Just What is "Episodic Gaming," Anyway?

GameTap VP of content, Rick Sanchez, offers his definition of the latest gaming trend

GameTap VP of content, Rick Sanchez says that the idea of episodic gaming, a business that can just barely be deemed “in its infancy,” has yet to be clearly defined. “I think if you ask any two people in the industry, you’ll get a different answer [as to what episodic gaming is],” he says.

So how does he define episodic? First of all, Sanchez says that true episodes have to be released on a regular schedule or a defined period of time. “[A game] can’t really be considered episodic when you don’t know when the next episode is coming out,” he argues.

Secondly, he says that each episode should have a relatively short duration of play. “A 40-hour game is not an episode, but something in the range of 30 minutes to five hours feels like an episode.” He adds that a true episode is relatively standalone, but it is also part of a larger, more interesting whole.

So by his standards, the GameTap-distributed Sam & Max episodes from Telltale Games fit the definition, as they are short games released about once a month, but Valve’s Half Life 2 episodes don’t quite fit the bill.

But why is it important to have a mutual understanding about episodic gaming? One reason is so that the industry can talk about the same thing. A good example is how last summer at the Develop Conference in Brighton, England, Epic Games VP Mark Rein slammed episodic gaming, calling it a “broken business,” as he questioned why gamers would want to buy “half a game… then wait six months for an episode.” Rein seemed to have been talking about an idea of episodic that was different that that of Sanchez’.

Despite the jeers that episodic faithfuls directed towards Rein after his comments back in July, Sanchez agrees to an extent. “[Rein] had a lot of good reasons for saying [episodic gaming is ‘broken,’], he says. “From his perspective he was really right. If I were him and I worked for that company, I would agree with everything he said.”

However, Sanchez counters, “But he’s very focused on the next generation of technology, whereas I think episodic can be focused on the last generation of technology. [Episodic is] as much—if not more—about gameplay as it is how pretty the graphics are. If you spend more time really focusing on packing a ton of gameplay into a couple hours, you actually have a better chance of creating a product that people want to engage in over and over as you do if you spend five years and $40 million to make something super-pretty.”

Sanchez believes that people in the industry may have episodic gaming confused with something he calls “installment gaming.” He explains, “I liken [installment gaming] to Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Empire Strikes Back, in theory, is a self-contained movie, but it leaves you with such a cliffhanger and you have no idea when the next movie’s coming out. [Empire] is really the second installment in a franchise, and then Return finishes it up.”

Sanchez adds, “A lot of what people describe as episodic is really just a demo for a full 40-hour game that they don’t have the money to finish. Well, that’s not really episodic. Those are games that are intended to be 40-hour games.”

Sanchez will be delivering his presentation, “What’s Next in Episodic?” on the afternoon of Thursday, February 8 at the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas.

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