Learn more about Episodic games
Episodic gaming refers to a distribution system of selling computer and video games in a sequence of episodes, akin to a serialized novel, where each episode is sold as a separate purchase and in the end together form a continuous story or experience. Episodic games have become increasingly popular of late with the advent of low cost digital distribution methods.
Though the term was coined in the early 21st century, it has roots in both shareware gaming and the expansion pack. The primary difference is that, in those earlier cases, it was assumed that the complete game could be purchased, inclusive of the demo or trial in the case of shareware, and that expansion packs were considered add-ons or semi-sequels to the original product. In episodic games, smaller amounts of game content are released over a larger period of time, with the full game being formed from the combined total of all episodes in the series. In some cases (such as MMOGs) episodic content is planned to continue production indefinitely over time, comparable to a long-running television series.
Episodic gaming has come into prevalance in the early 21st century, due to the rise in popularity and feasability of digital delivery platforms such as Steam and Xbox Live Marketplace, which have cut the costs involved in traditional publishing (manufacturing and packaging etc.).
- A cheaper purchase price per episode leads to lower immediate risk for consumers and increased uptake.
- The lack of the 'safety net' for disengaging periods provided by longer, less focused games coupled with the need to keep consumers on board for multiple release produces greater motivation for the production of quality and innovative titles.
- Exposure and experience from early episodes can benefit the production quality of future releases.
- Lower risk investment for the developers, as the games cost less to develop and to sell and are quicker onto the market.
- Higher quality of life for developers, with more manageable, focused projects.
- Faster games to market, as many high production titles often take anywhere from 2-5 years to complete - with episodic gaming, the wait time is often reduced to an annual or bi-annual basis.
- Developing in smaller chunks means developers can better adapt to community feedback in between releases.
- The developer gets several chances to hit the market with a lower level of risk each time, as opposed to a single chance to make good a lone product that has far more investment riding on it.
- After buying all episodes, the total cost for consumers may be more than that of typical game.
- If earlier episodes fail to sell, then funding for future episodes may suffer or disappear, forcing developers to renege on promises of future episodes and cut storylines short.
- In some situations it can be counter-productive using this method as opposed to plainly producing a full-fledged sequel or series of titles. Examples include sandbox titles such as the GTA and Sims series.
- Most episodic content is distributed primarily or exclusively over the internet, to offset the potential extra costs of distributing more physical copies to retail (i.e. 5 hard copies for 5 chapters over 4 years as opposed to shipping a single item once). This is a disadvantage to consumers with limited or slow internet access, who might have to wait for a physically-published collection of episodes or never get anything at all.
- Some content will always need to be created up-front, for example rendering technology. This makes bespoke engine software unsuitable in its complex modern form.
- A player trying to progress through a series of episodes may find the technological advances over time distracting; in extreme cases, they may even be put off by the primitive techniques used in episodes produced years before.
- This is only an issue for series in which episodes are not context-independent.
 Single player episodic gaming
Single player games, particularly real-time strategy games and first-person shooters, have in the past experimented with a very limited form of episodic gaming, by adding new stages, levels, weapons, enemies, and/or missions with expansion packs.
Early examples include Wing Commander: Secret Ops, which was released episodically over the internet in 1998. However, this series was a failure and was discontinued after it failed to attract significant player numbers. One of the contributing factors was its 120MB download size, which may have been prohibitively large in an age in which 56k internet access was the norm. Limitations in bandwidth have also been cited as one of the reasons for the failure of the episodic alternate reality game Majestic, as it required an initial download of an hour or more on a dial up connection. This lengthy delay may have attributed to 91 percent of players failing to complete the registration process.
Other games have contemplated going the route of episodic development and distribution, only to decide against it. Examples of this include Quantic Dream's Fahrenheit and a planned series of episode starring Duke Nukem by ARUSH Entertainment.
Telltale Games's Bone is an adventure title that is literally adapting chapters from Jeff Smith's Bone comic book saga into game episodes on a periodic basis. The first two episodes have already been released. Telltale's Sam & Max title is also being distributed episodically.
Another development in digital delivery is the advent of relatively small content offerings for established games. Rather than additional discrete levels or chapters that would extend the game's story, this content often appears as particular objects or assets, such as a set of armor, an additional weapon, or a new mode of transport. Hence, this sort of content is typically offered at a small fraction of the price of a full game or expansion. This is different from episodic content.
Examples such as premium modules for BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, and content such as The Wizard's Tower and Horse Armour for Bethesda Softworks's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion have taken advantage of both a digital distribution platform as well as a micropayment system. Digital Illusions's Battlefield 2 also has a series of small download-only booster packs for sale, examples include Euro Force and Armoured Fury available on EA's Downloader service.
Responses to these offerings has been mixed, with some users balking at the prices demanded for "trivial" upgrades and yet others embracing the stream of new content as good value. Hostile reaction towards pricing for Bethesda's Horse Armour add-on may have lead Bethesda to drop the prices for their future expansions. Another worry is that episodic content may encourage developers to release incomplete games, in the hope that consumers would pay extra for a more satisfying experience.
Grand Theft Auto IV will be offering exclusive episodic content for the Xbox 360 as an exclusive feature to disguish itself from the simultaneous PlayStation 3 release in October 2007. At the time of the initial press release (May 19, 2006) it was unclear what form this content will take.
 Massively multiplayer online gaming
Since episodic gaming is mostly driven through linear storytelling, outside of story-driven single player games, it is mostly found in MMOGs. Much as they worked for offline games, expansion packs have often been sold to increase available content to MMOG players by adding additional worlds to explore and additional gameplay features, such as new weapons and characters.
As the term relates to this genre, episodes are typically contrasted to the traditional expansion pack, as in the Asheron's Call franchise, where episodic content was downloaded without an additional fee (to the standing subscription price). This included new expansive story arcs comparable to those found in offline RPGs and were updated on a bi-monthly basis. It should be noted that retail expansion packs were still created for the Asheron's Call games.
Another MMOG featuring an episodic design is the Guild Wars series developed by ArenaNet. The company's business model involves releasing new, independent chapters for the game on a six month basis. Since Guild Wars does not charge a monthly fee, and there is no requirement to own the newer chapters, it is one the few games entirely reliant on the episodic games model to continue its service. To this end, Guild Wars Factions was released on April 28, 2006.
- Jason Kraft and Chris Kwak (April 2006) "Episodic Gaming in the Age of Digital Distribution". GamaSutra.
- David Edery (April 2006) "In Defense of Episodic Content - A Response to the Above Article".
- Patrick Klepek (April 2006) "Bethesda Responds To Oblivion Issues" - Fan reaction to the Horse Armour expansion. 1UP.com
- N. Evan Van Zelfden (March 2006) "Dallas Developers: Ritual" - Steve Nix of Ritual Entertainment discusses Episodic delivery of SiN Episodes. Next Generation
- Kris Graft (August 2005) Micropayments. Next Generation
- Ben Williamson (April 2003) "Episodic gaming" Futurelab
- Pete Rojas (August 2002) "But Serially, a Game in Episodes?" Wired
- David Kushner (March 2002) " So What, Exactly, Do Online Gamers Want?" New York Times