June 30, 2022

Episodic Issues.

The one about games being split into smaller chunks…

The Wolf Among Us is exactly the sort of game that interests me.

I love offbeat noir conceits; I also love the cel-shaded style, and I more than approve of a game driven largely by a witty, dramatic narrative that engages and amuses in equal measure. And today, I was indeed discussing this with a chap down the game shop; wondering if he should be buying it, or whether I’d be buying it seeing how up my alley it is.

My response? “Not until it’s finished.”

Now, once upon a time I was all for the episodic adventure; the nature of it was very much one that seemed to chime perfectly for a market struggling to fund whole games over years of development. The core of the concept was simple; release chunks of a game quickly over successive weeks/months and make more profit from the sale of each one. I mean, how hard can that be? Well, if you were to check the most ready examples of episodic gaming in the last decade or so, you’d find the answer to that was – well, very hard. So hard, that today I have gone from a supporter of the episodic experiment to perhaps one of its most staunch critics.

It didn’t need to be like this; Half Life 2 was where most of us began the journey. Valve knew it couldn’t quite get the whole game out on time so the idea was that the game would end up getting extra “episodes” bolted on and sold in the same way that expansions used to be sold – back when the term was “expansion”, and not “DLC”, but that’s another argument for another day. We were supposed to see three extra Half Life episodes; but the extra delays meant that rather than weeks or months apart, the episodes have been years apart – and even the most hardened Half Life fan can sometimes look visibly shaken when you dare bring up Episode 3, which was due after the last one in 2007. It’s 2013, and we’re STILL waiting for it. The idea was pitched that episodic content was going to make things more interesting, leave us on cliffhangers and generally fund the games development; but we’ve been left on one for years, and by this point, many people may simply be beyond giving a toss.

The problem Half Life 2 has in this scenario is that, with a myriad of reports of it working on Half Life 3, that we’re almost inevitably railroaded back towards this whole idea of Half Life 2 somehow not being ‘finished’; that we’re still waiting for the ACTUAL conclusion. And believe me, I will hail Half Life 2 as one of the best games ever made as much as any gaming fan but I do struggle with the idea that anyone truly cares anymore about the ending; we’ve all but given up on this idea of the story being concluded, and hope of course instead Half Life 3 will follow on from this (which it should, but you never know…). Until such a thing happens and/or is confirmed, it’s very hard to know. Equally, it’s a sore reminder that Valve made a promise that it simply couldn’t keep.

You’d think that episodic gaming was a new thing; actually, it’s not. Indeed, back in 1979, Dunjonquest was the first to bring forward the idea of regular updates; and over the course of the next three years, it did indeed receive numerous small add-on packs that continued the story. There were other more early notable examples of it working as it was intended; from the .hack titles to Kuma\War, the latter obviously relying on war events in order to inspire its future content additions.

But it’s when Valve resold it in 2004 that we paid attention to the idea; one that TellTale Games has since also followed on and made a lot of money from. Except, even TellTale – for their myriad of successes in the field – have often struggled to get content out on time and occasionally, on budget. It took them years, and many different licenses from Strong Bad to Sam and Max, to really find their footing with last years runaway hit The Walking Dead. Except, even that game had considerable episode delays, budget issues and technical hiccups that often soured the experience for many who were trying to follow the story.

This also showed up another issue; a game designed for a six-seven hour play session at the best of times can be broken down, but the multiple cliffhangers and small chunks can feel sometimes very unsatisfying. Many reviews of each individual episode of The Walking Dead couldn’t quite give it the scores it deserved; it was only at the end, when the full series was at hand and people could sail through it from start to finish that the true scope and scale of what TellTale had achieved was laid bare – and it was extremely hard to argue against the motion that the collection was and is a stand-out moment in video game history.

But individually? It’s harder to see the big picture when you’ve only been given one corner of it.

This is my biggest bugbear with episodic; more than timing issues or the technical/narrative breaks that come with it, I am the sort of person who does want to sit down with a good story sometimes, and if that’s a point and click adventure – hell, why not? I’m completely okay with the idea; and at heart, episodic gaming can and should work. But when you have broken up a very solid take into multiple chunks, you need to ensure that each one can hold together on its own and this is where TellTale often comes in for criticism in its products; that really, you’re consciously aware of the limitations of what they are attempting, and how they’re limited by it.

I personally can’t live with that as a gamer. I am all for sequels – still waiting on the Beyond Good and Evil cliffhanger, UbiSoft – but there’s a point where I think you have to cut yourself off or you’ll be tormented by the unfinished nature of a games narrative. As much as I love Beyond Good and Evil, I have had to move on and indeed, accept that there’s no way UbiSoft could ever conclude it or follow on from it that I probably wouldn’t find a hundred thousand ways to criticise. I have had to make peace that such a thing is likely to stay dead, and despite all promises that it’s alive, no money and no real staffing on the project does suggest that the whole thing has stopped; in what way is that not a dead project? Even then, it may still be too late for some of us who have waited more than a decade for the follow-up.

