The Final Episode?

Episodic gaming was all the rage, but the model has been questioned of late. Some developers are rethinking strategy

Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of game development at Valve, recently spoke about how the company might rethink the episodic concept after finishing Half-Life 2: Episode Three. Depending on what fans prefer, Valve may give up on episodic games altogether and go back to the more traditional method of making big blockbuster games that take years to develop. Fortunately, Valve games have a great enough fan base, so they have the unique position of going either way. After all, it took eight years for Half-Life 2 to come out and nine for Team Fortress 2, but both were well worth the wait. The future of episodic gaming catching on, however, remains somewhat questionable, since the format comes with some unexpected difficulties.

I'm still a believer in the episodic format, despite it never materializing into the massive gaming revolution that many thought it would be. The promise of games being developed in short time periods with extra emphasis on story and character is still exciting and the success of the Sam & Max series (developed by Telltale Games) is encouraging. Except the new Sam & Max uses a television-like style, so each episode lasts one to two hours. Areas are also relatively small and get reused during the course of each game, which no doubt contributes to Telltale's amazing ability to churn out new episodes in just a month. But what works for the comedy duo won't necessarily apply to action games like Half-Life 2 that need to deliver complex environments to explore, physics based puzzles that make use of the gravity gun and plenty of dangerous situations to blast through—all on top of writing a compelling story and dialogue.

Valve backed off from developing games within a few months and took a year to complete Episode Two. Even with that extra time, they packed four other games into the Orange Box to make it more enticing. With a year-long development, it's hard to differentiate between episodic games and plain stand-alone expansions. They share an exceptional number of traits, particularly the aspect of reusing the original game's graphics and gameplay while telling short, self-contained stories that build up into a larger plot. It makes me wonder if the revolutionary aspect of episodic gaming was attainable at all, or if we were simply poised to fall back into familiar territory.

Don't get me wrong, a year of development is still better than three, and the twenty-dollar or less price tag beats out the cost of most expansions. Plus, developers must appreciate the ability to quickly respond to player feedback. But expectations are considerably lower now than they were in 2005, when developers were still putting together ideas for the episodic format. Things seemed more ambitious when games like SiN Episodes proposed an ongoing series with branching storylines determined by decisions made in previous chapters. However, the project was a little too ambitious, and the series was effectively canceled after one episode. Ritual's plan was certainly much more appealing than Rockstar's intention to deliver exclusive episodic content for Grand Theft Auto IV through Xbox Live, which pretty much means that anyone not interested in an Xbox 360 gets screwed out of any additional content. Why is Rockstar bothering to develop different versions if it's going to play favorites? Is the company punishing Sony for having an underdeveloped online presence? Microsoft promises that each episode pack will be more than just new characters and cars, and would deliver no less than ten hours of additional gameplay. This sounds suspiciously like downloadable expansions to me, but we'll have to wait and see how long it takes for Rockstar to roll out each episode. I guess it doesn't matter in the long run. Fans will devour boatloads of GTA IV, even if they end up missing out on future content.

Valve may adapt the same kind of large-scale expansions and add-ons that massively-multiplayer online (MMO) games use. The company may borrow some ideas from Blizzard and its approach to World of Warcraft. The problem is, MMO developers have years of experience generating add-ons and expansions, usually with relatively short turn-around. They must dedicate themselves to generating new content every few months, while taking longer with major expansions, because players enjoy their games almost indefinitely. This design philosophy doesn't necessarily apply to single-player games with definite conclusions, designed to deliver roughly ten hours of gameplay. Also, MMO subscriptions maintain a constant flow of revenue even after players buy the game or expansion, which gives them a major advantage over one-shot single player games. Alternatively, developers could use an approach similar to the upcoming game Hellgate: London, which will include a full single player game, but subscribers will have access to extra game modes and new content updates. But that comes with its own set of risks too.

Maybe the episodic format is simply unfit for action games. Even though Half-Life 2's graphics still look good after three years, shooter fans still value games that take advantage of the latest hardware and offer mind-blowing explosions. Gamers and developers continue to debate on whether or not action video games can be a strong storytelling device, with many who firmly believe that story is largely irrelevant so long as everything looks pretty, with plenty of objects to destroy and something new to see around every corner. Perhaps the slow progression of the episodic format is proof that style trumps substance. Gamers seem quite content with waiting a decade for sequels and spending $50-60 on them, especially if they get twenty hours of non-stop shooting, leaving a blasted trail of destruction and carnage in their wake.

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