The episodic vs. all-in-one gaming debate has characterized the industry for more than a decade. Ever since Telltale Games released Telltale Texas Hold’em, gamers have been divided on whether it’s best to have smaller yet constantly evolving experiences or an off-the-shelf, all-in-one world to explore. Without doubt, there are strong arguments on both sides. While the ongoing expense of episodic games can become an issue, the constant injection of new ideas and storylines often justifies the cost. In contrast, one-off games start life with a lot more content packed into them, which many would say leaves episodic games in a position where they’re playing catch-up.
One-Offs Are a One-Stop-Shop for Gamers
If we take Valve Corporation’s Dota 2, one of the best video games ever made as per Time.com’s rankings, the action wasn’t episodic. Yes, there have been different versions of the game, but one didn’t need the other to survive. One of the main reasons for this is that the world in which players roam is bursting with possibilities. Because the developers at Valve wanted to create a standalone product that could offer entertainment in a variety of scenarios, all the proverbial bases had to be covered. The upshot of this is that a game like Dota 2, or even a contemporary like StarCraft II, is far more complex and layered than an episodic game in isolation. Now, if you take an episodic game as part of a collective, then the level of immersion will increase. However, for those that want an instantly immersive experience, one-off games offer a lot more depth and value.
On the side of episodic games is the idea of freshness that we noted before. Even though Dota 2 has a wealth of possible scenarios, there are only so many times you can do X, Y and Z before it becomes boring. Episodic games can avoid this. Hitman is a great example of how a fairly simple idea can be turned into an ongoing franchise. After Eidos Interactive birthed Agent 47 in 2000, the Hitman franchise has been taken in a multitude of directions. On the gaming front, the series has taken the bald assassin to all four corners of the globe. From the 2016 bonus episode that took Agent 47 to Sapienza and Marrakesh to battles in East Europe and beyond, players have been taken on an impressive journey over the years.
Episodic Games Are Much More Versatile
However, perhaps the biggest benefit of using the episodic model is the ability to create spinoffs. We all know about the Hitman movies. Although the 2015 sequel didn’t quite match the $99.5 million made by the 2007 original, distributor FOX certainly cashed in on the Hitman hype. Beyond the movies, themed gaming apparel such as Striker Pro headsets have helped build the brand. Even more interestingly, the episodic nature of Hitman has spawned new types of game. Alongside more traditional looking offerings such as Cash Splash, Betway Casino hosts the Hitman slot game. Instead of cherries and bar symbols, this Microgaming creation features images and animations from the more familiar video games.
Although it’s possible to play for real money by betting $0.20, there is also a free-play option. This feature is clearly a nod to Hitman’s video gaming roots. However, what’s most interesting here is that it helps continue to narrative of the franchise. Because the episodic model forces us to adopt a holistic perspective, we’re able to see Hitman slots as part of a much larger story. To put it another way, these games are like another chapter in the Hitman novel. Having this ability to take players in multiple and often unexpected directions is perhaps the greatest strength of episodic games. However, even with this being the case, their days could be numbered.
Telltale’s Demise Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story
In 2018, we learned that Hitman 2 was going in a non-episodic direction and, for Caty McCarthy of US Gamer, that was a huge disappointment. For her, the idea of assuming different roles and constantly adapting to new surroundings was a key part of being an assassin and, moreover, fundamental to the episodic model. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that this approach doesn’t always suit the storyline. While it’s great for Hitman, Spider-Man by Insomniac Games wouldn’t work in the same way. Why? In one sense, because we know Spider-Man is always chasing one evil. Yes, there are bumps along the way, but he always has an end target. Therefore, to string things out over multiple episodes would be too distracting. In contrast, Hitman is always chasing someone or something new, therefore, the ever-changing scenarios are perfect.
Surveying the gaming industry, it would be easy to say that episodic games are losing ground. In 2017, Telltale Games lost 25% of its workforce and, according to The Verge, it wasn’t simply because the company’s revenue was down. According to Megan Farokhmanesh, the $36 billion gaming industry is burning out its best employees. Putting on quality content on a consistent basis isn’t easy and that, in reality, is why episodic games are drying up. When done right, as in the case of Hitman, this model is fantastic. However, when the story doesn’t suit the structure, things become stale very quickly and that leads to pressure on the developers and, in turn, poor output.
So, while episodic games might be on the decline, it’s not because they’re not entertaining or popular, it’s simply because the format isn’t being used in the right context.
[Written by External Partner]