In episode 47 of Epic Battle Cry, my personal guilty listening pleasure, Tony Grice, Daniel Kaiser, and Brent Adams discussed the recently released Fable II episode 1. During their discussion they decided that they like the idea of consumers being able to try a game before investing all of their money into the final product, claiming that most gamers don’t finish games and therefore don’t get their full money’s worth. I think that thriftiness is not the only thing at stake when a full game is broken down and sold like a stripped out car.
Episodic games have had a recent reemergence with games like Sam and Max and Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People by Telltale Games. These titles are meant to be small, easy to digest, and played in one or two sittings while offering a near full game experience in less time than a huge AAA title. The tactic that Lionhead Studios is taking is different from other episodic games. Essentially Fable II has different chapters, stages in the main character’s life where there is a transition from one phase to another. Chapters allow the important events to be experienced in game without having to explain all the details of the characters life or having to come up with some wacky reason why they’ve grown up (Link in The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time). This structure of chapters works well with an episodic format however there are some things about the character that never change. The inventory for instance, or stat points a player has earned and invested would need to be consistent from chapter to chapter and episode to episode. Transferring the data is easy to do when one is breaking down and playing bits of a complete game. Consistency is not something episodic games embrace readily.
The problem with releasing a full game in smaller chunks is in the implementation and timing. If a development team is under pressure from the publisher, or in Blizzard’s case with Star Craft II and its fans, then releasing an episode of a full game could satiate them long enough for the team to continue work. Releasing a game that wasn’t meant to be episodic can break up an otherwise coherent and epic story, bring unfair criticism from reviewers (wasn’t long enough, should have more features etc.), and worst of all cement features/characters/plot that could have been changed or adapted as the game’s development progressed. Sure it may be convenient for gamers to purchase a game in small doses, adding revenue to complete a project. If the first two episodes don’t have players hooked and sales for the third or fourth episode aren’t very successful then a publisher might drop the title leaving both a development team, and players who were deeply interested, an unfinished game.
My advice for anyone looking to take a full game and break it into episodes is know your game and know yourself. If you have made sequels and know how to continue a story and improve upon the ideas of the original then you already have a good sense of how an episodic game is made. Some genres are better for playing in smaller chunks and are more easily adapted to the episodic format. If you want to tell a grand epic story that’s non-stop action and suspense then episodes should not be your first choice.