Opinion: What happened to episodic games?

It was a promising idea 10 years ago, but publishers haven't really jumped on-board. What happened?

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Telltale has become the de facto torchbearer for episodic games. It has two currently running games and even more coming. While an episodic strategy fits Telltale's story-driven style, they're the exception that proves the rule. Barely anyone else seems to be pursuing the model at all. The idea seemed so revolutionary only ten years ago, and it was a sure bet that more publishers would jump on-board. What happened?

These days, a plot-heavy game like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us seem like the most natural fit for an episodic release model, but that wasn't always the case. In its heyday, publishers considered using it for everything from platformers to shooters. The promise of episodic gaming was to respond more dynamically to the marketplace, and fuel future game development with the upfront costs. However, those strengths may have also proven to be its fatal weaknesses.

Since episodes were so front-loaded, it meant the first episode had to cover both the upfront rendering costs and help fund the development of future episodes. If the first episode failed to bring in enough to cover both of those aspects, the game could fizzle altogether. Sin Episodes notably suffered this fate, leaving customers who were invested in the early episodes out in the cold.

We still see that dynamic working, to a lesser extent, in Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access games. Developers don't like to leave their customers disappointed with unfulfilled promises, and publishers don't like the backlash that hurts the bottom line. The mere threat of unfulfilled promises could be intimidating enough to keep publishers away from an episodic model.

On top of that, responsive game development doesn't work very well on a tight schedule. Episodic gaming works best when customers can count on a standardized content schedule. Even though Telltale releases are sporadic, they are kept on a somewhat regular flow, appearing every few months. They can only do this with a very clear roadmap of content. It might respond with slight variation based on feedback, but real responsive design doesn't work very well episodically.

A game like Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was planned as an episodic release, and to Sega's credit it did listen to the fans when making the second episode. But, partly because of that, the two were so far apart they felt more like standard releases than true episodic content. Meanwhile we're still waiting for the third part of Starcraft 2. These don't feel like part of the same whole anymore. They're essentially sequels.

Then there are the games that simply flat-out disappeared. Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 and 2 were critical hits, but when's the last time you've heard anyone referencing or even asking aout Episode 3? In the minds of fans, the next Half-Life is and should be "Half-Life 3." The episodic promise has been forgotten.

The model may have been ahead of its time. Episodic gaming works best through digital distribution. Buying discs of episodes only works once a "season" has finished, which essentially turns the content into one long game and compromises the entire point of delivering it in smaller parts. In the more optimistic times when episodic gaming appeared to be the wave of the future, many gamers didn't have the Internet bandwidth to support such large file sizes, which could have caused hesitation on the part of publishers.

It can also be difficult to keep gamers hooked and coming back. Even with digital distribution removing the threat of trade-ins, we're a fickle bunch. We constantly chase the next, the new, the shiny. An episode might give us our fill and when the next one comes around, some minor iteration isn't really enough to tempt us back. It's a catch-22. If the developer offers enough value in the first episode to satisfy players, they may not be tempted back to buy the next one. If they fail to offer enough value, people won't buy it in the first place. Grand Theft Auto 4's episodes didn't set the world ablaze, I'd posit because at the end of the day it was still the same "Liberty City" to explore. We'd gotten our fill already.

Telltale's model is especially successful because it relies so heavily on getting us invested in the characters and story, and leaving us with a cliffhanger. Suffice to say people aren't still buying episodes of The Walking Dead because they care about solving simple adventure game puzzles; they care about Clementine. Emotional hooks are clearly superior to gameplay ones, in this case.

Episodic games haven't disappeared entirely, of course. Releases on iOS still use the model, because it works so well with the free-to-play, microtransaction-based model that is so popular on that platform. Indie games still occasionally use it too, as we saw in the case of Kentucky Route Zero. 

As a major force for change in gaming, however, developers and publishers never embraced it. It seems likely that its time has passed, possibly before it had a real chance to shine. We may see a resurgence someday, but it will take developers and publishers finding ways to surmount the obstacles and make it work for genres outside of story-based adventure. That's difficult enough that most probably won't bother trying.

Editor-In-Chief

From The Chatty

  • reply
    July 21, 2014 9:29 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Opinion: What happened to episodic games?.

    It was a promising idea 10 years ago, but publishers haven't really jumped on-board. What happened?

    • reply
      July 21, 2014 11:31 AM

      I'm still waiting for Sin Episodes: Episode 2. The teaser video at the end of the first one was awesome!

      :(

      • reply
        July 21, 2014 12:16 PM

        I think this is the game that turned me off of the idea. I didn't want to get into a game only to have it get axed.

      • reply
        July 21, 2014 2:56 PM

        Ritual is back in some form or another. Old members got it on gog and are looking into doing more with the franchise. This was from reddit awhile ago.

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          July 21, 2014 3:08 PM

          Whaaaat!? That's great!

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          July 21, 2014 3:10 PM

          LOL...I'm banned from the Ritualistic forums.

