Could Episodic Gaming Change The Future of the Industry?
The current generation of gaming has frequently been compared to the movie industry, with bigger budgets, more emotive narratives, and action sequences that could be seen in your favourite action blockbuster. Yet gaming is as far from cinema as possible. Heavy Rain may be considered an interactive story, relying more on choices rather than actual gameplay, yet it is hard to put Quantic Dream’s popular title against a movie and consider them similar in any way. Arguably, TV is the best comparison to video games. Some games are released in episodes, games which can last an extended amount of time compared to a movie, and there can be multiple seasons (sequels) of particular franchises.
Since the gaming industry is an interactive medium, it has a strong advantage when it tries to connect a player with its characters. Films may last 2 hours, but video games allow us to enjoy the company of our characters for an extended amount of time, almost as much as one season of a TV series. Personally, I have felt stronger connections to video game and TV characters over the past decade, than I have any movie characters, simply because we are given an extended look at these characters and a reason to care. The Walking Dead series alone has showcased how strongly gamers can relate to characters when given short, emotional episodes of a video game. This leads to my question: could this episodic format be the future of gaming? Could other gaming franchises use this method or story telling successfully?
The Walking Dead season 1 was released last year over the span of five singular episodes, which in total offered one entire product. Of course this is not the first time a game has released itself in an episodic format, but one could argue this is one of the main success stories to come out of this method. Telltale Games was able to connect players with their characters over these short TV-esque episodes, but this constant stream of new content also meant the game was constantly on people’s minds. If Telltale had released the game early last year, in one package, would the series have had such strong coverage throughout the entire year? Most likely, the answer is no, but since the game was released in a piece-by-piece format, fans of the gaming industry were constantly creating buzz on previous episodes, talking about when the next addition would be released and more.
Since the series was released in this format, we were also given a smaller window between seasons, with season 2 scheduled later this year. So let’s look at this: Telltale received constant media coverage, provided less wait-time between content releases, and even released episode 1 free down-the-line, letting consumers at least experience a sample of what the series provided. Looking at it from this perspective, it is hard to see a negative viewpoint on this method of game releasing. However, could other gaming franchises pull off such a feat successfully in the future?
Uncharted is synonymous with cinematic experiences, and is one of the main contenders used when compared to film. However, these character driven stories Naughty Dog presents could possibly translate to an episodic format perfectly. Instead of players experiencing 7-8 hour campaigns every few years, if Uncharted went to an episodic model, we could get short bursts of a full quality Uncharted experience every few months. This wouldn’t be easy, but it could technically be done. Uncharted has the ability to keep fans interested in these character driven stories. If we were given 3 hours of content every 4 months, Naughty Dog could turn their series into a strong episodic series as that would constantly provide them with media coverage, as fans clamour for the next installment.
We have seen Assassin’s Creed III experiment with this episodic format, in the form of the George Washington DLC series. Could this effort have been a trial run for an episodic Assassin’s Creed in the future? It is pure speculation, but their attempt is certainly something that other companies must be considering. Microsoft’s flag bearing series Halo, has also attempted the episodic narrative delivery method. Halo 4 contained a 10 part series called Spartan Ops. Although it wasn’t critically beloved, the fact Microsoft is attempting to experiment in such models means this method could appear in the future.
Allowing smaller episodes of your franchise means lower costs. Wouldn’t downloading a $15 Uncharted episode seem more appealing than a $60 purchase? Not only that, but developers could experiment with pricing models. Every few episodes could mean the release of the first episode entirely free, allowing fans to taste-test the content and allow them to get invested in the series. When players see the next installment is at a more consumer friendly price point, they might be inclined to have the “One more episode” mindset. The Season Pass options we have seen implemented this generation could be correlated with purchasing an actual gaming season, with all the seasons content being purchased in one transaction, if the consumer decides.
This could even be the evolution of the Free-to-Play model, which is a term that still scares many gamers. Instead of creating micro-transactions within single player, perhaps offering the first episode free and then paid instalments afterwards could be an easier sell for the format. They could still provide Free-to-Play transactions within the multiplayer section of a game, which could also be purchased in a separate transaction. Uncharted 3 and Killzone 3 have both experimented with releasing their multiplayer suite as a standalone download. Perhaps if developers saw a reason to create multiplayer, they could separate it from the episodic content of the main story. Allowing players who want to be enthralled with their online options to still have that choice, where gamers who may never want to play online, now save money to skip the online options entirely.
Episodic game releases would need to be altered for various franchises, for instance an open world game like Fallout would provide a separate model. Each episodic release could give you more of the main narrative, plus an array of side missions and increase the level cap. This would mean players could never overpower themselves for future content and the constant increase of the level cap, could provide incentive for the player to return. The George Washington DLC showcased how episodic narratives could work within an open-world setting, Ubisoft provided missions without restricting gamers from enjoying the open-world aspects.
The episodic format is of course speculation. It is a method of game releasing that does exist and has existed for awhile. Yet only a handful of games have been able to truly make this method work around their product, with Telltale Games proving to be one of those studios. It is clear companies are experimenting on new ways to provide us with gaming content, as games continue to become more expensive to develop. Ubisoft’s attempt at the episodic format may have only been via a DLC series, but it does give credence to the fact this could be a viable method in the future. Free-to-Play models are expected to be common practice on next generation hardware, which means there is room to experiment and alter these models so they can work with what console gamers expect.
Gaming has provided us with strong characters, amazing narratives and memorable moments. If the industry was to embrace their TV similarities, we could possibly enter a new invigoration of the video games industry. Following the TV model of episodic releases that has become common practice amongst the general consumer’s favourite television series.
Could we one day be downloading the next playable episode of an Uncharted season? Only time will tell.