The Case for Episodic Gaming, Episode 1

Let's take a look at the merits of Episodic Gaming, from every point of view, from Designer to Publisher to Player. It's a model we should seriously consider being a much bigger chunk of industry games.

Movies and television are two sides of the same coin.  One offers long, one-shot experiences which take a year or more to make, and have gigantic budgets.  The other offers multiple, short experiences with smaller budgets that take a week or two to make.  Right now games use a movie model for the most part, but I think games can take great advantage of the television model.

It's really just the difference between games as they mostly are now versus the new (but barely touched) trend of episodic gaming.

I think there is room for both kinds of games, but I would like to see episodic gaming reach a higher prominence in the industry.  I think it will help to expand the industry both in sales and in reputation.

In this article (and in follow-ups) I will look at episodic gaming from various perspectives to show that it works well in all regards, and that it's feasible on a bigger scale than we use.  It may seem a bit jumbled, because it's difficult to separate each part from another, as they connect together in so many ways.

First, however, I would like to define episodic gaming, because the way I would like to see it done is a bit different than what we see today.  My model follows television much more closely than what current episodic games do.

Episodic Games should:

  • Have a release schedule of about one per month
  • Have a playtime between 1/2 hour and an hour
  • Be cheap
  • Have "seasons"

The first three are self-explanatory, but the last is a bit out there.  By "seasons", I mean exactly what you see on television.  A single season might be composed of seven or more episodes, then there is a break, then a new season begins with another seven or more episodes.

While each project would play with the variables, this is a good rule of thumb to begin with.

The Player's Perspective

As a player, I love episodic gaming.  I love TV shows, too.  I have more affection for my favorite television characters than I do for my favorite movie characters, because I get to spend more time with my TV characters.  I watch my movie heroes on screen for three hours at best, then wait a year for another adventure.  By that point, I've forgotten what the hero's name is.  But every week I get to spend 1/2 hour of quality time with my favorite TV show characters.

With episodic gaming, the same can occur.  Players can get attached to the characters, and will stick with the series, shelling out money as the series continues.

However, I'm not paying $80 for a half hour game.  I'm not even paying $10.  Need to lure me in with a better payment system.

Aside:  Payment Plans

I was going to save this for the Business Perspective (which I will get to in a later part), but payment plans go here best:

Do what DOOM did.  Offer Episode 1 for free.  Forever.  Stick it on Steam, and Gametap, and whatever the latest service is.  Get Players hooked before charging them for it.  That's what demos are.  That's what a TV pilot is.  Make Episode 1 double-length, to make sure you get people interested enough.

Then charge $10 an episode until the season ends.  Some gamers will pay up, some won't.  After the season's over, just as Season 2 is beginning, you put Season 1 on DVD.  That's a metaphor, but that's what you do, and it's where you get all the gamers who wouldn't pay per episode; they'll pay per season.  Offer a bundled Season 1, with extra features, with commentaries, with coupons for $5 off next season, with concept art, with interviews, with deleted scenes (in this case half-finished levels that interested players might like to explore)... tons of great stuff can be put on it with not too much extra work.

I may not buy $10 episodes, but I'll buy the full season for $70, which comes out the same.

The Level Designer's Perspective

As a level designer, I love episodic gaming.  I get to make one level a month for as long as the series stays strong.

On a half-hour episode, I would not be the only level designer, of course.  Five or six level designers would be plenty for that scale.

Episodes would be made well in advance of their release date; almost all of them should be in the bin when the season launches.  So while there may be an off-season as far as release schedule is concerned, designers would work year-round, devoting as much time to the level design and testing their levels as possible.

The Writer's Perspective

As a writer, I love episodic gaming.  I get to write consistently for characters, and I get to be much more involved in the design process.

Many games today suffer from having writers work in solitary, as if they are contracted, or using a designer whose job is not primarily writing that takes on the duty.

But writers should be as much a part of the team as any other kind of designer.  Episodic gaming helps to take care of this a fair bit.

In a television show, the writing matters more than special effects.  The dialogue is an integral part of the show, and it's television's bread and butter.  Equally, in episodic gaming, a bigger emphasis on writing is necessary to attract gamers.  The characters need to be likable, not something you put up with just because you like the gameplay so much.  Because this is such an investment for the player, if the characters suck they won't keep playing (and paying for) new episodes.

This is why we see Back to the Future:  The Game as an Adventure game.  Adventure games notoriously have a lot of story and beloved characters.

Episodic games can work for any genre, of course, as long as we spend just a little extra time on the writing.

To be continued...

To read this article with pictures and jokes, or to read other articles, development logs, reviews, and other stuff, stop on by

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