Episodic games: Games the hero developers need and the hero gamers deserve


Courtesy of Telltale Games

Episodic Games: The Hero Developers Need and the Hero Gamers Deserve

Felipe Cabrera

“High risk equals great reward” is not a mantra the video game industry is taking to heart. The technology to innovate in video games is present, but the only obstacle on the road to progress is a large budget.

But this sounds counter intuitive, does it not? A $23 million budget should yield bigger and better games, yet every year, gamers are subjected to annual releases that offer little improvement for the title from the year prior or brand new titles that do not break away from established conventions.

The fact is big-time publishers want to see a return from their large investments, and the only way they can make sure of that is to play it safe inside the pen. The pen is familiar — a game design formula that was successful last year will surely be successful again and again.  Wash, rinse and repeat the cycle. But outside of the pen, there is no telling what would happen in unknown territory.

Former Battlefield leader designer David Goldfarb said developing big-budget games stifles creativity, according to his recent interview with Gameindustry.biz.

Something different happened in 2012. Telltale’s “The Walking Dead,” an emotionally driven point and click adventure, won Game of the Year awards. The difference between “The Walking Dead” and its big budget contenders that year, was in fact, its scaled-back budget and affordable episodic format.

“The Walking Dead” was released in five parts for $5 apiece, or $20 for the season pass. What this meant for gamers is that paying $5 for brand new property did not feel like a gamble as it would had the game been a full $60 retail release. Gamers are just as afraid of developers when investing money in an uncertain property.

What the episodic format means for game developers is the ability to create the games they want without the restrictions of a large budget.

Dontnod Entertainment initially intended for “Life is Strange” to be a full retail release, but due to financial fallout after “Remember Me” failed, it had to scale back its budget and did so by releasing “Life is Strange” as an episodic series. Had it not been for the episodic format, Dontnod would not have been able make “Life is Strange,” an adventure that takes a risk in telling a story that is not typically seen in video games.

The episodic format is not just being applied to story-driven point-and-click adventures. “Resident Evil Revelations 2,” the sequel to the criminally underrated “Resident Evil Revelations,” is being released as a five-part series instead of a full retail release like the first game.

The “Resident Evil Revelations” series is the call back to survival horror fans have been waiting for. It deviated from the action-oriented trends of current main entries in the “Resident Evil” series. Unfortunately, Revelations did not sell as well as Capcom would have hoped. If Capcom had not decided to make Revelations 2 as an episodic title, Capcom might have not have taken a chance on a sequel at all.

The episodic format presents a win-win scenario for gamers and development studios. Without worrying about making a huge return on a big budget game, developers are able to expand their creativity and cultivate experiences that would be too risky for AAA titles.

Telltale is still the front runner in episodic adventures. In 2014 alone, they released the second season of “The Walking Dead,” “The Wolf Among Us,” “Game of Thrones” and “Tales from the Borderlands” — all receiving shining reviews from critics and gamers alike.

Episodic titles looks to be a new trend in the video game industry, and a trend that is welcomed with open arms. High risk equals great reward, and the episodic format gives room for developers to take their chances.