How We Play Episodic Games: Episodic Play

In recent years, we've seen a huge rise in the number of games released in the episodic format, truly popularised by Telltale Games' The Walking Dead in 2012. It feels like we're entering the second modern era for episodic games, with several games putting their own unique spin on it, to varying degrees of success.

But let's take a step back; What is this format doing to our gaming experiences? What makes the format tick? Could it be the best way to play some types of games, and how does it differ from unfinished, Early Access games? Let's take a look at some different types of games, and how they approach episodic releases.

You can listen to our live discussion of this topic over on Episode 51 of the GoPlayThat Podcast.

Telltale Games' Episodic Game Series, And Beyond: The Industry Standard

We'll start by looking at the most common release format for episodic games, whereby the developer lays out their release plans from the start, letting us know how many episodes there will be in the season, and usually telling us when we can expect to see each one come out. Telltale Games brought the idea of episodic gaming to the industry at large, and the last 5 years are riddled with examples from them that fit within this now familiar framework. Since then, a modest handful of games have borrowed their setup, including Life Is StrangeKing's Quest, and Resident Evil: Revelations 2.

Telling us when we can expect to see each episode, and when we should expect a conclusion, lends to the experience: You can play each episode upon release - in one sitting if you set the time aside! - and finish on a cliffhanger, in eager anticipation of the next release. The format encourages the games to be structured to suit that "on the next episode" drive - borrowing from television - to keep you engaged, though as with even the best TV series it will also mean that any slow segments in the game's story could result in a full episode being pretty much a non-event. Worse yet, with each episode needing some form of conclusion followed by a surprise every few hours, they can feel formulaic as you end up sensing the episode drawing to a close.

The negative impact from these are closely connected to the format, meaning if you happen to play an episodic game once it's been fully released and play it as normal game, you might not notice these shortcomings. I, for example, have seen comments around The Wolf Among Us having enough slow sections that it could have benefited from being released in 3 parts instead of 5, yet because I played several episodes in a few long play sessions, I didn't get that feeling. With Life Is Strange, I started playing it once it was wrapping up, and as maybe the best example of this particular episodic format, I was pleasantly surprised by the length of each episode.


Hitman: A New Standard In Episodic Gaming

2016's Hitman is also episodic, giving us a loose release schedule up front and allowing us to pay per episode, or put our money down for the full experience and receive everything they'll put out for the season. Lots of people have decided not to jump in "early" and would prefer to wait until everything is out. IO-Interactive, if you haven't noticed by our video series, are hugely impressing us with the constant support. They're adding new escalations and spotlighting community-created challenges on a weekly basis, and releasing entirely new locations with an admirable frequency.

The Elusive Targets are possibly a point of contention, however: They're only available for a short 48-72 hour window on most occasions, and IO have repeatedly messaged that they have no plans for them to be replayable later on, including in this week's announcement for the disc release. This could mean that if you're waiting for the finished article, you might just be missing out on the best content the game has to offer.

As a game releasing in a digital, episodic fashion, but from a franchise that started in the traditional release model, it's a fascinating test case for the industry. Hitman 2016 benefits from press and streamers regularly throwing it back into the public eye, which you wouldn't get with a singular, one-and-done release. Conversely, from the original release of the first episode set in Paris, it wasn't immediately clear that this model was a good idea for the franchise, and many will have at that point chosen to dismiss it on concept alone, and from that you have a potential user-base that would have played your game choosing not to instead.

The grand hope is that the disc release on 31st January 2017 resets all negative perceptions, where those old fans not interested in joining in now can have it their way. Generally, I expect Hitman to benefit from the constant press, culminating in a media push once it's done and there's a finished article on disc out there. They'll get their cake and eat it too, and I can't think how the game would have been as well off if they'd stuck to the standard release format. 

As each episode being released is a complete, finished article, they don't suffer from the "unfinished" feel that you get from Early Access games, though again the traditional player is prone to dismiss it on similar grounds. In my estimations, if you jump in now you at least know that what you're playing is the final version and the developer's final vision, compared to early access games where you might be playing the same content that's being iterated on ad nauseum over time: I got this feeling playing The Forest, where the new content was really just improvements to existing content.

For Hitman, I totally think I'm playing it the right way, in step with the releasing content. The way the game is built has actually encouraged me to play it in a broader way than I'd originally planned, with IO nudging me along with new challenges. Take a look at my first few Elusive Targets compared to the more recent ones and you'll see how I've learned map layouts, pick-up locations, techniques and strategies, and the rules of the game so that I know where the limits are. That doesn't happen often for me, and if the Story missions were available all together I likely would have blasted through them in a week and set the game back down, missing an incredible amount of quality content. It helps that the game and its engine is so damn sturdy, and I'm well up for a second or even third season as has been suggested by IO themselves. There have been missteps - the online-only nature is odd, as is not giving those buying per episode a way to play the 2 available bonus missions until the 3rd is out later - but with the way I've accessed and played the game, that's not impacted me.

