Episodic games: A new trend?

by on December 20, 2014

While Telltale Games just unleashed Tales from Borderlands and Game of Thrones, the pioneer of episodic adventure games might be the studio we all know for this genre, but is finally being joined a new ones. A gold rush as modest as rigorous, is this going to be the newest trend for the videogames of the future?

Over the years, the industry has realized that many games remained unfinished by players, due to numerous factors such as bugs but also because of overcompensation. Are gamers turning into avaricious deserters? Not really. Episodic games as format reeks of simplicity, based to work on a complex model largely inherited from the methods of Telltale Games, which received numerous praise for their award winning The Walking Dead title. Although only the old generation will remember their past titles such as Tales of Monkey Island or even Hector: Badge of Carnage, the popularity of the studio was only boosted by The Walking Dead. But why?

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Accessible to all, and therefore easy and undemanding, episodic games involve a public trust and a good notion of rhythm. With a structure divided into different key moments and a waiting period between two phases of the game that are equally important, the fragmentation of a game has to be done with good timing. The first game segmented game was David Cage’s Fahrenheit; after designing the title for episodic distribution, Quantic Dream had to turn back on their decision, facing a market not yet ready for this, according to the very “emotional” creator.

TV Series are an undeniable source of inspiration to the genre, sometimes regarded as the cinema for the mass, which includes a formidable layout spread in three acts. First, there’s a summary of the previous episode, giving way to important events, launching the course of the story. Second is the current episode’s plot, which elaborate more on the main story, and sometimes expand on the universe and main character’s backstory. Third is the final plot, which somehow leaves us more lost than ever, and the unbearable wait for the second episode start.

At Telltale, the episodes are theoretically shot down like dominoes lined up around every month without a set calendar. Dan Connors, co-founder of the studio, explained to Game Informer that it’s mainly to prevent any problems, that way they can postpone the next episode until the technical flaw is fixed. For Life is Strange from French studio DONTNOD Entertainment, creators of Remember Me, the pressure for perfection is different, as their publisher Square Enix plan to inform the players in advance the release date of each episode, thus giving the studio a strict deadline.

It’s all about trust

At its heart, trust between consumers and producers is one of the main pillars of the genre. As a player or mere consumer, it is difficult to invest in a narrative game when you are not sure to see the end of the story, which is the first challenge a producer needs to tackle as they create their project. Set deadlines and respect becomes paramount and become the main difficulty of the model in the eyes of Oskar Guilbert, co-creator of DONTNOD. His goal to fix this challenge is to create all episodes at the same pace, getting it to a near-complete state around the set launch date, giving a small window to polish any remaining bugs. Resident Evil Revelations 2 is heading in this direction as well, divided into four episodes aired on a weekly basis leaving little time for Capcom to improvise.

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Mechanical, rational and reassuring, episodic games have values that are quite different from the creation of a classic titles. Realizing in advance the whole title, studios are moving away from traditional titles, heading towards ideas from TV series, which has deeply influenced Hideo Kojima the past years. With the next Metal Gear split into the recently launched Metal Gear V: Ground Zeroes and upcoming Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain, the iconic Japanese designer was aiming at getting direct feedback from the players and community, saving money by dropping elements along the way, focusing on what works, instead of taking the risk in a project with no future. Leaving it to the key of plan sponsors, eager to get to the bottom of the story.

This solution though over the years is no longer for small developers seeking confidence, anxious to split the bill and find funding in other ways. Most of them take refuge in Kickstarter, giving them more insurance than relying on the feedback of each episodes to alter the future one.

The nightmares of Remedy

Back in the days, Alan Wake did stop halfway between the classical form of videogames and creating the genre. Though Remedy never though the audience was ready for this, quitting is never an option for episodic game developers. That is why the writer’s nightmare is split in six parts, with the same pace of an episodic game, with its intensity peaks in the narrative, with mandatory cuts to raise the tension. From one episode to another, Remedy’s title focuses on the character’s psychological battle, although taking the risk of diluting the game by recycling the settings and mechanics, it allowed players to take a well-earned break, right before getting drowned under a new wave of menacing shadows.

