you mentioned above, were released in this way. In the case of Hitman, while some found benefit in the extra time to focus on dissecting one portion, I was just frustrated the whole game wasn’t there. Some bought that game too without knowing it was episodic and were left frustrated. Advertisements for Telltale’s ongoing Batman series do not tell you that only part of the game is available now. What’s to keep some random person in a GameStop from buying the disc version without this knowledge? Episodic content can be bad for gamers as as the “pay now play later” model, just like pre-ordering does not guarantee a good game. Why should I fork out all the money now for a package that won’t be complete for 6 months? There used to be a financial benefit to this, usually being a 20% discount to the season-pass, but even that has gone away with Telltale’s Batman. The season pass is $25 and each episode is $4.99 individually, which ironically, makes is $0.04 cheaper to just buy them as they come out. Delays can also happen, as we saw multiple times with Tales From The Borderlands, which punishes those there from the get-go. I’m a fan of episodic content when it’s appropriate and consistent. I doubt we’ll see “the rise of episodic gaming” and it’ll just stay the small, but meaningful genre that it is.

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Justinas Staskevicius October 29, 2016 - 5:45 am

I agree that it is unlikely to see a massive rise in episodic gaming, but I do think that you will soon see a major franchise (bigger than Hitman) try this format.

I do not condone pre ordering in anyway, and highly recommend that everyone wait till release and reviews before buying most games.

I think that the biggest benefit of having a game like Uncharted come out in episodes (as I say above) is that you would get portions earlier (It might have even come out on time!). Splitting that game, a 15 hour experience, into 3 hour chunks could have been a bold and interesting choice.

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