Are gamers ready to embrace episodic gaming?

May 4, 2012, Author: Neil Hughes

It is no secret that life would be much easier for the gaming industry if we all just handed over our bank details and downloaded games directly from the game publishers. They can dictate the prices whilst also destroying their arch enemies: The evil rental and used games market.

Many £40 games now feature a story that you can play through in less than ten hours, with no online content, so it makes sense for people to trade in to fund another gaming purchase, in an age where recycling is king.

Although broadband speeds are improving, we are not quite ready for downloading games that are 30GB plus in size just yet, but maybe developers and marketing companies have come up with their own silver bullet, with the words “episodic gaming” written on the side to destroy their enemies once and for all.

The underrated Alan Wake dabbled with this, but a fickle gaming public didn’t quite get on board with the whole concept. Maybe Remedy were right when they said the industry isn’t ready for episodic games and actually it was simply ahead of its time. The big question now is, are gamers ready in 2012 to consume games like television?

Step forward Telltale games, who have had considerable success with the likes of Back to the Future, Tales of Monkey Island, Sam and Max, so it is of no surprise to see them dip their toes in the waters of episodic games again with the Walking Dead game.

Based on the comic book universe created by Robert Kirkman, the game adaptation is a five-part episodic series that concentrates on characterization and emotion, rather than action like games such as Left 4 Dead. To download all five episodes, it will end up costing you anything between £15 and £20, depending on where you purchase your PS3 or Xbox Live points. Is this so bad?

Intense narrative-driven episodic gaming at its finest.

Call me old-fashioned, but all stories should contain a beginning, a middle and an end. The idea of only purchasing a beginning feels kind of wrong. Maybe I’m being a purist, but to buy a film, book or TV series in segments just doesn’t seem right, but you could also argue that you would have purchased the original Walking Dead comics in exactly the same way.

The most cynical would also tell you that every gamer is already playing an episodic style anyway by playing for a few hours, getting to the end of a mission and saving your progress. So, what’s all the fuss about?

After all, many people are reading this with a pile of games by their side that they will never complete. All thanks to growing responsibilities, and the ability to find a spare four hours gaming is nothing more than a distant memory.

Despite all the positives, the harsh truth is no matter how many people download the first episode of a game, the sales will inevitably decrease for each subsequent instalment. Anyone that has invested 22 hours of a TV show only to see it get cancelled, will be very cautious about allowing this format into gaming too.

1.21 Gigawatts of episodic gaming, Great Scott!

There is something quite sad about a world of unfinished stories, but rather than dwell on the negatives, I have to say that it’s refreshing to find that Episode 1 of the Walking Dead is a fantastically intense opener. It’s grabbed my attention quicker than many top titles this year, and has also impressed the hard to please critics.

All too often, the biggest problem with digital downloads are the inflated prices, but I feel they have marketed the Walking Dead at just the right price. Even a frugal gamer like myself will find it hard not to be tempted by a game of this calibre for only 400 MS Points.

If the idea of episodic gaming makes you shuffle in your seat uncomfortably, or even if you agree that the world isn’t wholly ready for it just yet, I suspect that this, along with many other experiments, will be thrust upon gamers over the next 12 months. This will be to establish just what works and what doesn’t with digital distribution, before decisions are finalised with next generation consoles on the horizon.

Sure, ultimately it’s about how they can make us all part with our hard-earned cash, but it’s great to see innovation and creativity leading the way with the very cool Walking Dead opener. The game, arguably, has better characterisation than the TV show, and that can only be a good thing.