Is the finished game worse off because you missed out on the Elusive Targets that happened in real-time during the season? Yeah, probably, but this isn't something new to gaming: Just look at seasonal events in Blizzard's games. That it's a topic at all is based largely on the fact that this is Hitman, not a living breathing multiplayer world, so again it's an interesting case study. I'd say that if you're not caught up on the releasing content, don't sweat it, there'll be plenty more content coming, so jump in whenever's best for you and your schedule and interests.

Kentucky Route Zero: Just Go Ahead And Throw Those Rules Out The Window

Kentucky Route Zero is one of my favourite games from recent history, but it's the strangest of all episodic games that I've experienced. Cardboard Computer are only a small team so it takes them a while to get everything in order. As a result, they choose not to set a release schedule that might constrain them, which leads to consumer confusion, and may well negatively impact your experience. I'll soon be playing Episode 4, and really haven't got much of a clue of where I left off with Episode 3. That big gap in releases and long development also means that each episode feels very different, to the point that you can see the developer's skills and techniques evolving as they hone their craft. It's a blessing and a curse: An interesting case to follow, but one that means I struggle to keep all of the game's threads straight. 

KR0 isn't the only game to release episodically but fall outside of the standard frame, but it is one of the only ones that seems like it'll get to the finish line: Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I was not received well and saw only a 2nd part to its planned trilogy, D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die was labelled a first season but felt incomplete even as a first episode, and as for Half-Life 2.. 

The Last Of Us & Uncharted 4: Should Naughty Dog Go Episodic?

Now to come at this subject from an entirely different angle. Can you apply an episodic format to other games, with a positive outcome? In our podcast, Tom and I shared a verdict on both of Naughty Dog's latest games, The Last Of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, as having a potential pacing or even length issue.

The games have their own peaks and valleys, areas of exploration and intrigue, snapping into moments of intense action, followed by respite These moments - or more likely, changes of location between two chapters - are the ideal and natural break point, but Naughty Dog's games are so scripted and driven that you feel compelled to continue on. The result is exhaustive play sessions that left both of us feeling that by their conclusion, the games had outstayed their welcome a touch.

Released episodically, a few chapters at a time, we might have walked away more satisfied, the wait between episode releases building our anticipation and allowing the games to breathe better. But let's be realistic: I wouldn't see a Naughty Dog game ever getting the episodic treatment. Their player base is huge, and the risk of pissing off the average gamer is too great. This is more a suggestion that the format could lend to the types of games that 'Dog puts out.

Fun fact: Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) and Rayman Origins were planned to be released in episodes, but were changed before release. Both would have fit the model, though I can see why the developers in both cases played it safe. 

How Do Our Friends Prefer To Play?

The core question at the centre of all of this is simple: Play the episodes as they're released, or wait until it's done and play it just like any other game. I've asked this around the group, and there are plenty of reasons for each preference. 

From my experiences, I can say that I much prefer to play the episodes as they're released. With the games being built with their release cadence in mind, it feels like the way they intended them to be played, and following along with that can be an event unto itself: Again, back to the TV show analogy, you can have conversations with friends about the latest episode more readily than you might talk about a longer game. Decide to wait until they're done and play it on your own terms, and that special occasion and "zeitgeist" may well have passed by.

There are others that prefer not to be at the mercy of an episodic release schedule. The reason they wait might not be anything to do with gaming. They might not put that much time into playing games but like these games in particular, and prefer to have the control to play them when it suits them, at their own pace, fit in between the rest of their life. Who'd want to set aside a rare evening to play, and be left unfulfilled by a short episode?

If we're to again compare the situation to TV, consider that over the course of a television season a narrative is being built upon on a weekly basis. These episodic games can't match that pace, so leaving a gap of one to two months (sometimes more) between them feels disjointed. Though I raise this against Kentucky Route Zero, it doesn't have to be that extreme of an example for it to be a limiting factor. Going the Netflix Original Series route and releasing an entire season at once is an option, but it's an unlikely proposition for developer's who more often than not are still making the game by the time they put their first piece out. 

Another factor is the reality of games getting deep discounts. If you're following per episode, you could be paying a premium per episode, or at best paying the standard fare for the season's pass. Wait a while, and you're rewarded with a lower price for the whole game right there and ready.

The rejection of the episodic format is an interesting issue, and I'm not sure it's something that can be remedied. Is it possible to encourage players to follow along by making some changes? It is even worth it, when you're still getting those people playing your game later? It's fair to say that there really isn't a wrong way to play these episodic games, it's just down to what drives you. I'd recommend that if your priorities are with getting the best out of a game, that you should try and play along with the episode releases, especially if you can relate to the excitement of anticipating the next episode of your favourite TV series. Oh, and play Hitman.

We want to hear from you. Join us on the Facebook post and comment to let us know how you play your episodic games. Which are your favourites?