Episodic Games Need Standardization

The allure of releasing games on an episodic schedule for developers is understandable. Spacing out releases by weeks and months provides many benefits and opportunities for creators. What bodes well for the developer, however, does not bode so well for the gamer.

There are many reasons that an episodic format is valuable for developers:

  1. They don’t need the game completely finished by the time they release the first episode, and they thus have extra time to polish the later episodes. In fact, while not likely that substantial changes can be made for the next forthcoming episode, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that changes can be made to the latter episodes based on fan feedback.
  2. Releasing your game in a series of five or six episodes means that your game will constantly be referenced in gaming media, where release dates for each episode are covered as a news story, thus equating to free additional promotion.
  3. This system keeps gamers constantly talking and thinking about your game as they anxiously await the next episode, further creating a lasting buzz about the game.
  4. After all episodes are out, reviews on the series as a whole begin to be published, gaining them one more slot in the spotlight.
  5. They are able to make one last push for sales by including all episodes of the game in a discounted purchase price either digitally or sometimes even physically.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange

There are several different approaches to this episodic format, as developers can have a set schedule of releases or just update information on the next episode as it becomes available. The former was utilized by Capcom with the release of Resident Evil: Revelations 2 earlier in 2015, as they released one episode each week for a month. The latter approach is more commonly used by Telltale when releasing games like the recent Game of Thrones series, or by Dontnod with their unique title Life is Strange.

The weekly approach doesn’t seem particularly troublesome and grants many of the benefits of the above bulleted list without hurting the gamer. Telltale’s recent approach with Game of Thrones, however, can be frustrating, and it ultimately isn’t good for either gamers or the developers.

RE:R2

Resident Evil Revelations 2

With Capcom, we knew exactly what to expect. A weekly interval is reasonable as there’s not too much time between episodes, and it means that we only have to constantly hear about the game for a single month. The developer still benefits from increased promotion and coverage, but don’t run the risk of irritating their consumer base by dragging out the project. They were still able to bundle all episodes into a single package once all episodes were released; no harm, no foul.

Telltale’s approach with Game of Thrones, however, has been nothing short of maddening. The first episode was released in December 2014, and the final episode is just finally being released at the end of November in 2015. That’s almost an entire year! Most irritating is that the final episode will be released almost four full months after the previous episode. There are a lot of problems with this implementation of an episodic format.

First and foremost, gamers can’t be expected to follow a story that has been fed through an irrigation line over the course of an entire year. Those of us who were excited to play their game have been continually frustrated by lack of communication about release dates, and each time a new episode came out we lost some of the content from the previous one, weakening the story and our overall concern with the status of the characters. In an adventure game that borders on a visual novel, this is a serious issue.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

This latest delay of four months is simply bad business. As someone who has anxiously awaited the next release each step of the way, I’ve become bitter about the series and about Telltale in general. Issues like these delays have me fishing for more reasons to justify my angst with Telltale, such as publicly denouncing their aging game engine that was put to shame by the recently released Life is Strange. It’s well known that people try to find more justification for their feelings on issues, and this situation is no different.

Speaking of Life is Strange, that release cycle is not without issues either. An intriguing game with a focus on a unique storyline is hurt by wide gaps between episode releases. I had planned to write a review about the game, but upon revisiting my notes from each episode I felt it hard to tie it all together in a cohesive package. True, I could have taken better notes, or played through the entire game all at once for the purpose of a review, but I’m bringing it up because it’s symptomatic of a larger problem with the format. These episodic games with large intervals really do a disservice to the overall story, as the time gaps break up the emotional arch of the story and dampen the overall experience and thus the quality of the game in the mind of the player.

It seems like game series that take this elongated approach lose momentum, which is also bad for the developers as well as for the gamers. Spacing out episodes with such uncertainty and infrequency damages the long-term viability of a game and its series, and it should be avoided at all costs. If a developer feels the need to use an episodic approach, follow Capcom’s lead. Or save yourself some headache and just release a full game all at once.

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