Over the past couple of years, along with the rise of crowdfunding I’ve seen another trend emerge in gaming, one that will slowly reach the same level of shenanigans: Episoding Gaming. Episodic Games come in seasons, their story split into multiple chapters with their own price tag and of course the usual season pass, and over the course of potentially many years.
It used to be that episodic games were the domain of independent developers, those struggling to make enough money to meet development costs. The episodic nature would let them earn money on small bits of the game while they work on others. It also helps them by splitting the development into defined chunks, something useful I believe when they’re juggling day jobs with the game development responsibilities.
But while that is still somewhat true, there is a growing trend of full-time and highly successful game studios releasing games in the episodic format as well. Some have done it for ages and see no need to change now, as the business models suits them best, knowing how to take advantage of new episode releases to boost sales. Others use “episodic” as an excuse to cover up a delayed development and some just want to milk the trend as much as they can. Then there are the episodic titles released by major publishers, those that have no need for this type of content save for feeding the marketing fires. This last one has another side effect that I hope doesn’t become a common occurrence: releasing full games as episodic, splitting it up haphazardly in “post-production.”
Episodic From Scratch
There’s a difference between a game that’s been designed as a season and one that’s been crudely hacked to pieces after completion. The difference is noticeable in pacing, structure and overall content. Games designed as episodic from the ground up will have a consistent pacing, revealing just enough in their episodes to remain engaging but not enough to spoil what’s coming in the future. Also gameplay, encounters, puzzles and other obstacles have perfect timing and help keep you entertained and at the edge of your seat.
Games like Knee Deep, Life is Strange and Dreamfall Chapters are perfect examples of games built episodically. Prologue Games wrote the game’s story then went through it to find the best parts to cut it up, and once that was decided they built the different plotlines and character moments for each segment, going back and forth between this and the rest of the game’s design, making sure that every episode is as strong as the others in the season.
Games cut up after they’re finished are the opposite. While mechanically and narratively competent and even good, the pacing and content will be all over the place, with some episodes adding very little to the plot or having stronger/harder encounters or challenges. These are often Greedily Episodic (more on that later).
If you need an example, I’ll give you the best one: Resident Evil: Revelations 2. I liked the game, gave it a nice score in my review. But compared to other episodic titles, the pacing was completely off. There were episodes where the “past” storyline barely moved, and some ended with no climax, no payoff. One episode in particular ends with Barry’s section and it’s a box-moving puzzle and a recurring enemy type. The last episode on the other hand has barely any Claire content, as her role is to set up the plot, but not really influence its resolution. It’s clear that the original game would have two major chapters, the early ones with Claire setting up the story and then the future plot with Barry.
If you’re wondering what the point of a post-production episodic game is: it’s greed. Games released episodically are much less risky than a single release. Also, a good review on one episode will fuel the purchases of future episodes. It’s easier to market and entice buyers with the lower selling point of single episodes. And the presence of a Season Pass, with a minor discount over buying the season individually, makes it even more likely that people will buy the pack.
Then there are these games, the ones that started out as a single game but somewhere down the line the developer decided to release in two or more chunks, probably once they realised they wouldn’t be able to fulfill the promises they made.
These split up games are a special case of the above, where the original intent was to make a single game but something forces the developers to split it into multiple acts. The reason for splitting is always the same: delays. Developers overshoot their scope and end up with a game nowhere near completion when the promised deadline comes around the corner. And of course there’s the funding of the second episode based on the sales of the first chunk.
There are two main examples of this trend of episodic games, and one’s a repeat offender in my book, but we’ll leave them for second. The first one is Revolution Games’ Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse, an over-scoped game that failed to meet its deadline near the end of 2013 and forced Revolution to split it up and release it in two halves in order to make true on their promise of a 2013 release.
When interviewed about the split, series creator Charles Cecil said the following: “It’s not that we’ve run out of money at all. We promised to deliver the game to our backers before [Christmas 2013]. And I’m well aware that other developers have treated their backers in a way that I don’t think backers should be treated.”
Cecil then followed up his statement with this comment, one I don’t agree with and particularly feel is a cop-out: “I’m always really worried that people never finish games, they’re always too long. So I’m genuinely excited by the idea of delivering two parts. Hopefully people will anticipate the first one, they’ll anticipate the second one, and spend a couple of days playing them through. And I would hope more people finish the game that would have done otherwise.”
Then there’s our second contestant: Double Fine. Broken Age got broken up into two pieces because by the time of their highly successful crowdfunding campaign, they didn’t even have the basic structure of this game. They raised money on a promise called “Double Fine Adventure,” but they didn’t have anything to show for it, not even the basic elements of a story. The Double Fine teams spent months working on visuals while Tim Schafer created the story for Broken Age. By June 2013, a year after the Kickstarter project, it was clear they wouldn’t meet their deadline and pushed the game back a year, something that would then happen again in 2014 after the release of the first episode, with Double Fine pushing the second into 2015.