I don’t want to find ways to nitpick a story that clearly isn’t finished, yet I find in TellTale’s episodic games, I do that sometimes. And I’ve also found that the best way for someone like me to enjoy their products in the end is simply to wait for the overall end-package, when technical niggles are fixed and the package is sold to us at a lesser price. The nature of the full end-product is, for me, always stronger than the sum of its parts and that is at a base level why episodic gaming, for me, is such an annoying presence in the market now; half the people complain they’re waiting around for the next episode, and the other half complain it’s not yet all finished. I think we’ve all reached a point where this ‘experiment’ has rather run dry, and some are kind of confused that it’s still happening in some sense.

And yes, that’s before you take into consideration that people who wait for the whole package to be finished often get a better deal, unique perks and often a more stable, less buggy ride through the tale being told.

This isn’t to say I think TellTale should change it’s approach; but it, more than any company, must surely be acutely aware of the consumer divide they have created in the last few years with their emphasis on episodic narratives. I find it somehow amusing they’re pushing pre-order bonuses and ‘season passes’, as though this will somehow entice more of us through the gates. The very reason some of us are turned off is that we’d rather get the full package – and you can’t really sell someone an unfinished product. We’re not interested in it until it’s done. I also find it strange that many have forgotten that individually, episodes of The Walking Dead were all rather criticised for various reasons; it wasn’t until the overall package could flow from one to the other that such niggles were lessened by the overwhelming sensation of a complete product.

I want to play The Wolf Among Us. It’s totally up my street. I love the grown-up fairytale angle; the noir setting and that it’s as non-PC as you’d like. The grungy, dirty escapism of such an outrageous tale does make me want to play it.

But I want to play it start to finish. And that’s kind of the problem – I just can’t yet. And until I can, my money has to stay within my pocket. Is it so much to ask nowadays that I can at least buy a product on its release and actually expect it to be the definitive finished product?

I’ve had enough of companies trying to take my cash up-front for things that haven’t even been made yet. Why we’re still paying up-front for a games development when the studio seems more than capable of finishing the product is perhaps slightly beyond my comprehension. We’re losing control of the ability to decide whether or not something is worth the money because we’re being tied down before the game has even been released, being asked often to stump up cash up-front and hope everything goes alright from there. Or ending up with something like Sonic 4 Episode 2 – so bad that the whole episodic idea got canned. Probably for the best in that case. Seriously, moving onto spoiling Sonic 3 and Knuckles would have seen Sega become the industries version of the anti-Christ. There are some places you must never retread.

A market driven in this sense cannot really be in the consumers best interests, after all. There’s no legal standard to refund digital purchases yet (I say ‘yet’, there are a good few legal cases yet to be heard on this front I am told), nor for stores to refund games that are broken or disappointing. The end result is where we are now; season passes for next-gen games ‘episodes’ already being sold before the machines are on the market. We’re being asked to give up our consumer control for… well, a couple of quids discount in real-terms, or so it seems. “Three packs of DLC £8.99 each – or a season pass for £19.99!” It sounds like such a bargain!

Truth is though, that’s not the case – complete, game of the year versions are likely already in the works. Look at Borderlands 2. Lots of bonus episodes – season pass didn’t cover all of the content. Now a Game of the Year version is, and includes season pass content, and at roughly half what anyone paid for the new game and the season pass. The cold, harsh light of truth on this is that people who buy in so early are the ones who more often than not get the worst possible deals; they are the ones asked to fork out more money and tolerate all the technical bugs, and pay for the additional extras so that people like me can swoop in six months to a year later and get a much, much better product cheaper than the initial purchasers. People are paying to get their first; and they’re paying to effectively bug-test a game. We have become a QA department. Except, you know, we’re paying for the ‘privilege’.

Why anyone wants to buy these games at the start is what puzzles me now. Because it seems like such a no-brainer. Why on earth subject yourself to such an industry theme when patiently waiting can net you far greater rewards? That is, if when waiting you’ll even get a finished product at all… but at least then we don’t feel such animosity to a company for wasting our time.

All I want is a finished product to buy. Episodic gaming started a trend for this kind of thing, and I can only wish for its messy, untimely end.

And no companies, you won’t get my money unless your game is finished. That shiny season pass you’re offering? It’s telling me to wait six months. When I’ll likely be able to buy your game in a sale, cheaper. Or a Game of the Year edition with all the content, cheaper. Or on a digital promotion… cheaper.

Either way… you wait, you get more. For less. And really, that that’s the case in the industry is… kind of sad and pathetic…


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