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An episodic video game is a video game produced and sold in small units that build into a recognizable series, as opposed to a video game series in which games are larger and produced separately and expansion packs which add onto an existing game. Such a series may or may not have continuity, but will always share settings, characters, and/or themes. Episodic production in this manner has become increasingly popular among video game developers since the advent of low-cost digital distribution systems, which can immensely reduce their distribution overhead and make episodes financially viable.

Contents

Definition

To consumers, episodic games are very similar in nature to expansion packs. An expansion is an add-on to an original, non-episodic product however; something of a lower order. In an episodic series there is no dominant '"first" game': each installment, although perhaps of the same length and price point as an expansion, is a main event that drives the core experience forward.

Advantages

  • A way to make the games cost less for developers, therefore making the game cheaper for consumers.
  • A cheaper purchase price per episode leads to lower immediate risk for consumers and increased uptake.
  • The lack of the 'safety net' for disengaging periods provided by longer, less focused games coupled with the need to keep consumers on board for multiple release produces greater motivation for the production of quality and innovative titles.
  • Exposure and experience from early episodes can benefit the production quality of future releases.
  • Lower risk investment for the developers, as the games cost less to develop and to sell and are quicker onto the market.
  • Higher quality of life for developers, with more manageable, focused projects.
  • Faster games to market, as many high production titles often take anywhere from 2–5 years to complete - with episodic gaming, the wait time is often reduced to an annual or bi-annual basis.
  • Developing in smaller chunks means developers can better adapt to community feedback in between releases.
  • The developer gets several chances to hit the market with a lower level of risk each time, as opposed to a single chance to make good a lone product that has far more investment riding on it.
  • New advancements can be added to the next release.

Disadvantages

  • After buying all episodes, the total cost for consumers may be more than that of the typical game.
  • Some developers choose the episodic model because they lack the resources to complete a full-length game, and hope the sales of episodes will fund further development. If earlier episodes fail to sell, then funding for future episodes may suffer or disappear, forcing developers to renege on promises of future episodes and cut storylines short. Notable episodic series that have been aborted early include Sin Episodes, Bone, and Insecticide.
  • In some situations it can be counter-productive using this method as opposed to plainly producing a full-fledged sequel or series of titles. Examples include sandbox titles such as the GTA and Sims series[citation needed].
  • Most episodic content is distributed primarily or exclusively over the internet, to offset the potential extra costs of distributing more physical copies to retail (i.e. 5 hard copies for 5 chapters over 4 years as opposed to shipping a single item once). This is a disadvantage to consumers with limited or slow internet access, who might have to wait for a physically-published collection of episodes or never get anything at all.
  • Some content will always need to be created up-front, for example rendering technology. This makes bespoke engine software unsuitable in its complex modern form.
  • A player trying to progress through a series of episodes may find the technological advances over time distracting; in extreme cases, they may even be put off by the primitive techniques used in episodes produced years before.
  • If the game's chapters are all available only through online systems (i.e Sonic the Hedgehog 4 for Wiiware/PSN/XBox Live Arcade), then the game may sell less because fans might lack online connectivity on the system.

Single-player episodic gaming

One of the first episodic games was the Kroz series, a seven-part series of games featuring similar text-based graphics and gameplay, with renewed levels. These were not released on a regular schedule, but were sold in packages, with the first episode being available freely as shareware.

Single-player games, particularly real-time strategy games and first-person shooters, have in the past experimented with a limited form of episodic gaming, by adding new stages, levels, weapons, enemies or missions with expansion packs.

Early examples include Wing Commander: Secret Ops, which was released episodically over the internet in 1998. However, this series was a failure and was discontinued after it failed to attract significant player numbers. One of the contributing factors was its 120MB download size, which may have been prohibitively large in an age in which 56k internet access was the norm. Limitations in bandwidth have also been cited as one of the reasons for the failure of the episodic alternate reality game Majestic, as it required an initial download of an hour or more on a dial-up connection.

Another example of a more casual episodic game is Goodnight Mister Snoozleberg!, an online game created by Sarbakan that was released in 1999 on TF1's web site, later on CBC and now available for download on Trygames.

