Episodic Games Should Shape Up, Or Shove It

What’s the advantage of episodic games? It’s a question I’ve found myself asking a number of times in the last few years. Recently however, I’ve found that I’ve really been asking the wrong question. The question is not ‘what’s the advantage’, the question is ‘what’s the advantage for players.

Maybe there’s something further to it too, which is that ‘episodic game’ as a definition doesn’t really mean much here. After all, an episodic game is pretty much any game that gets released in chunks, instead of as one dose. But that doesn’t mean anything. Broken Age was an episodic game, it’s just that it only had two episodes. Half Life 2 is an episodic game that never got it’s final episode. Episodic games as a term covers a fairly wide net; How big are the chunks of game? Is it one game, or several? How long is the delay between chunks? It’s that last question that’s the real downfall issue.

The issue has been clouded, in a fairly interesting way, by the fact that Telltale Games (and others, but mainly them) have released multiple games in what I would call a ‘bad’ episodic format, and a lot of those games have been really really good. The Walking Dead (Season One) is still very much the flagship game of modern episodic titles. It’s so good. It’s so good. And when a game in a (fairly) new format is really really good, it’s not hard to then think that the format is also good. But it’s not. The fact that the game is exellent doesn’t actually change the fact that there was no benefit to having months and months between releases. Some of the arguments I’ve heard are frankly bizzare. It builds hype? What, more hype than it would’ve got for just being released? I doubt it. It makes more digestible to play? What, unlike that mysterious ‘save’ button that’s been around for decades?

Okay, the most valid argument I’ve heard is – let’s be fair – a reasonable one; that taking those months between each episode means that the game creators can make sure it’s really, really good. Fair enough, at first glance. But, while that is undoubtedly true, it’s still not a good enough reason. After all, while it’s great that Telltale have managed to do just this, it doesn’t actually mean that it’s a good idea. Why not create the game beforehand, and release it on a schedule? If you know something is going to take a long time to craft, you can account for that before you have to start pushing things back, or doing other jiggery pokery. In other words: Planning Fallacy. Something the games industry suffers from to a frankly absurd degree. The exception to this is for episodic games made by much smaller groups – I’m thinking of Kentucky Route Zero in particular. While it would still, technically, be better if it had had a more reliable release plan, it is also much more forgiveable that it doesn’t. When it’s a game being made by a tiny bunch of people, or possibly even one person, not having a solid release plan – or the resources to structure that – are much, much easier to allow. Not so for…well, any game studio that isn’t running on a shoestring, and it’s their first project, and that does this only for fun and not as a job.

Hmm okay. Lets step back. Maybe I’m getting too cerebral here, too abstracted. So let me put it another way. The Walking Dead (Season One) is one of the best game I’ve ever played. Ever. It is one the games that I would recommend to almost anyone with, or without, an interest in games. Go here, I say, and play this. And you know something fairly major? One of the reasons, one of the big reasons it was so good for me was that I played it after all five episodes had been released. Each episode, each two hour chunk of the game was different, and powerful, and a genuine mental joy to play (even when I was screaming, wincing or crying at the screen). I ended up playing the entire game in two sessions. I did so because it was good enough that I wanted to keep playing. In this context, having the episode ends and trailer-moments for the upcoming episodes were still fine. They simultaneously gave me mental down time – a break to go and get a cup of tea, or whatever – and also gave me a reason to come back. Playing Season One and having all five episodes available off the bat didn’t lose me anything. There was literally no downside to me, as a player.

The Walking Dead (Season Two) is also extremely fun. But I’ve not finished playing it. I got to the end of episode two. And then there was a gap. And I lost interest. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still interested. I still want to know what happens, I still care about the characters, and all that. But…I don’t care enough. See, while episode three was being created, I was forgetting who did what, to whom and why. While episode three was being delayed, or given another coat of gloss, or whatever, there were other games coming out that I wanted to play, other things I wanted to do, and somewhere along the way episode three floated down from the top of my internal list of ‘things I want to do’. Getting to the end of an episode and having the trailer for the next episode is great…for about a week. Maybe, maybe a few weeks. But anything past that, it just won’t be as interesting any more. Because while that trailer is static in your mind, and fading away into memory, everything else in life is still going.

There’s another part to this: One of the most powerful secrets in all of marketing and consumerism is habit. I’m not exaggerating. One of the most profitable forces in the world is that humans like habit. It’s why shops try and hook you back in – it’s why loyalty cards exist. It’s why, when you try to leave a service (phone, gas, whatever), they try very hard to keep you there. It’s not the immediate loss that’s the problem, it’s the cumulative loss. If Local Coffee Co can get you in the door, that’s great! If they can get you to go in again, even better! If they can get you to go in a third time, then chances are they can stop trying, because it’s becoming your habit. And you’ll go in and have Local Coffee Co coffee again and again on repeat, until something sufficiently large changes that. And that is what (most) episodic games don’t give you. Because with each delay, with each unknown release date, hell, with each unpredictable day that passes, that barrier to entry rises again. You don’t have the habit of playing, or even thinking about the game.

You’re away on a poop-platoon if you think game makers don’t already know this. MMOs absolutely own this. The rise of free to play and freemium often relies on this. Why do you think daily rewards are a thing? Why do you think you can only do so many actions per day? It’s nothing simpler than because if the game makers can get you to log in every day, then it will very quickly become your habit to do so. You’ll start to do it without thinking, as part of your routine. You’ll do it because it’s your new default setting. And all of that is totally aside from the fact that you might enjoy doing those things (which from your point of view, is what you actually want.)

Now, evidently episodic games can’t do exactly the same thing – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s something they should bloody well pay attention to. Habit doesn’t have to be daily, or even eternal. Look at TV series’. On at the same time every week. It’s almost like there’s a reason for that.

I should really mention the reason I’m bringing this up in the first place is because today, 20/10/15, the final episode of Life Is Strange came out. I haven’t played it yet. I asked people to suggest something for me to review almost 8 months ago. Someone picked Life Is Strange. I played episode one. It was brilliant. Not perfect, no, but it was stunningly written, stunningly atmospheric, and really really intriguing. And when I got to the end of the episode, I realized that I had absolutely no desire to have to go through the irritation and aggravation of waiting around for months for the next episode to be released, each time an episode came out. Because that actually detracts from my enjoyment of the game. If I’m playing through an episode, and it’s good, I will also know that when I get to the end, I will have to hang around for an indeterminate, possibly changing period of time. And that makes the game less fun to play. So I’ve just waited. And my playing experience of episodes two through five will be flat out better, because I don’t have to dick around for months in between them.

So, in summary, we’re back back to the start; what’s the advantage of this style of episodic release for players? Answer: none. Or at least, none that can’t be solved with intelligent thinking, precautions and planning. So while episodic games have very much been ‘a thing’ in the last few years I hope that as a whole they either start being a lot smarter about their structures, or just die out.

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