Episodic gaming trends
Game developers love a good trend. These design tropes, from radio towers to open-worlds brimming with pointless collectible ephemera, have informed the themes, styles and phases of each gaming generation.
And – for better or for worse – have defined the trends of the generations that followed.
Since games development is osmotic by nature, with ideas bleeding from one franchise to another, it should be no surprise to see the populist ideas of today creeping across the franchises we know and love. It’s just the nature of the industry, one idea seeding another elsewhere.
Some of these ideas work brilliantly, if treated with enough temperance – procedural generation for one, offers smaller developers such as Hello Games the opportunity to build systems and mechanics on a far grander scale than would have been possible five years ago, a la No Man’s Sky.
But not every genre-defining, unit-shifting template works for every other genre.
Tell me a tale
The episodic template, which has helped in part to make Telltale Games’ output so successful in both critical reception and commercial sales, is one such in-vogue release setup. So much so that the means of releasing content in a TV-esque series of instalments has become synonymous with the likes of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands.
The same setup worked for Dontnod’s exquisite Life Is Strange as well, but that series (much like Telltale’s catalogue) was built from the ground up with intermittent content in mind.
Both are based on slow, dialogue-driven experiences that place the focus firmly back on story and character development; again, feeding back into the TV tropes that informed it in the first place.
The thing is, the episodic nature of The Walking Dead, et al doesn’t represent the X-factor that made these games so popular.
Telltale have been making episodic games for years – the difference between its poor treatment of the Jurassic Park franchise and its use of Game Of Throne licence comes down to a greater and more careful reverence for the right characters at the right time.
So why have other developers been shoehorning the concept into genres that don’t suit it?
Capcom tried an episodic approach to the inexplicable (and rather dull) Resi sequel, Resident Evil: Revelations 2. The setup didn’t suit the franchise one jot, or the genre at all for that matter, with only the shift between characters providing any sort of justification for splitting the game into separate chapters.
Games with less conventional systems and stories, such as D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die and Dreamfall Chapters (a brilliant series, by the way – go check it out), are far better suited to the episodic release cycle, but these games also raise another rather pandemic issue: protracted development times.
For some studios, the idea of releasing content in waves might sound attractive thanks to the additional time it offers to finish and polish the remainder of the game, but there’s a dangerous precedent to be had in extending an already time consuming process.
Take the new incarnation of the Hitman franchise, due for release next month.
Back when Io Interactive announced the Hitman series would be going ‘episodic’ with missions released over time until an eventual physical collection release, the response was unsurprisingly muted. Yes, fans wanted an antidote to the enclosed design decision of 2012’s Absolution, pining for the open options of 2006’s Blood Money, but a mission by mission release schedule?
Io has defended the decision, describing Hitman (new games instalments are too cool for subtitles) as more of a, “platform,” than a traditional episodic game. The fragmented release schedule would enable the Danish studio to use each release to test and refine coming missions based on user feedback and behaviours.
Taking the hit
By shying away from the true open-world setup many fans had been pining for (something akin to Metal Gear Solid 5’s open, emergent world was the dream) and focusing on larger individual contracts (essentially combining DNA from Bloody Money and Absolution) Io is able to split its game into composite parts but the approach still doesn’t feel warranted or necessary.
If anything, it feels like less like the adoption of a new presentation style and more of a byproduct of games development lead times struggling to meet the ever-shrinking calendar of release schedules.
Let’s not forget that Hitman was due for release at the beginning of December last year and was summarily delayed until March to give Io enough time to ready the game for launch. And that’s only the first episode of the game.
“These few extra months will mean we can add more to the launch content of the game, more than we had originally planned, and then follow with a tighter frequency of updates, which ultimately will create a better game for everyone,” commented the developer at the time of the delay announcement.
Io is a fine studio, and Hitman (judging from the Beta at the very least) will no doubt be another memorable slice of assassination simulation, but applying the intermittent release cycle to a triple-A action game simply doesn’t fit.
Bigger teams, more complex systems, longer QA test phases equal longer lead times – and just as this can lead to tired, watered down annual instalments (an issue that’s led Ubi to potentially halt the annual release of Assassin’s Creed), so it can exacerbate the pressures of finishing a game on this scale.
We have to take the studio on its word that Hitman’s episodic release schedule will arrive on time over the coming months, but considering the game is likely to get bigger and more complicated as it progresses through its non-linear set missions, the potential for its development to stretch further and further into the year remains a concern.
While some studios will genuinely want to try new things and present content to gamers in new and interesting formats, the drip-feeding technique feels too easy to abuse and shouldn’t be taken as the answer to a problem that doesn’t even exist.