Dec 20, 2013
Although episodic gaming content has been around for quite a few years now, it still feels like an undervalued and underrated form of gaming. It wouldn’t be at all helpful for every game type and genre to pursue the episodic style, as it will not work with everything. However, it still feels as though there is still much to be explored from episodic gaming content.
Episodic games have more scope to interact with its audience, as the development time between each episode released can be used to learn what has worked well, and what issues needs to be addressed. If a particular element wasn’t particularly well received, developers can take the time to make changes to their work to meet the demands of their audience. Similarly, if something doesn’t feel broken, there shouldn’t be a need to change that too much. Fortunately, the Playstation 4 and Xbox One will allow free-to-play titles and Indie games a marketplace on their online services, so this will be a great platform for developers to “pilot” their products.
Even if a “pilot” for a new episodic game was released and received moderate reviews, but demonstrated great potential, it might be a stepping-stone to continuing their work on the project now that it is making a name for itself. The time between the next release can then be used as a time to smooth out all the rough edges as required, refining it over time to create a game that could truly be great. As long as it continues to show promise, gamers may stick it out to eventually receive a good gaming pay-off from their investment. There may be a sudden boom in popularity if an episode in particular really reaches out to a wide audience.
If we compare episodic gaming content to that of a television series, the content may take a while to reach a mass audience in a similar way to how the audience for Breaking Bad developed since its opening series in 2008. Although the earlier seasons were successful, it was around the time series four came out when it became a household name and everybody would be asking if you had seen it. An episodic title could have similar success: the back-catalogue of content in the particular series may be picked up at a later date, and people would be more than happy to back-track and experience the game from the beginning and progress through the episodes in turn, as they would a TV series. In addition, as the borders between gaming, TV and film continue to shrink, episodic gaming could pull in a new audience that may help to increase gaming’s acceptance in the entertainment industry, alongside its film and TV cousins by non-gamers.
The time between each episodic release could be gaming’s version of the break between seasons, allowing gamers a time to cool down and go over what they have experienced, and discuss their progress so far with their friends. The internet is host to many web discussions of gaming, and could serve as a means to detox and hypothesise your thoughts about what is next to come.
Telltale Games are one of the key players in episodic content, having created games such as the Sam and Max franchise, Tales of Monkey Island, and The Walking Dead to name a few. For a game such as The Walking Dead, where your actions influence the other characters attitudes, behaviours (and sometimes how much longer they will live), the format allowed for the developers to view how the audience reacted to each major choice. At the end of each episode, gamers would be reminded of their decisions, but also the decisions of all the other players too. Sometimes this would either make you feel as though your actions were justified, wherein you belonged to the majority. However, when you were in the minority, it could perhaps make you feel worse about the decision you made. Had you been in a real zombie apocalypse (which is totally going to happen, you know), your decision making might be questioned by your party. Fortunately, we needn’t worry about that for the time being. Saying that, your actions continued and directly influenced the following episodes, so continuity remained.
By gauging the audiences responses to each episode, it allowed the developers to retroactively develop the game in such a way they can surprise the audience more by playing on what they cared about, as shown at the end of each episode through the decisions they made. Telltale could directly react to how gamers experienced the game, and cater to its audience more directly.
Developers do have to be cautious when approaching the release of their titles however, especially when their ambition is not met with financial support. Dark Matter, a Kickstarter project was recently removed from Steam over confusion as to whether the title was a fully-fledged release or split into two episodes. The project unfortunately had to be scaled down, which is what appears to have prompted the game to split into two parts. It is hard to decipher if this was an honest mistake by the developers, or whether it was an attempt to re-adjust their game to cater to what finances were available. By splitting the game into two episodes, it would buy time to develop the second half of the game, while cashing in on the progress made so far.
If a particular project is bouncing between a full-release and an episodic-release schedule, the indecision may negatively impact the game as it may fail to deliver on the style ultimately chosen. Sometimes, it may be better to go with your cut and work towards a full release and work on content in its entirety, which is what happened for Rayman Origins, which may have been released episodically, but was then decided against. However, episodic gaming does allow for developers to test the waters and “pilot” their content, allowing for an initial response from the audience. It’s hard to say whether that will be for the better or for the worse, however.