In Defense of the Episodic Structure

A few weeks ago now it was announced that Square Enix was dumping IO Interactive, the developer behind the Hitman series of video games, among others, citing major financial losses due to the titles IO has developed. Almost immediately, the top responses I saw took aim at the episodic structure of Hitman 2016, claiming that this was the major cause of its financial failure and that the episodic structure (releasing a larger game in chunks over a period of months, rather than all at once) was fundamentally flawed. However, I think that the situation is much more nuanced than people are giving it credit for. I would like to talk a bit about what an episodic structure can bring to the table. What are its inherent strengths, and what are its weaknesses? Can it make a game better, or does it always make the game feel unfocused, scattered? Does continued release keep people interested and entertained over a long period of time, or does interest wane? There have been many episodic games released over the years, but to cut to the core of episodic controversy I’m going to start exactly where you expect and take a look at Half-Life 2 episodes One and Two.

I remember, back in the days when Game Informer was my primary source of gaming news, reading about Valve’s plan to release the continuing story of Half-Life 2 in a series of three episodes. At the time, I felt disappointed by this decision; it felt as though, rather than taking the time to make a full, fleshed out game, they were cutting corners and releasing smaller stories. I think the core of this disappointment was likely a positive reflection on Half-Life 2 itself. I wanted more, more, more, and I didn’t want it to be half-assed. It would be a full two years between Half-Life 2 (2004) and Episode One (2006), and another year until the release of Episode Two.

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Remember when these pieces of supposed concept art for Half-Life 2: Episode 3 leaked? Yeah, it still hurts.

Now, if you’re here reading this blog, you almost definitely know that Half-Life 2: Episode Three would never see the light of day. On top of that, Half-Life, as a series, has been on an unofficial hold since the release of Episode 2, with nary a peep from Valve about the status of the franchise. It is very possible we may never see the conclusion of that story. Understandably, this left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths, myself included. It has become such a central part of our cultural zeitgeist, in fact, that I believe that it soured an entire generation to the idea of an episodic release structure.

Not that subsequent episodic releases have helped much, either. Many more recent episodic games have been plagued with delays or hiccups in development, only adding fuel to the idea that episodic games just ain’t no good. The episodes just never come out when the developer says they will, meaning that by the time they do release, they’re just not in the public eye as much as the developer would like them to be. I know that I have personally forgotten entirely about a game because I played through the first episode, but then decided to wait until the last episode was out to buy the full package. Usually by that point my excitement has waned a bit, and there are other, newer things that I would rather be playing.

So far it really seems like I’m only bashing on the episodic structure. But Mister Optimist, you might say, what exactly does the episodic structure bring to the table? Well, intrepid reader, I think that I would have largely been unable to answer that question until the release of 2016’s HITMAN. In my opinion, HITMAN is the only game that I can think of that gets the episodic structure right. 

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Each level in HITMAN had a crazy amount of paths and potential ways to complete your objective.

Back when HITMAN was announced as an episodic game many, myself included, released a collective groan. Splitting up a beloved franchise (one that had already had a major misstep in the eyes of many fans) was, in my mind, akin to butchering it. No good could possibly come of this. But boy, was I wrong. Looking back at HITMAN, it stands as an excellent example of what an episodic structure is capable of. It embodies everything a developer wants when they’re going for an episodic structure. Releasing episodically meant that IOI Was able to focus and fine tune every episode of HITMAN to a razor sharp focus. As with anything episode based, there are good episodes and bad episodes, but each release of HITMAN was a giant, open-ended level with layer upon layer of systems and paths to take. And, on top of that, each episode had periodic timed content released with it, adding to the longevity of the platform. Each episode could be played over and over again; the replay value of HITMAN is insane. The sheer amount of things to do in every level was staggering. It was, and is, a very good product, and I don’t believe the same level of quality could have been achieved had HITMAN released in a more traditional way. It allowed them to hear feedback from the community and directly implement it in subsequent episodes.

I would really love to see more games implement that structure. I’m a little worried that, with the apparent failure of HITMAN, more companies will view the episodic structure as something impossible to sell. With the rise of games as platforms (see Destiny or Overwatch as good examples of this, games that are released once but supported with expanded content over time) I think an episodic structure is something that could be a source of excellent storytelling and interesting, complex game play. So what went wrong, and how do we move forward from here? I think that episodic gaming’s biggest downfall is the inherent difficulty to advertise and sell such a product.

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People love Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but they rarely release episodes on time.

It’s hard to get gamers to invest up-front in a product who’s quality and longevity is not guaranteed, and it’s equally hard to keep people engaged in your product, especially if you can’t reliably hit those release windows you promised. On top of that, shiny new games are constantly coming out; I know I, for one, get swept up in release hype, especially if something looks fun. It is very difficult to keep that hype up if your game is something of a known quantity.

Moving forward, the only thing I can think of that would help is extreme transparency from the studio concerning release schedule and development, but even that may be an impossible hurdle. Game development is incredibly difficult and, from my understanding, things about the game are changing till the very last minute. Maybe the world and the games industry at large just aren’t ready for this game structure, but I don’t remotely believe that the structure is inherently flawed. I think that it really works for certain games, and I hope studios in the future have the guts to really put themselves out there and experiment some more. Hell, IO Interactive just announced that they’ve gone independent and have control of the HITMAN IP. Maybe sometime soon they’ll announce a HITMAN season 2, giving them a new chance on proving that episodic gaming has value in today’s industry.

Do you think episodic gaming is inherently bad, or do you think it’s a viable and interesting structure? Be sure to let me know in the comments below! In the meantime, thanks for reading, and Stay Optimistic.

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