Because of this lack of structure, this Kickstarter without any defined concept, it’s no surprise they overshot their estimations on time and money, leaving Double Fine without crowdfunding money—including its slacker backer program. They then released the first episode to cover the development of the second one with the sales, while the feedback received went into increasing puzzle difficulty—though it could’ve used another layer of polish on story elements, particularly the villains, but that’s another story.
In 2013, when it came to announcing the split, Tim Schafer had this to say: “Those of you who have been following along in the documentary know about the design vs. money tension we’ve had on this project since the early days. Even though we received much more money from our Kickstarter than we, or anybody anticipated, that didn’t stop me from getting excited and designing a game so big that it would need even more money.”
He also added the following: “Then we had a strange idea. What if we made some modest cuts in order to finish the first half of the game by January instead of July, and then released that finished, polished half of the game on Steam Early Access? Backers would still have the option of not looking at it, of course, but those who were sick of waiting wouldn’t have to wait any more. They could play the first half of the game in January!” You can read his full statement here, courtesy of Gamasutra.
Much like Cecil, Schafer mentions things I don’t agree with, relating to the size of the game: “I think I just have an idea in my head about how big an adventure game should be, so it’s hard for me to design one that’s much smaller than Grim Fandango or Full Throttle. There’s just a certain amount of scope needed to create a complex puzzle space and to develop a real story. At least with my brain, there is.” The thing is, Broken Age, counting both episodes, is not as long as Full Throttle or Grim Fandango anyway, so his statement—and yes, it’s a nearly three-year-old statement—rings hollow.
The way to identify these games is that the second half is usually much stronger than the first, with better puzzles and stronger narrative—though both of my examples had narrative issues. When you look at the games knowing when and why they split up, you realise that first episode’s weakness is due to it being a rush job, something put out as fast as they could, bet it for monetary reasons, to apologise for delays or even both.
Then we come to these jewels. The games themselves probably aren’t bad, in fact one of them was the first game I ever game the Highlander award to, but the fact they’re episodic feels greedy, particularly since they come from either highly successful developers or those paired with major publishers. They go with this format as it provides the best possible reward with the lowest possible risk.
Life is Strange comes from DONTNOD, the people behind the maligned and ironically named Remember Me. They made Life is Strange episodic partially because of financial restrictions, though that sounds odd considering they had the backing of Square Enix. One of the roles of the publisher is basically foot the bill for the development, and with such backing, they didn’t need to release the game in this format. But then again, Square Enix has been famous lately for its questionable marketing practices such as the short-lived “Augment your pre-order” for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and deciding a few weeks ago that the upcoming Hitman and Final Fantasy VII remake would be episodic—and highly likely to be cut up in post-production.
Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is yet another example of the greedily episodic and this one is all on Capcom.
Then of course is the King of Episodic gaming: Telltale Games. Telltale started out making episodic games of old intellectual properties, including LucasArts worlds and characters, the type of game that would be appealing to old fans of the property but potentially not very profitable. But then they made The Walking Dead and since then they’ve become one of the most famous and successful developers in the industry. At this point in time, are the episodic releases really necessary for them? Are their third-party IP-centric games really a risk? Borderlands, Minecraft and Game of Thrones are extremely famous, so I think they could pull off the Single Full Game just riding on their notoriety.
But they won’t. Telltale knows better than anyone the advantages of episodic gaming, they know how to milk this format better than anyone else on the planet and so they’ll continue to do so. But it’s not because they have to, but because they can.
That’s the major difference. Developers like Red Thread Games, Prologue Games and even Phoenix Online Studios need their episodic content because as independent developers they have tight financial restrictions that make the single release both a giant risk and sometimes a physical impossibility.
I am a bit of a cynic—probably obvious at this point—but I do like to think the best of the gaming industry. I’d like to believe that episodic gaming won’t be perverted in favour of a quick and easy buck by companies and studios with little to no respect for their audience and fans. But the latest news, particularly the now-episodic Final Fantasy VII and Hitman releases, make me think that the Episodic trend will continue and become even worse.
If the industry follows the Telltale way of game development, and realise this makes for games easier to market, cheaper to develop and ultimately more expensive to buy, then they’ll jump on it and we’ll start seeing episodic entries in classic series. Hitman and Final Fantasy are the first to go, and Resident Evil gave us a glimpse of what this could be for Capcom. I fear that much like crowdfunding, Episodic gaming will be used and abused by the greediest people in the industry. And if that happens it’s not just we who will suffer from hastily cut up games (that are likely to still be as buggy as most AAA games are at the moment) and episode and season pass prices that trick us into paying more for less, but the generated distrust towards this format will hurt the people who really need it to put their new games out there: the independent developers.