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Episodic Gaming: From Shareware to Kickstarter

Valve often get credit for inventing the episodic game format with Half Life: Episode One but all they really did was revive a format that developers of 90s shareware titles had invented decades before. The episodic game format has come a long way since then with the format being one of the major factors in the revival of the adventure gaming genre by Telltale, and more recently falling into controversy for its use by Double Fine in their highly anticipated Kickstarter game Broken Age.

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Most people concede that episodic games first appeared during the 80s and 90s. Big games of the time like DOOM and Jazz Jackrabbit were released and sold in episodic installments – a marketing move that both break apart the costs and story of the games that used it. There was far more than a desire to mimic the form of television series that inspired the development of this episodic format. Releasing a game like this reduced costs for both the developer and consumer, as well as helped the developer build and communicate with their audience over time. Furthermore, the episodic format also allowed for a reduction in the length of development cycles – reducing the gap between games from years to months – and allowed developers to make major improvements to the gameplay side of their game based on player feedback to each installment. While the episodic games format is definitely not for every developer (or gamer for that matter), it certainly presents a number of benefits on both the developer and consumer sides of the gaming industry.

On the surface, it should come as little surprise that the format has acquired new-found success in the face of today’s bloated gaming budgets but a number of other factors have contributed to the resurgence of the format. At time of its emergence the format failed to gain both a solid mainstream or developer following and was more or less abandoned. That is until 2006 when Valve announced it was planning to continue its award winning and critically adored Half Life series through episodic installments. While the Half Life episodes were huge critical and commercial successes, the large gaps between the release of episodes (a lot of gamers are still waiting on the long-rumored but unconfirmed third and final episode) cause a lot of gamers to debate whether these games were episodic in anything but their title.

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Valve may have brought episodic gaming back into the limelight with the move but they were far from the only developers approaching the idea of episodic content at the time with both SiN episodes developer Ritual Entertainment and adventure-game-aficionados Telltale testing the waters. Shooters may have been the first games to utilize the episodic format but when compared to the modern risen-from-the-ashes genre of adventure games, the successes of episodic shooters seem almost forgettable. While the format may have proved its worth with Half Life: Episode One and Episode Two it hardly proved to be enough to save the aforementioned SiN Episodes series from falling into obscurity.

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It seems very appropriate that Telltale’s first big episodic success story was with forgotten LucasArts adventure gaming icons Sam & Max. The studio released the first season titled Sam & Max Save The World in 2006 and  the game received just as much acclaim for its revival of the adventure gaming genre as it did its unique episodic format. The success of the series prompted a second series to be made and allowed Telltale to move their revival of adventure gaming into other franchises like Homestar Runner, Monkey Island, and Back to the Future. While these series did respectively well for themselves in both a critical and commercial sense, it was Telltale’s injection of quicktime-action sequences into their style of game that resulted in one of the most successful examples of episodic gaming to date – The Walking Dead.

Adapted from the Robert Kirkman comic and TV series, The Walking Dead combined Telltale’s signature neo-adventure game style with the dynamic quick time sequences and gut-wrenching decisions of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Telltale actually prototyped this fusion of gameplay with their episodic Jurassic Park series, but the results were less than ideal and the series is regarded by many as a black stain on Telltale’s otherwise high pedigree of adventure games. After this misstep and the following success of The Walking Dead, it’s clear that Telltale’s overhauling of the formula was a wise and rewarding move on their part.

2012 proved to be a year where each installment of The Walking Dead garnered huge press attention – each decision players made was scrutinized and each grim cliffhanger discussed. The Walking Dead showcased both the power of a strong story in video games and the potential power of episodic content to tell that story.

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While the enormous critical and commercial success of The Walking Dead series by Telltale means that episodic gaming isn’t going anywhere, the format has recently found a new life among Kickstarter-funded indie games. The high-profile Kickstarter success Broken Age recently drew a lot of criticism for splitting the Kickstarter-funded game into two pieces of episodic content due to the game going over budget. Other Kickstarter games are also planning to release content in an episodic format for the same reasons as their 1980s and 1990s predecessors did – the games industry might be very different in a lot of ways than it was back then but the financial, logistical and design benefits of episodic gaming are just as valid.

While the success of episodic adventure games and the disappearing-act of episodic shooters isn’t a status quo that I expect to change any time soon, there are still plenty of other genres that episodic gaming could find it’s way into. Fighting games, role-playing games and real time strategy games are all genres that have become steeped in tradition and it would be fascinating to see how an episodic content format could lead to some unique innovations in these genres and the emergence of some truly great games.

What’s something that you would like to see episodic gaming work it’s way into? Comment below.



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