Sunday, August 21, 2011

Episodic Games: "Still Waiting"

Let's talk about them new-fangled "episodic games" for a bit. They first showed up on the scene in 2006 with Sin: Episodes, followed shortly by Half-Life 2: Episodes. The idea was to release a full-length game in smaller chunks called "episodes." They'd cost a fraction of a full-priced game, and would be released about every six months. It was a novel idea at the time, but look where it's gotten us. There's still a lot of potential yet to be tapped with episodic games, but so far the concept has been mostly disappointing.

There are a number of advantages with episodic content. For one, developers can alter the overall pacing of the game experience in unique ways. With each episode essentially an independent release, they can focus on specific goals with the usual format of introduction→slow build-up→rising action→climax. They end up feeling like a regular game but with more potency. And the delay between episodes can create tension as players wait for the next release.

Developers can also respond to feedback and adjust the gameplay from episode to episode. If something wasn't well-received in the previous episode, they can tweak it up and improve it for the next one, or drop it completely. A series can evolve more efficiently. Not to mention, it's sometimes nice to play a shorter game knowing that you don't have to invest a lot of time to get through it. You can play it in shorter chunks, and the game will progressively keep up with you. 

But the major problem with episodic games is the fact that the developers can go out of business or lose funding before completing a series. In the case of Sin: Episodes, Ritual Entertainment didn't make enough money off of the first episode to continue on, and was soon acquired by another company. The series was canceled after only one episode. I don't really mind because the game wasn't that great (the Personal Challenge System™ that "tailors the difficulty to the player's skill" actually punished success and made the game frustratingly difficult), but I would've stuck around for at least a little while longer to see if they could improve it.

The other problem is the propensity for development to fall behind schedule, and for episodes to be released much less frequently than anticipated. With Half-Life 2: Episodes, we've been stuck waiting nearly four years for the third (and final) installment. After a certain point, the delay between episodes taints the experience, but the wait for Episode Three has gone into the realm of pure absurdity. Especially considering the fact that Valve have been active with a number of other games in the meantime. 

In other cases, developers take a concept that would fit in one game and stretch it out across several. The .hack  games did this on the PS2, releasing four games in total, one every quarter. Each game lasted maybe 15-20 hours, and I believe launched at full price. It really just seems like a fiendish way for Bandai to milk the concept and sucker customers into paying four times for the same game, especially since the games don't evolve at all from episode to episode. It's yet another case of episodic games done poorly.

I think the only successful studio to handle episodic content is Telltale Games. Some of their more well-known episodic games include the Sam & Max franchise, Tales of Monkey Island, and Back to the Future. They've been punctual about releasing episodes on a monthly basis and making sure the episodic content flows well from game to game. But alas, I've not played any of their games yet. 

I'd be interested to see more games experimenting with episodic content, because it's a great idea if it can be done properly. We just haven't seen mainstream games done properly yet. I definitely wouldn't want every game to become episodic, but it might be nice to see a few more that make it work. But at the same time I don't want another "Sin: Episodes" to happen and leave me stuck buying an incomplete series that will never give me closure, or another ".hack" that just spreads the content out too thin. Maybe some of those bigger studios with more financial leeway could give it a shot, but who knows. 

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