There are plenty of modern game design concepts that have been met with controversy. Quick-time events, pop-up hints, cover systems and checkpoints have all seen their share of hatred among gamers and are often hot topics for debate. Another trend that’s becoming popular, especially with adventure games, is episodic content. Telltale Games is most notorious for producing games split up into episodes that are released throughout the course of six months or even longer. Despite this they have acquired a large fan-base and many of their games receive positive reviews, especially the award winning Walking Dead. But, is what they’re doing a good thing? There are a few issues regarding episodic content that need to be explored.
Waiting For New Episodes
The most successful games rely on instant-gratification to keep gamers invested. While this leads to a whole host of other problems, it is effective in keeping many franchises relevant. With this in mind, it makes one wonder if games released slowly in chunks will keep gamers interested. The Walking Dead was supposed to get a new episode every month, but this didn’t happen with many of them. DLC has caused many gamers to wait until the inevitable “game of the year” release that’s cheaper and contains the full game, and many people interested in episodic adventure games have done the same thing. In fact, The Walking Dead didn’t appear to receive the bulk of its attention until all of the episodes were available. While it did work out in the end for The Walking Dead, primarily because it’s a popular brand, I doubt that this business model will be as effective for other games.
Is an episode containing one to two hours of content worth $10 to $15? Sure this is a paltry sum compared to the numerous games released every year not worth the $60 asking price, but purchasing each episode by itself can easily match or exceed the average price for most games. Fortunately, most episodic games offer season passes that allow consumers to purchase the entire game at a discounted price and receive any new content instantly when it’s released. However, by buying the game in bulk you’re purchasing most of the game blindly. What if the game gets worse with each new episode? What if the game gets canceled halfway through development? Do we really want to make purchases based solely on developer promises? If instances like the Aliens: Colonial Marines controversy keep happening, the answer is an emphatic “no”.
Storytelling is probably the one area that episodic content works best. In a recent interview with Game Informer, Telltale Games’ CEO and founder Dan Connors explained why:
“It’s the culmination of so many things that we’ve learned to do throughout the history of the company. Working really well in this context and the live-development aspect of it – which I never would have expected – is so valuable in that you’re getting a read on what players are responding to, and you’re able to enhance it, play on it, and change it.”
Basically, through “live-development” Telltale is able to listen to feedback from their customers and react to it accordingly. This probably caused some of the delays The Walking Dead experienced, but it did make the game’s story that much more engaging. The industry desperately needs to work on their interaction with fans and the episodic model is one way to fix this problem. Note that I’m not saying the industry should focus on episodic content, just that it can work if used wisely and in moderation.
While this is all well and good, it still doesn’t make up for the fact that the episodes are released on a monthly basis. People can easily forget about a game’s story if they can only experience it once a month, so maybe weekly releases would be better. Not only that, but it still trains people to just wait for the complete release once the game is finished.
In the end, episodic content is a risky business practice despite the potential benefits it has on design and story. Telltale has only managed to truly get it to work with The Walking Dead, and I’m not sure they’ll get the same results with their next project, Fables. Yes, Fables is an established property, but it’s not even close to being as recognizable as The Walking Dead. Regardless, as long as it works for Telltale then more power to them. I just don’t want to see the concept become a major facet of the industry; we’re having enough problems with DLC as it is.