The strengths and weaknesses of episodic games
Their first strength, the one that caught players’ attention, is simply the notoriety of their names. A game based on “brands” as strong as The Walking Dead or Games of Thrones automatically generate a lot of interest from gamers and the media. However, it would be a mistake to assume that episodic games became successful only because of their affiliation with some of the most popular TV series. What triggered their success is the different game experience they bring: A well-written story, the understanding that the player’s choices will have an impact on the story development and a simplified gameplay. This innovative mix is seducing its share of players, from casual to core gamers.
Their second strength is their business model that has many common features with a very popular one: Free-to-play. I give master classes on the design of freemium games and my attendees are often surprised that I introduce the episodic content model as an alternative to business models offering in-app purchases. However, these two models have a lot in common:
- Both of them attempt to generate some level of frustration
- They attract curious players by making the game free; the first episode of episodic games is often free
- Their gameplays are very simple to comprehend
- They are sold in “chunks” at a low price point.
Episodic games piggyback on our habit of making in-app purchases.
Their third strength is their compatibility with a wide spectrum of players as well as all game platforms. Today, we can find episodic content games on smart phones, PC (Steam) and home consoles. When our TVs become game consoles (hello Apple!), episodic content games will be a natural complement.
Fourth strength, episodic content games make it possible to strengthen the relationship between a publisher and its players. If a gamer enjoys an episodic game, chances are that he will buy more episodes and become a faithful client. It will also be easier for the publisher to get a personal email address and learn gaming habits.
Having said that, episodic content games contain handicaps as well.
The first handicap is related to the weakness of the gameplay found in a majority of episodic games. The truth is that most people don’t play, and enjoy, episodic games for the quality of their game mechanisms but rather for the uniqueness of the gaming experience they offer. This is a risky situation because if a game is played for its story and not for its gameplay, players’ interest for that genre will fade eventually. The novelty of the game experience attracts players but we risk loosing them if the gameplay is a mere afterthought.
The second handicap is related to the costs of development. Even if most of the “episodes” in a season are not developed prior to the publication of the first one, an episodic game requires an important initial investment. Those games tend to be rich in expensive cut-scenes, detailed 3D models for the characters and recorded dialogs. An episodic game is not cheap to produce.
Episodic games: Fad or trend?
Our industry suffers from excessive cloning of successful games. When a new game genre shows up and attains success, everybody copies it. Think of the hundreds of clones for Clash of Clans and Bejeweled.
Such a situation generates boredom among players, casual or core gamers, who become more receptive to new game experiences, even if the gameplay lacks depth and polish. I believe that this is what largely explains the current success for episodic games: the lure for novelty. Unfortunately, their weak gameplay is a serious handicap for their long-term success.
So, are episodic games doomed? Will they be remembered as bright but short-lived shooting stars? In my view, that will depend on the content brought to those games in the coming years. I believe episodic games have the potential to develop into a thriving genre but only if they offer better gameplay while offering high quality storytelling.
The Wolf Among Us
In conclusion …
I believe in the potential of episodic games because they allow us to enrich games with quality storytelling and that brings a new experience to gamers. The great appeal of successful TV series among the young generation makes me believe that they will enjoy such games. Let’s not forget too that there are gamers of all ages and “senior” gamers are especially receptive to quality storytelling.
However, as my conclusion, I will stress four points:
- The current choices for the gameplay present in episodic games, essentially QTEs and adventure games mechanisms, do not appear strong enough to support the commercial growth of those games. I think that the successes of current episodic games stem from the novelty of the experience they offer to gamers, not because of their gameplay. This is a dangerous trend that could kill the long-term potential of episodic games. Let’s never forget that people play games for their gameplay, not their story.
- I don’t see why episodic games should be restricted to the adventure genre. What makes episodic games different from other games is the way their story is written, not specific gameplay. To believe that only adventure games can support high quality storytelling is an error.
- Episodic games should not be seen as a genre but rather like an economic model and a design technique that could be applied to numerous genres. The business model rests on 1) very low prices for each episode and 2) their potential for offering a large number of episodes as long as the audience is “hooked” on the story. Their design must take into account the specificities of episodic narration and the need for the talents of real scriptwriters, not game designers “recycled” as storytellers.
- A good episodic game needs the fusion of two skills: Those of game designers and scriptwriters. It is very rare for one person to be talented in both areas, so studios working on episodic games are likely to get a game designer and a scriptwriter to work together. However, it is my experience that this collaboration might not work because both come from two different cultures. This is an important point to keep in mind when building one’s team.
I want to express my thanks to the scriptwriter Joël Meziane who kindly helped me in the preparation of this feature.
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