I first started thinking extensively about episodic gaming back when Alan Wake released in 2010. That game was the first that really made a strong case that the future of gaming could be in episodic chunks. If you’ve never played it, basically the game was broken down into smaller, 2-3 hour bits that were delivered not unlike a television show, complete with credits at the end of each episode and “previously on” primers before the start of each new chapter.
And for the most part it worked flawlessly, although maybe a good portion of that success can be attributed to the unique story Alan Wake was telling that leant itself to this format. But nonetheless, the point is this: Alan Wake made a strong case for an episodic future.
However, flash forward to 2012 and few major publishers and developers have attached themselves to the episodic delivery method. The majority of retail games are still the AAA-developed, multi-million dollar blockbusters we’ve become accustomed to over the past few years. Although, the recent success of Telltale’s The Walking Dead – both critically, commercially and at the Spike Video Game Awards where it took home Game of the Year - could/should change the perception by major publishers that episodic games are somehow inferior to done-in-one, AAA releases.
For starters, the risks of developing episodic titles are far fewer. Developing for the AAA market is a risky endeavor. You’re dumping millions and millions of dollars into a project that a) could wind up falling apart at any point during the multi-year development cycle, or b) might not take with the general public. For every success story you hear, there are dozens of failures, oftentimes resulting in studios being forced to shutter.
Now I’m not saying these studios could have avoided closing their doors if they had been developing episodically, but think about how much pressure would be removed from the situation. Consider game development going the route of offering “pilot” episodes like television – a studio develops the first chapter of their game and puts it out for consumers to buy, if it does well commercially, then they have the greenlight to continue development on the project. And what if the first episode doesn’t do well, what then? Well, scrap the project and move on. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand this is a far less risky move than throwing all your chips on the table with every game you make.
Consumers also benefit from this release strategy because these “pilots” would basically be extensive demos of titles they are interested in. You can spend $5-$10 on the first chapter and if you like it, great. If you’re not a fan, then move on and don’t worry about dropping another $55 on the rest of a game you likely won’t enjoy. And while there are plenty of great video games releasing throughout a year already to look forward to, episodic games have a certain x-factor that makes them desirable since you’re forced to patiently wait for the next chapter of a story you’re enjoying, kind of like how great television shows and comics books hook their respective viewers.
The only problem with this philosophy is that it won’t work for all games. Titles like Uncharted or Metal Gear Solid, ones that are fairly linear, could make the transition rather easily. But open-world games like Skyrim or to a lesser extent Assassin’s Creed, or even ones with a heavy emphasis on multiplayer like Call of Duty, would not. Developers of titles like those would still have to commit to an everything-or-nothing development cycle. At least until someone more creative than I comes up with a solution.
Obviously, we’re still a long way from seeing episodic gaming taking over the industry. When done right, as is the case with Alan Wake and The Walking Dead, it can lead to fantastic experiences for fans. But those are sadly few and far between. The irony is not lost on me either; major publishers and developers view going the route of episodic development as a giant risk, yet the way big games are being created right now is far riskier.
Think of it this way, when you play poker you don’t go “all in” every round, because if you do, you won’t stay at the table very long. It’s far smarter to pick your battles and when the table isn’t hot, you get up and find another.
Erik Norris is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @Regular_Erik.