Once upon at time around 2005, episodic games were considered to be the next big thing for digital distribution. There have been many developers to give this an honest go like Valve, Telltale, and Ritual Entertainment to name a few. The idea behind episodic games was to be produce a game in a short amount of development time, such as a year or less. It would also be a very short game, only about two to four hours of play time, and have a low price point in the hopes that it would generate a lot of revenue with many copies sold to recoup the investment. Fast-forward to 2011, and it has all but disappeared.
This happened because of three reasons, I believe. The first reason is that the development time was shorter, but the time needed to squash bugs was still very high. At first, you might think that a shorter games means less bugs, but it doesn’t. The truth is, there’s still going to need to be a large amount of time devoted to quality assurance before release, and this time could be as high as any other game under a regular development cycle. This was obvious with Half-Life 2 Episode 2, even with a crack team like Valve behind the wheel. The second reason is that the lower price point meant they couldn’t recoup their investment as quickly in the short term, as many publishers prefer. There is no room in the gaming industry for long-term profits for AAA developers and episodic games, which pretty much was the idea with episodic games: make the games now, take a loss with the first releases, and make money on the final episodes. The third reason is, if the reviews of the first episode were horrible, it would almost guarantee that the later episodes would receive a low score as well. This goes back to the second reason, profits. There was too much uncertainty with reviews to help generate buzz and sales.
The one company that seems to be making a good run with it is Telltale. I mainly conclude their success with it as threefold. First, they put it together in a package: you pay one price and get all of the episodes to be released on future dates. It’s like paying for individual tracks off an album; publishers will earn more money from the whole album rather then individual songs in a majority of cases. Second, they always have a time frame of when the next episode is going to be coming out. This gave the purchaser confidence they would see their both their financial and time investment in these games come to fruition at some point. Finally, the games are simple. They’re not complex behemoths like Half-Life 2 Episode 1 & 2 or SiN Episodes: Emergence. In this case simple is better, and the fact they’re still going with episodic content proves that it does work.
It’s a safe bet no other AAA developer will take up episodic games again. The risks are just too great with no guarantee of a pay-off in the short term. To be honest this is how they recoup these loses, by those initial sales. A little bit of perspective on this would be to look back at Crysis 2 and RAGE: if these games were episodic and released the way Valve has done with the Half-Life 2 Episodes, this would have financially ruined these companies. They rely on buzz to push customers into purchasing these games on release day, and in some cases, amazing reviews from select game companies which will remain nameless.
The idea of episodic games was a good idea in small ways, but in this cut-throat business with AAA games, it was undoubtedly going to fail like Ritual Entertainment did. It’s good that Valve cut their losses and went away from it for Half Life 3. This way, we can get a title with quality not only from a technical standpoint but also in the time players get to play as well.