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Episodic Development: Why and Why Not

Hideo Kojima recently said that the next-gen may switch to a more episodic format to compensate for rising development costs.

I'm not going to conflict this claim- he's the dev, not me. I don't know how much money and time and resources it takes to make a modern AAA title, much less something on the scale of PS4/Nextbox/PC. I do consider the Wii U a next-generation console, but it's likely going to face downscaled resolutions and graphics compared to its competitors. That, however, is a subject for another time.

The comments for this article have quickly spiraled into a debate, some people all for the idea and some strongly, strongly against it. It's a good thing to note that episodic development has, well, been done before: look at a good amount of independently-developed games, for instance. A set of more mainstream examples could be found in The Walking Dead and Half-Life 2- and that's a perfect place to start in this discussion.

I think you know what's coming.

The pros of episodic development are obvious- publishers get a monetary incentive to stick around, developers get important feedback, and us, the gamers, get good-sized bites of the game.

The Walking Dead quickly found critical acclaim, finding the soft spot in old-fashioned point-and-click adventure-oriented gamers and new fans drawn in by the universe of the Walking Dead. It took an already popular concept and "gamified" it perfectly- the player's choices play a huge factor into the story while still maintaining its identity as a game, instead of, shall we say, an emotional outlet.

This image, uncompressed, contains exactly 244000 emotions. If you think I'm above flogging this dead horse, you're talking to the wrong guy.

Half-Life 2 and its episodic sequels were widely loved, both as technology demonstrations (Steam and the Source Engine, represent) and as wonderful games in their own right, fusing first-person shooter, puzzle and adventure into a cinematic tale told from the eyes of a completely silent protagonist with a frightening penchant for killing things with crowbars and just stone-cold not giving a fuck when encountered with danger.

However, that's where we're encountered with a problem. It's time to ask the question that provokes devoted fanatics and desperate developers alike- Where is Episode Three?

This isn't the blog post to answer that question, though. This is the blog post about why that question was asked to begin with, and why it's a question that should be paid attention to. With episodic development, what happens when the devs hit a standstill, or funding stops? This is "normal" episodic development- what about Mega Man Legends 3, which, as this commenter so helpfully pointed out, never saw a full release even though an episodic prologue had been planned?

Here's the thing about that, though. Half-Life, Mega Man? Those are best sellers. Those franchises bring in a crazy amount of money because they're fucking established intellectual properties.

In the former's case, the developers can't figure out what to do from where they left off, and in the latter's case, the publisher axed things because they thought a portable game based on an established franchise wouldn't make them enough cash.

Now, think of indie hits like Braid (for the record, Jonathan Blow can blow me) and cult hits like Killer7. For these games, what makes you check them out? Impulse buys during severe discount on Steam sales? A lucky happen-by in a bargain bin? Insane amounts of praise from critics, or a single friend's recommendation?

The thing about these games is that there's not much of an incentive for most gamers to even try them out, much less throw their money at them unprovoked. Who wants to invest in an episodic prologue for a game they may not even like? Why not stick with something familiar, like Call of Duty or Uncharted?

Every gamer wants to say that they love the underdog, that they support the little guy through thick and thin. Damn those big publishers, killing our favorite franchises and producing bland sequel after bland sequel!

Episodic development could help in many ways, but it can go horribly, horribly wrong just as easily. Hell, established franchises that sell like hotcakes still get the ax from big publishers- if not enough people try out and like prologue demos or episode ones, what gives the publishers incentive to back it up and what gives the developers incentive to keep pressing forward with the game?

Cult hits like Killer7 wouldn't survive in this kind of arena. Indie games and Triple-A could see some serious damage themselves.

Done right, episodic development can be a wonderful, wonderful thing- but in today's industry and in the future, I don't see it as a viable option.

Don't get me wrong, though, Kojima. I love you.

I want your Naked Snake in my Ground Zero all night long.

- No more shame, no more fear, no more dread.

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About Christopher Harperone of us since 6:37 PM on 11.11.2010

PSN ID:Tabuu132
Steam ID:delirious264


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