El Dorado's Gate was a Japan-only episodic game released by Capcom in 2001.

Kuma Reality Games has developed first-person shooter episodic games since its inception in 2003. Some of the "game-isodes" that the company has developed include The DinoHunters, which documents a group of off-key time travelers hunting dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts, and the controversial Kuma\War, which focuses on recent military action in the world, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently, Kuma Games produced a series mirroring The History Channel's Shootout! series. The games created were modeled on the battles featured in the TV show, adding another level of media depth to episodic gaming in general.

The first episodic console game was .hack, a four-part RPG released between 2002 and 2003. Upon clearing each game, the player's data is loaded onto the memory card as a "data flag" file, readable by the next game in the series. With this, the player can continue on from the previous game with the same stats, items, and player name.

Other games have contemplated going the route of episodic development and distribution, only to decide against it. Examples of this include Quantic Dream's Fahrenheit and a planned series of episodes starring Duke Nukem by ARUSH Entertainment.

Valve Corporation's Steam platform is being used as a content delivery platform for several episodic games including Half-Life 2 Episodes developed by Valve themselves.

Telltale Games is one of the heaviest supporters of episodic gaming thus far. Their game Bone is an adventure title that literally adapts chapters from Jeff Smith's Bone comic book saga into game episodes on a periodic basis, with two episodes having been released. Telltale's Sam & Max: Season One was their first fully-completed episodic series, with Sam & Max: Season Two and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People also being released episodically later on. They are currently releasing episodes in their latest episodic series, Wallace and Gromit's Grand Adventures. They have also recently begun a new series, Tales of Monkey Island, which is a continuation of the Monkey Island series.

MINERVA is a single-player modification that has adopted an episodic development structure. It is one of the first mods to do so for Valve's Half-Life 2.

Turner Broadcasting's GameTap has made large investments in episodic game development. The online game service's first episodic game, Sam & Max, was co-published with Telltale Games. Each episode premiered on GameTap 14 days before becoming available on the Telltale Games web site. GameTap's second foray into episodic games was monthly content deliveries for Myst Online: Uru Live an online massive multiplayer game by Cyan Worlds. In February, GameTap announced a third episodic game, Galactic Command: Echo Squad, developed in conjunction with 3000AD. Their most recently announced game, the 24 episode American McGee's Grimm, was announced in May 2007 for an early 2008 launch. GameTap's VP of content, Ricardo Sanchez, has written for sites like Gamasutra and GameDaily and presented at the D.I.C.E. Summit on the subject. His "Three Laws of Episodics" lay out rules by which GameTap determines whether a title is episodic or not, and rules out Bone and Half-Life 2 Episodes due to the unknown duration of time between episodes.

Dimps and Sonic Team are creating the episodic video game, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 for PSN, Wiiware and Xbox Live Arcade for the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 respectively.

Massively multiplayer online gaming

Since episodic gaming is mostly driven through linear storytelling, outside of story-driven single player games, it is mostly found in MMOGs. Much as they worked for offline games, expansion packs have often been sold to increase available content to MMOG players by adding additional worlds to explore and additional gameplay features, such as new weapons and characters.

As the term relates to this genre, episodes are typically contrasted to the traditional expansion pack, as in the Asheron's Call franchise, where episodic content was downloaded without an additional fee (to the standing subscription price). This included new expansive story arcs comparable to those found in offline RPGs and were updated on a bi-monthly basis. It should be noted that retail expansion packs were still created for the Asheron's Call games.

Another MMOG featuring an episodic design is the Guild Wars series developed by ArenaNet. The company's business model involves releasing new, independent chapters for the game on a six month basis. Since Guild Wars does not charge a monthly fee, and there is no requirement to own the newer chapters, it is one the few games entirely reliant on the episodic games model to continue its service. To this end, Guild Wars Factions was released on April 28, 2006, which was subsequently followed by Guild Wars Nightfall, released worldwide on October 27, 2006, and finally Guild Wars Eye of the North on August 31, 2007.

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