The Double-Edged Sword of Episodic Gaming

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Since the dawn of the gaming industry, for good or for ill, games were released “whole”.  This is how things have been for many years.  .The idea of releasing a game episodically on a console seemed a foreign one, but then came games like Alan Wake, Life is Strange, and Telltale Games, arguably the biggest episodic developer in the industry.

In a way, Telltale has become the example of how an episodic game should be done.  Their award winning games and stories show how advantageous episodic gaming can be.  With this style, developers don’t have to rush their products to make deadlines; they can focus on perfecting graphics and story.  In addition the public, ultimately, ends up paying less for a Telltale experience than they would any other console game.  The drawback is they don’t actually feel like GAMES (mostly just dialog simulators).  They’re not open-world games.

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With the rising popularity and success of the episodic format, more game companies have taken notice.  Most notably, Square Enix.  In 2015, Square Enix released an award-winning game called Life is Strange.  In it, you play as a young photographer, named Maxine, who discovers the ability to rewind time and must prevent the destruction of her town.  The success from Life is Strange inspired Square Enix to replicate this format for other games, the popular ones being Hitman and Final Fantasy VII Remake.  These two games are prime examples of good and bad reasons for episodic gaming.

The whole point of episodic gaming is to create a gorgeous-looking, lasting story that players can experience and crave to play, much like how a TV show works without the interactive aspect.  With this idea in mind, you have to ask, “Is Square Enix going too far with Episodic Gaming?”.  Yes and no, the yes being Hitman and the no being FFVII.  

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Square Enix had gone through two other forms of releasing Hitman before settling on the episodic approach.  Now they claim that it’s a “true episodic AAA experience”, whatever that means.  Their plan, is to sell the game for $60 like a season pass and release new contracts and episodes over the course of 6 months. They also have an “Intro Pack”, which is basically a pay as you go method where you buy each episode and ultimately spend more than those who paid $60.  Square Enix cites the reason as, “being the best way to make sure that each episode is at the highest quality”.  This isn’t what they were saying a few months ago when they were willing to sell a shell of Hitman for $34.  Click here for the full article of what they were going to do.

This indecision stinks of not knowing how to market a practically dead franchise.  Instead, they decide to follow a trend in an attempt to outsmart the average consumer and make money.  The problem is, if this were the 90s and we were all still playing on the PS2, it would work.  Hitman no longer has the reach nor the fan base for an episodic approach to work, which is probably why they made the “Intro Pack” for $15, in the first place.  They must think they can hook the unsuspecting gamer.

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Conversely, the idea to use the episodic method for Final Fantasy VII Remake is the right thing to do.  Many have clamored about how this is a horrible idea but you have to consider just how big FFVII originally was.  This is a game that took 4 discs to play on the PS1.  Add in the fact that you’re doing a complete update to this game and you need as much time and space as possible to hold this game.  

In fact, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s producer Yashinori Kitase said this, “One thing that we wanted to be clear about during this weekend to accompany the new trailer was the scale of this project. We wanted to tell you this now and not in the future so that you’d share our vision for what we want to deliver. The biggest reason why we haven’t done a remake until now is because it’s a massive undertaking to reconstruct Final Fantasy VII from the ground up with the current technology. Producing a proper HD remake of Final Fantasy VII that maintains the same feeling of density of the original would result in a volume of content that couldn’t possibly fit into one installment.”

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This use of the episode release structure makes sense.  Final Fantasy VII has a massive following and an audience that would pay bookoos of money to re-live Midgar and the surrounding areas. They want to get this game out but they will need time to perfect it between each episode.  Understand, as well, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s Episodes will most likely be massive files to save on your system. 

I don’t believe Hitman will have that same impact.  

The important thing to remember is that not every game needs to be released episodically. Sometimes it’s just an unnecessary format.  That isn’t to say it’s not a great idea for developers and gamers.  It can be.  It isn’t a viable excuse for games that you know you won’t profit from.  Then, that’s when you see the uglier side of an episodic game.  A side that one shouldn’t ever see, unless it’s Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones, that’s a necessary evil.