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So was it the right time for Telltale to front the genre? Ryan Payton, Halo 4’s creative director and now in charge of Republic, feels that the key to success for Telltale is that “their games are easy and you need players to get appealed by the first episode so that they go buy the second.”

The thing is, it’s more than the gaming experience: it is a human one. Telltale’s Dan Connors recognizes it willingly, even if his coworkers insists it’s mainly because everyone can embody Lee, Clementine and Bigby that their games fall into the casual genre. For Connors, there is enough depth in this gaming experience such as choosing who should live and die in The Walking Dead, which could alter your entire path in the story.

Each parts sold separately

If you really think about it, it might be just a decision taken in a game, free of real-life responsibility, but certain ones cannot overshadow some embarrassing traits of your own personality. Such decision are so heavy that they can alter major consequences in the games’ storyline, on the contrary of the Dreamfall Chapters’ picks that only change the later story events. While in upcoming Life is Strange, these options result in significant consequences to capture the player’s attention and keep them involved in the plot. The recipe works, and nowadays the integration of choice in episodic game is almost crucial to the success of a game.

Nevertheless, the narrative does not define much of the gameplay. The story also takes precedence over the rest including the technical side of the game. For Dan Connors, it is no question of sacrificing a scene with an interesting exchange between two characters, and its consequences, in favor of a much more accurate animated heroes when they walk from point A to point B. The effort put in these games is not in its graphical or technical performance, which appeal to all audiences, and helps developers run the title on multiple platforms ranging from consoles to PCs, to even tablets and phones.

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Ryan Patton learned it the hard way, after abandoning Halo to its fate. The founder of the independent studio Camouflaj does not want to settle for the core gaming audience that was limited by his former franchise, aiming to find a way for his games to be played by hundreds of millions of people. Asking players to invest anything between 300 and 500 dollars in a console is a sure shot to lose a potential larger audience. To break down this barrier, Republic preferred platforms became tablets and phones, limiting technical barriers that went along with console development and expanding to a potential user base of over 50 million iOS users.

It’s all about priorities

When it comes to developing these games, the weakest link concept comes into motion. Faced with the multitude of outputs on the market, with its different characteristics and potential, producer prioritize better homogeneity instead of dealing with the pain of having to spend their production cycle set to adapt the title to all platforms. Thus, performance and graphics are condemned to second place, in the race to give a chance for all type of gamers to try the game on their platform of choice.

It’s mainly an easy course to take when you’re already popular with the gaming community. The Dreamfall franchise is already followed by their fans no matter what, but using the popularity of a famous gaming person also help, such was the case of Tim Schafer’s newest episodic game Broken Age, which was fully funded by Kickstarter (and even broke records in funding). Listening to the community is key for episodic game makers.

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As I mentioned before, listening to their fans is the cornerstone of Telltale system, to create a solid basis for developing an episodic game. Betting on an audience waiting impatiently for them to extend a universe, Dan Connors picked the best franchise with Game of Thrones: fans between TV seasons will now invest in another story that will fill their void. Historically set between season 3 and 5 of the award winning TV series, Telltale’s newest episodic game released right before the upcoming season will logically be a hit.

Earn their trust

And when it comes to splitting a game, it is better to have fans on your side. The Walking Dead and its tens of millions of episodes has proven a source of success when sketching a narrative genre destined to expand. It was a very different case when Shigeru Miyamoto and his team decided to try the same with trying to sell the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of the Ages and Oracle of Seasons individually.

Although different at the time, the current situation suggests to studios such as DONTNOD that the industry and the public are now mature enough to their game Life is Strange. But the studio will have to – by embarking on a new license – gain the trust of new players and fans. Same goes for Resident Evil Revelations 2, expected next year, will have Capcom likely take a different strategy with their fans.

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Episodic games are maybe the newest trend, but it’s not one that is about to die. Fans of the genre praise the games for their talents in storytelling, disregarding the technical aspect of development; and with an appealing price tag, and a rising amount of recycled ideas in AAA franchise, it looks like gamers are maturing and looking for something a little bit different than saving the world from aliens, or shooting enemies with no purpose. Gamers nowadays want something different, something smarter, something that is closer to a good book which they can lose themselves to, than a mindless overated first person shooter.

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