Less than 150 games needed to reach our MobyGoal of 1,500 documented arcade titles!

Back to the Future

An Episodic Future

by Ronald Diemicke

Distributing a game in parts isn't really a new idea. Quake and Doom were just a couple games that were told in 'episodes' that could be purchased in a wide variety of ways. However, it's the advent of digital distribution is now giving the idea of episodic games a rebirth. The internet makes distribution painless and is the perfect avenue for episodic storytelling. Right now, there are some pioneers in this new field of gaming, but will this grow? What challenges lie ahead for those looking to try and do their own episodic games?

Let me introduce those who were kind enough to share their thoughts on the subject. From Telltale Games (responsible for the Bone episodic adventures), the company's CEO Dan Connors, and designers Dave Grossman and Heather Logas. From Free Radical Design (responsible for the Timesplitters games and one of my most anticipated games at E3, Haze), Project Creative Director Derek Littlewood, and Screenwriter Rob Yescombe. Last but not least, Jordan Blackman, who is a Producer with Novalogic.

It's easy to say 'Sure! Go ahead and make an episodic game.' but the reality of episodic game development, just like any game development, is that it's difficult. However, given the perils and the currently lack of major support for episodic gaming, one must wonder if anyone really is intrested in persuing this. Jordanwas able to provide some insight.

Neverwinter Nights

Neverwinter Nights 2002.



“[…]I’d wager that most folks in development are thinking about either episodic content & digital distribution or an online game with a subscription model. The economics of this stuff is totally bewitching to developers. Look at Steam or what Bioware is doing with Neverwinter Nights. If you look at the current retail channel over the past few years, it has rewarded mega-publishers and sequels but it hasn’t been as kind to smaller publishers or independent developers looking to break new ground. Game sales are not going up as quickly as the cost of developing games. Anything that can lower the up-front costs of development will get the attention of the development community, and episodic content promises that.”

Telltale Games has obviously had success with their expansion into having a second episodic game in the revival of Sam and Max. Both Ritual and Valve have made a commitment too, in recent months, to following through with the design they’ve laid out for themselves. But… does that mean we won’t see Half-Life 3 in retail stores as one complete game, but rather as an episodic story told over a few years and distributed through Steam? Will episodic gaming replace full retail experiences?

Dan Conners: “I see episodic games as being a type of game in the future. Much of this will be determined by what is demanded by the current and future game audience. The internet has already been a major driver in the success of MMORPGs because it's so effective in supporting a community.”

Rob Yescombe: “Yes and no. In the same way that sometimes you want to watch a movie instead of a whole series of Lost, there’ll always be room for self-contained stories in the marketplace. That said, I think that digital distribution will change things immensely.”

Derek Littlewood: “No, I think there's always going to be a place for standalone games; there's definitely a value to giving the player a whole game world and letting them explore it at their own pace; can you imagine taking out the first Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus and then being told to come back in two months for the next one?”

John Madden NFL

Ultimate episodic game.



Jordan Blackman: “There is an argument to be made that it already has. Madden is episodic content, in a sense. The budgets for some next-gen games are only viable because of the planned expansions and sequels. In that situation, aren’t these games like really big episodes? If it seems like I’m avoiding the question it’s because I don’t know the answer to it. My guess and my hope is that episodic content will not replace the traditional model, but will simply be another viable way of doing business, like the way TV and film cohabit.”

The interesting part here is that the answers are all across the board. Dan’s response is very true from a business perspective, which begs the question of “what do gamers actually want?”. Rob has a point about the idea of Movies vs. TV in this case. Maybe it depends on the story you want to tell: If you have a big epic story, such as the one in the Half-Life series, maybe the episodic route is the way to go. Maybe Max Payne works as well as it does because it is in shorter, but complete, self-contained bursts of entertainment. Derek also makes a valid point, but it depends on the game. If you were going to make Shadow of the Colossus into an episodic game, the colossi would need to be either included in groups, or be released more frequently. There must be a balance found in cost vs the time gap between parts, and the length of gameplay in each part, which is sort of what Jordan is saying (except this is already planned out for games in the currently retail market).

