The Growing Popularity of Episodic Video Games

The Telltale Collection, now available on Steam

Are Short Installments of Larger Productions the Future For Gaming?

It is 2015, and the episodic release model is becoming more and more familiar to the gaming industry. Popularized by series such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, games with seasons similar to a television show have become the trademark of publisher Telltale Games in particular. Now, the trend is extending to new franchises, including the Square Enix game Life is Strange.

Life is Strange's official trailer

What is an episodic video game exactly?

To define episodic video games, they are compromised of several parts that separately have a smaller duration than typical full releases. However, as a whole, the game is as lengthy as a standalone release. Additionally, the complete season of episodes is often available for a lump purchase once all the chapters have been published individually.

The types of games released in this format are often narrative-based and tell a continuous story from one episode to the next. They tend to share characters, settings, plots, and thematic elements.

While the schedule by which each episode is released varies from series to series, the period of time between episodes is usually systematic and relatively brief. Otherwise, the publisher runs the risk of players forgetting the plot or, worse, public interest having waned.

Telltale Games’ Influence

Behind the scenes of today’s fad, Telltale Games has already been publishing games in the episodic model for more than a decade. 

Telltale found success using this system because they have built up trust with the community. Players feel comfortable diving into a commitment with their releases because the company has proven again and again it will follow through on its promise to deliver new episodes in a timely matter.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anticipation between episodes in Telltale Games that follow this model. If anything, the hype is increased by the wait. For days in advance, fans guess when they will get to continue their favorite story, and upon release of a new episode, the excitement is sovereign.  

Sam & Max, An Early Episodic Hit

The birth of Telltale Games Inc. arose from the episodic game series Sam & Max, which was originally developed by Lucas Arts, in the early 2000s. The Sam & Max series is beloved by many, having collected a substantial fan base through the years, and was possibly the most successful early game using an episodic business model.  

Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse trailer

Sam & Max are a pair of private detectives who get into all sorts of shenanigans by being goofy and somewhat reckless at their duties. Oh, and they’re anthropomorphic, meaning that Sam is a dog and Max seems to be something akin to a rabbit.

Today’s Most Popular Series: The Walking Dead

Recently, Telltale Games received its highest level of success with their The Walking Dead series, which has two finished seasons out for purchase and a third in active development. Each episode was released on a two-month interval.

The Walking Dead follows Lee Everett, a controversial former professor, and his young companion, a little girl named Clementine, as they venture through the southern United States during a zombie apocalypse. To put it lightly, their journey is emotionally gripping.

Besides the novelty of episodic content, The Walking Dead is renowned for its reliance on player choice to determine narrative outcomes. There are many intense quick time events scattered throughout the game that drastically changes its course, and, no, you cannot revert your choices afterward; everything happens rapidly, including decision-making that will control how the player’s story ends.  Sometimes it is even a life or death matter!

The inclusion of player choice opens up a discussion between fans about what decisions they made in their personal play-through and allows them to compare and contrast how things could have ended if their split second decisions were even a little different. Talking about these games amongst friends is decidedly fun.

Having sparked the empathy of millions, The Walking Dead: Season One boasts multiple 2012 Game of the Year awards and even more nominations.

Telltale Games to Look Forward To

Presently, Telltale Games is working on multiple new franchises. They partnered with HBO to create an episodic Game of Thrones game, and have an ongoing Borderlands spinoff called Tales from the Borderlands. Furthermore, there are talks of a Minecraft story-mode game and the sequel to The Wolf Among Us, which could probably be the harshest fairytale found in mass media.

More and More Episodic Games Are Becoming Available

Other recent episodic video game projects outside of Telltale Games include Life is Strange, Alan Wake, Broken Age, Resident Evil: Revelations, and The Detail.

An interactive trailer for The Detail, as requested by fans

Some expansion packs, or Downloadable Content, also resemble the episodic content business model. That is best seen in Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City, a compilation of two pieces of Grand Theft Auto IV DLC – Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned and Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony.

The official trailer for Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City

Alan Wake and Episodic Horror

Interestingly, the previously mentioned Alan Wake has six initial episodes as well as two pieces of DLC. It is unique to the model in that, while still powered by the plot, it is a part of the survival horror genre.

The story is also a bit of a mystery; Alan Wake, its self-titled Stephen King-like protagonist, is searching desperately for his wife after she disappears during their vacation to a small town. Wake himself is an author suffering from writer’s block, until he completes a novel he does not remember writing and then experiences its events in his own real life.

As a thriller, Alan Wake benefits from the episodic format because each part offers another piece of the puzzle, eventually leading to the solution of the case. Perhaps of all the episodic games, it most obviously resembles the format of a television show with a recap sequence and musical closing credits to each installment. Overall, it received a positive critical response!

Pros and Cons of the Episodic Model

There is a deeper conversation happening about episodic video games, though; members of the gaming community are beginning to ask whether or not this business model is actually healthy for the industry. After all, at times, the monetary cost of such series can seem biased in the developers’ favor.

Because each installment is not exactly meaty, rarely lasting more than a couple hours, but still comes with a price, episodic games can be used as a tool to lure buyers into paying more for less content. This is especially true as the business model keeps costs down for developers.

Episodic video games are a product of today’s digital generation; the digital distribution method of publishing games facilitates the existence of multiple small installments in a way that would not be financially feasible with boxed products.

To some gamers, games that possess seasons in the style of television programming are off-putting, as they fear being scammed. Their apprehension is legitimate; when all is said and done, consumers can spend more on a game with numerous portions than a full standalone game.

Still, the experience one has with episodic video games is unlike any other. Episodic video games are set at a unique pace and, in many cases, encourage the formation of a particularly intimate community. For that reason, it is a style more advantageous to certain genres over others; first person shooters would be far less effective in episode form than a graphic adventure game would, for instance.

In these intimate communities, player feedback can be more easily heard, and developers can more easily improve their game based on it. There is the benefit of having time between episodes to reflect on what aspects worked and what didn’t work in the prior. The feedback loop with episodic games is vital.

Another potential plus is the way development is handled in an episodic video game series. It is worked in smaller intervals, which gives developers more focused jobs and allows their work to adjust based on the more accessible community response over time. Thus, their experience building these virtual worlds is more positive for them personally, and since extra care is placed into projects created in smaller portions, it can be more positive for consumers as well.  

Regardless of whether the benefits of the episodic gaming model are too skewed in the favor of developers, it seems that they are here to stay. Some of the most popular games of the past several years utilized the model, and it has proven to be rewarding in both financial profit and uniting the gaming community!

Do you have a favorite episodic game series? Are there any new episodes that you can’t wait to come out? Let us know in the comments section! 

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