Episodic Games Were the Future, and the Future Was Dead on Arrival

Episodic gaming was one of those things that really seemed like it could have lasted forever, an idea whose time had come. For most of their history, video games were self-contained, one-and-done releases. Expansion packs and quick-hit sequels pushed against the constraints of this model, but the constraints of technology that was dependent on physical media meant that they couldn't really escape or challenge this model. A game came in a box, and if you wanted more game, that required another box.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/v74e44/why-did-episodic-gaming-die
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My difficulty with episodic games is that the gap between episodes is usually exactly enough time for me to forget a game’s systems. When I pick up a TV show after a 4 month break I don’t have to spend an hour relearning its combat mechanics. One of the core appeals of video games is the mastery of mechanics, the feeling of taking on challenges that would have felt impossible when you started. Making a game episodic interferes with that process.

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I think the key problem with episodic gameplay was that they never followed television’s main model. Television doesn’t make one episode, then spend months creating the new episode. If these episodes could come out weekly, I would probably be fine checking in step-by-step and having “water cooler conversations”. I know why they don’t do this, gaming is much more seat of your pants medium, you need to release what you have immediately sometimes to keep the lights on. Or in some cases the episodes have no solid plan at all and they’re just winging it (Half-Life).

But this also has led me to always wait for the whole series to finish before playing. I’ll get to Life is Strange 2 by this weekend, probably. I wasn’t going to play episode by episode, because there’s always that significant non-trivial chance that the series would never be finished and I wasted my time.

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Arguably, the true “episodic” games were MMOs, which had and have the flexibility to roll out “new content” on shorter timescales (or longer ones, depending on how big the change was), whilst their playerbase continues to play the old stuff and keep their mechanical skills relevant.

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Remember SiN Episodes? Which beat Half-Life 2’s episodes by not only coming out first but also never even releasing a second episode, never mind a third?

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That game is one of my guilty pleasures. Of course I remember it lol. It uh… it doesn’t need those follow up episodes. We’ve all watched one of those bad TV shows that ends after one season despite the season ending with a massive cliff hanger. SiN Episodes is that.

Edit: hours later I realize… SiN Episodes is the NBC’s Dracula of video games.

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Hitman seemed to be the one game that did episodic content right. I think the modern version of episodic games are live games where there are large content drops every few months to keep the buzz going.

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I was already kind of cool on LiS2 even though I loved the original, as taking a game & series I so strongly identified w/ female protagonists and one that was wrapped up w/ my own identity issues around the time I played it and giving it to male protags put me off right from the start, but the lengthy release period really didn’t help either.

I discovered and played LiS1 after it had already entirely released, so I had no prior experience w/ waiting for the episodes to drop - had it been so long between episodes it may not have grabbed me as much, either.

The only thing I remember about SiN Episodes was the time I sent an email into the Bombcast asking if I should buy it because I was drunk and it’s only 10 bucks on steam and sending the email was the only deterrent I could justify to myself and then Brad read the email on that weeks show and it was kind of embarrassing.

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One of the games I spent a lot of time on this decade was The Long Dark - which I picked up in Early Access in 2014. It has a long and storied development cycle, but out of a promised 5 episode run its currently sitting at Episode 3 which released late last year. They re-cut Episodes 1 & 2 after the initial launch in August 2017.

I’ve definitely got my money’s worth and I go back for every episode, but I wonder how many people who bought the game in 2017 will wind up playing all 5 episodes when they finally come out.

I’ve played the game multiple times and I really hope you didn’t buy it lmao

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I didn’t Jeff Gerstmann was adamant in his belief that I would prefer having 10 bucks to having SiN Episodes.

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I think the article’s mention of episodic gaming as part of a subscription service has some merit. I could see a consistent release schedule being a motivator for a subscription service. Like, could work out for both on-boarding and retention. Maybe you got a subscription to game pass for something else then try out episode 1 of “video game title” and then the promise of further episodes keeps you in the service or at least buying a month when the next episode comes out. Or maybe your first month is for episode 1 of “video game title” and you stick around because of all the gaaaaames.