Developing an episodic game also presents a few different problems that aren’t normally present in a full, complete game:

Jordan : “Have you ever noticed that the first season of a TV show is usually relatively bad as compared with later episodes? Compare season 1 of Seinfeld or South Park with season 4 or so. It takes some time for a show to find its stride. The same is true for games. Developers know this, and most people who have beta tested have seen this too. It just takes time to get all the parts working well. That’s part of the reason why episodic content works well when supporting an established game. Games are often consumed in a linear order, but they aren’t exactly developed that way. That last-minute feature might be good enough for the level builders to implement by reworking the first few levels. Well if the first few levels have already been sold, you can’t do that.

Jordan brings up a good point, one that I think would be more of an issue if an episodic game was on a per-monthly subscription basis. If you put your best content forward, what happens if the back end isn’t as fun? Likewise, had Joss Whedon’s Firefly been a game, would we have just gotten the first part before someone decided it wasn’t profitable to continue developing? The problem that Rob brings up is something that has already affected Half-Life 2: Episode 1 as currently (between 6/10/06 and 7/9/06) only 31.20%* of the people who own the game have completed it. That’s about 1/3 of the people who bought the game. Does this mean that only 1/3 of the people who bought Episode 1 will buy Episode 2? David has a bit more experience with this, being from a company pioneering the field. The necessity of creating an environment that is more detailed than most because it’ll be revisited often isn’t something that initially crossed my mind, but rang true the more I thought about it.

So, let’s say you’ve got a game you want to deliver in four episodes. That first episode has to be totally incredible. Is it really going to cost ¼ of a full game? I’m guessing it’ll cost a lot more. But if the first episode is going to cost 2/3 of the cost of the final game, why not just make the whole thing and start seeing that bigger return?”

Rob: “We have to keep in mind that a lot of people don’t necessarily finish the games they buy. So, in the same way someone couldn’t start watching a series of 24 halfway through and expect to appreciate the story in full, we have to find a way for each episode to be comprehendible without having to play through the previous ones. And that’s a big task – in many ways it undermines the appeal of the process in the first place. Back in the day, Scott Miller was trying to solve that problem by handing out free copies of Wolfenstein 3D and Commander Keen – like a crack dealer, trying to get people addicted so they’d come back for more. That kinda worked.”

Wolfenstein 3D

First hit is on us.



Dave: “It's not unlike the difference between writing a television series as opposed to a film. With an episodic game series, the characters develop over time in response to a large number of situations, as opposed to a feature where they would likely undergo a dramatic change in a single story. For that reason the characters need to be "built to last" in a certain way, so they can continue to be interesting over the course of many episodes. The same is true for the environments – Sam & Max's neighborhood, for example, is going to be revisited many times, and it needs to have plenty of detail and to be able to evolve, so that it becomes familiar but still has new nuances for us to discover in each episode, just like the characters.[…]”

Jordan brings up a good point, one that I think would be more of an issue if an episodic game was on a per-monthly subscription basis. If you put your best content forward, what happens if the back end isn’t as fun? Likewise, had Joss Whedon’s Firefly been a game, would we have just gotten the first part before someone decided it wasn’t profitable to continue developing? The problem that Rob brings up is something that has already affected Half-Life 2: Episode 1 as currently (between 6/10/06 and 7/9/06) only 31.20% of the people who own the game have completed it. That’s about 1/3 of the people who bought the game. Does this mean that only 1/3 of the people who bought Episode 1 will buy Episode 2? David has a bit more experience with this, being from a company pioneering the field. The necessity of creating an environment that is more detailed than most because it’ll be revisited often isn’t something that initially crossed my mind, but rang true the more I thought about it.

*Note (7/12/06) : Since this article's original posting - Valve has found what may be a bug in the Half-Life 2: Episode 1 data collection system. It appears that the correct number is more like 51.32% of people have actually finished the game. Still if this is accurate and only %50 of the user base that bought Half-Life 2: Episdoe 1 buys Episode 2 - it still dosen't bode well.


Continued: Video games killed the TV star

Table of Contents: Back to the Future