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            July 21, 2014 9:07 PM

            LOL... you just made me check if the Ritualistic site was still active.

            There is their 1 visitor for the month. RIP, RItual. :(

        • reply
          July 21, 2014 9:08 PM

          What happened to that Shacker who had mentioned making Episode 2 themselves? Was it you, RomSteady?

          I'd probably donate a kidney to see Episode 2 be completed.

      • reply
        July 21, 2014 5:55 PM

        yeah... i really wanted another one.

    • reply
      July 21, 2014 11:50 AM

      F2P happened. /thread

      • reply
        July 21, 2014 3:20 PM

        isn't that the answer to every question these days? :(

        • reply
          July 21, 2014 6:04 PM

          Actually, it's "P2W WTF SUX"

    • reply
      July 21, 2014 11:56 AM

      They saw the backlash from lack of Half Life episodes / HL3 and said "screw this"

    • reply
      July 21, 2014 12:08 PM

      Ask Gaben

    • reply
      July 21, 2014 12:09 PM

      Isn't that what Wolf Among Us is as well?

      If your writing sucks, people wont keep coming back.

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      July 21, 2014 12:13 PM

      Nobody's gonna buy six episodes of a shitty game, but they might buy one full-priced shitty game.

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      July 21, 2014 12:16 PM

      Indies are doing it. Publishers are still trying to keep doing things they way they always have for the most part. Except for F2P and DLC which they see as goldmines.

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      July 21, 2014 12:20 PM

      I personally think it mainly comes down to it being too expensive and time consuming. It takes too much money and time to support episodes coming out even every month. Even if you manage a release every six months, that's a lot of gap for people to forget the plot, characters, and mechanics, and a lot of money spent on development.

      I think the closest we get to episodic content, and the closest we are likely to get in most genres, is DLC.

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      July 21, 2014 12:30 PM

      People figured out that small DLC gives them more money for less work.

    • reply
      July 21, 2014 1:41 PM

      Another interesting topic piece to fill the summer doldrums. Keep up the good work Shack writers!

    • reply
      July 21, 2014 2:14 PM

      I think it has more to to do with the fact that episodic development doesn't really save as much development time as they thought. Breaking up the game in to three or four chunks probably added a lot of unnecessary overhead.

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        July 21, 2014 2:46 PM

        That's what I assumed.

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      July 21, 2014 2:23 PM

      10 years ago? Wow, has it been ten years?

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        July 21, 2014 2:24 PM

        Just means we're ten years closer to HL3, right?

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      July 21, 2014 2:49 PM

      It's eerie: I was literally thinking about the "what happened to episodic gaming" question yesterday. Then I remembered, "Oh yeah: production issues happened to episodic gaming." This article covers this and other points rather nicely.

      I think this was coming off of the discussion of why there aren't more expansion DLC packs, and the answer is ultimately very similar to the reasons for episodic gaming failing.

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      July 21, 2014 2:54 PM

      I picked up all of season one of The Walking Dead on sale last year and it was easily my GOTY. No other game has had that kind of emotional impact for me. Despite that, however, I've been waiting patiently for season two to wrap up before I'll buy. I don't WANT my games to come in episodes.

      I don't want to be left hanging between episodes. Some suspense is good, but if I have to wait months I'll be totally out of that game's frame of mind by the time the next part comes around. I'll have lost my connection with the characters, the decisions I made and even the controls for the game. Just give it to me all at once to experience at my own pace.

      Also, personally, I tend to play a game until I'm done with it. Either I've completed it or I've just had my fill. IF I'm going to come back to a game again it's generally not for quite a while; a year if not longer. Episodes just don't appeal to me and my playstyle.

      Plus the good points other dudes have made up there^^

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      July 21, 2014 7:31 PM

      Episodic games scared me away from Telltale's releases until they come out as a full package. It was pretty infuriating to be left with a cliffhanger just to have the company quit on the series. Sin, Psi-Ops and a special fuck you to Valve, who certainly have the means to finish up Half Life, but care more about Steam and TF2 than anything else.

    • P90
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      July 22, 2014 12:30 AM

      I disagree about The Ballad of Gay Tony being more of the same. It was better than the main story in GTA IV.

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        July 22, 2014 1:39 PM

        I'm really looking forward to some GTA V singleplayer DLC, just more story/missions with the same characters would be fine with me.

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      July 22, 2014 2:57 AM

      It was never a promising idea. Probably valve's biggest misstep.

      1) You have to create a whole game on the front end only to release a single episode and hope it goes well. All of the risk for less potential reward.
      2) If you misstep during the series at all you tank everything that comes after it. Imagine if Walking Dead episode 3 was just awful. You'd never touch 4.

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      July 23, 2014 2:53 PM

      Shall we count Mass Effect as an episodic game that worked?

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        July 23, 2014 3:07 PM

        Maybe for 2 and 3, but 1 and 2 are quite different.