Of course, all of this assuming “video game title” has enough pull to draw interest but that’s a possible pitch to whoever’s running a subscription service.

Apple Arcade or Xbox’s thing probably would be a great way to do this properly, now that you bring this up. They could finish the game beforehand and release it piece-meal, and you have the reliable audience of say, Netflix when it releases Witcher.

I just want to say I’m really happy to know that Imran is joining the site as a freelancer and I hope that’s a relationship that continues for a very long time.

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If folks are wondering about Hitman, I highly recommend checking out the NoClip documentary on YouTube. The short version is that the episodic model didn’t work. The game didn’t really take off until they released the tutorial and the Paris level for free and let people buy in from there.

I like the idea of episodic games in theory, but I know from experience that I’m going to fall off of them eventually. Something will almost invariably come along to preempt whatever the new episode is and I’ll just get to it later. I’m not against the idea, but I’m much more into something like what the Pokemon team has going on: here’s a big chunk now, some time to step away, and some smaller chunks a little later.

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Something I’m surprised hasn’t come up is Kentucky Route Zero, the final act of which is coming out in about two weeks from now. KRZ is kind of a legacy for this, always seeming to be on the horizon but never quite there.

Act 5 coming out this year kind of feels like the curtain call for episodic gaming. “So long, folks. Show’s over.” And hey, if you’ve gotta go out with something, why not go out with KRZ?

What I’m hopeful for is that this model could be utilized by small, independent developers so that their work can sustain them. Making a complete game takes a lot of time and work. For someone living on the margins, being able to put out work like this in some serialized manner could be way more attractive and stable. But I have no idea if that will be the case in the end.

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KR0 is one of a long list of episodic games I haven’t started because I wanted to wait until they were done before getting sucked in. I get that the episodic model makes sense as a way of generating a revenue stream during development allowing for potentially more ambitious projects, but it’s relatively hard for me to look at games as something to come back to once or twice a year. Getting involved in a virtual space requires learning its rules, which is exciting. But re-learning old rules is less so. There’s a sort of drag to coming back to the middle of unfinished games that has something to do with that re-learning and re-orienting process. Even if these games are designed to mitigate that feeling, or even to make use of it in some way, it’s hard to see that from the outside.

I find it much easier to kickstart something (which is a much more risky bet) than to wait on episodes.

Looking forward to KR0 this month though. Thanks to everyone who was braver than me for getting into it early :slight_smile:

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Yeah, KRZ is the prime example for me of why I struggle with model. I loved the first two episodes, and someday I’ll probably try to give the whole thing a go, but also I just really struggle to stay invested in something that sporadic over that long a period of time. It’s why I stopped caring about A Song of Ice and Fire and Rothfuss’ trilogy years ago…I’ve moved on. Like, cool, do your thing your way, I just can’t hang anymore. I don’t even know what that shit was about at this point. (Same thing goes for Life Is Strange on a smaller scale. Played and loved the first two episodes, but haven’t come back since.) I think I’m more likely to wait for complete editions of stuff like this going forward.

I’m happy for people who are excited and that CC got to realize their vision, but DAMN Y’ALL seven years is a long ass time.

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Honestly, me three, both with Kentucky Route Zero, which I’m actively avoiding due to wanting to get all the episodes before I start… but also with basically not caring about A Song of Ice and Fire anymore [and, before that, Wheel of Time, which also just suffered from “how many books are you going to write” issues; I think I gave up around book 8 or so, because there’s only so much I’m going to read of your story if nothing is going to happen in it, and that’s even with regular publications of novels].

(I think KRZ actually suffered, for me, from having also been burned previously by the Half-Life 2 Episodes debacle; if Valve couldn’t manage to even do three games in a row, what was the chance that a smaller indie studio would sustain a much longer set of releases? I guess I’m glad I was wrong, but I think my aversion to risk was justifiable at the time.)