Episodic gaming: Do we want it?

Opinion: Is episodic content worth the bother?

This week's bombshell dropped by Valve delaying Half-Life 2: Episode Two AGAIN has kicked off renewed discussion on episodic gaming. Is it working and is it a good idea to release games in this format? Eastenders would have been canned long ago if the BBC couldn't get its epidoes out on time.

It all hangs, of course, on the developer. When a major studio like Valve leaves us waiting 18 months between episodes, you'd be excused for reacting negatively to episodic gaming. But then take a look at Telltale Games with Sam & Max.

Telltale's revival of detective duo Sam & Max in episodic form has been a huge success in terms of the developer delivering new instalments on a regular basis.

While Valve's attempts to deliver episodic content could be looked on as a cautionary tale, Telltale is an example of 'when episodic gaming goes right'.

"When we started our company a few short years ago, we had a vision for creating a completely new kind of experience," Telltale CEO Dan Connor recently explained. "It's been exciting to reach this monthly episodic delivery milestone so quickly. People have been responding very positively to the idea of getting engaging, interactive stories delivered to them on a regular basis."

A tip o' the hat to Telltale then, but it remains the only real episodic gaming success story to date.

SiN Episodes, for example, the shooter for which Ritual Entertainment had grand episodic plans, came a cropper, and only ever saw episode one released. The developer's Richard 'Levelord' Gray recently revealed that the first instalment just didn't make enough profit to fully fund part two.

"The first episode did well, but not good enough to completely self-fund the second episode. It sold over 150,000 units, which is better than many shooters. It more than paid for itself, but not enough to entirely fund the next one", he told website Ritualistic.

Although Ritual has said it plans to return to SiN in the future, what's abundantly clear is that episodic content is by no means an easy thing to deliver. While the hope is there for developers, the reality can prove completely different. Like it or loath it though, episodic content's set to become more widespread as time continues.

Despite the problems it's encountered, Valve Software is sticking to its guns with Half-Life 2 episodes and, looking forward, the likes of Rockstar is embracing episodic content with Grand Theft Auto 4 on PS3 and Xbox 360. It was announced at E3 2006 that at least the Xbox 360 version of the sequel will receive exclusive episodic content post-release. Precisely what form this will take though remains to be seen.

BioWare is another developer diving into the episodic content scene.

"There have been a lot of innovations in the PC space in online games... digital distribution and episodic content (we have big plans afoot at BioWare for post-release and episodic content for upcoming cool BioWare games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Jade Empire: Special Edition and other upcoming BioWare titles, both on console and PC)," CEO Ray Muzyka told us last month.

While the idea of episodic content has been floating around for almost ten years - it's still early days for such delivery. This only makes gamers sceptical. If developers can release episodic game instalments on a regular basis like Telltale, we'll be happy and hail episodic content as the best thing since the KFC Family Mega Bucket. However, it's still to prove itself as a viable alternative to getting the full package in one go.