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Is Episodic Gaming The Next Big Thing?


Let's get one thing straight before we really get going with this conversation: Episodic gaming is not a brand-new phenomenon. Looking back, there are several examples of games that resemble the episodic format we're seeing more and more today, and in the last few years Telltale Games has unleashed a formidable lineup of these games. Beginning with Back To The Future: The Game in 2010 and continuing to this year's eagerly anticipated Batman for PS4, the developer has established itself as a leader in the genre.

But until fairly recently, Telltale Games was more of a monopoly than a leader. Many gamers may have viewed episodic gaming as Telltale Games' "thing" rather than a format with potential to expand through other developers and other titles. Yet that's just what we're starting to see happen. Developers unattached to Telltale Games have clearly noticed the popularity of this style of gaming, as well as its compatibility with modern consoles (which make it easy to download new episodes, effectively as pre-planned DLC for games).

The most notable extension of the episodic format was through IO Interactive and Square Enix's latest release in the Hitman series. Released in March and titled simply "Hitman," this latest game's significant shift in format may have flown under the radar for a lot of gamers given that the Hitman series has frequently experimented with new types of gaming.

In the core Hitman series, we've seen various different presentations of the same basic idea of stealth-based assassination missions. Nearly all of the games have come at slightly different points on the spectrum between linear, level-based missions and open-world activity. 2012's Hitman: Sniper Challenge even did away with the traditional style of the games altogether to focus on accurate shooting rather than movement, exploration, and stealth.

By expanding to the mobile gaming industry, the Hitman series has also been able to create entirely separate experiences that restructure popular mobile gaming formats in a Hitman skin. One review of the game Hitman Go, (a turn-based board game with the Agent 47 character and assassination missions), stated that it was surprising it even existed. It also added that it was a pleasure that it pulled it off. Meanwhile, the Hitman: Sniper app is virtually indistinguishable from so many other sniper app games.

Beyond these formats and platforms, the Hitman franchise has allowed its image and title to be picked up by an online slot arcade developer. Described as a game that's all killer no filler, it brings multiple characters from the franchise onto a slot reel and even includes an assassination-based bonus mini-game. In that mini-game, you pick a weapon and a target to eliminate and do the deed just like Agent 47 would.

Considering all of this experimentation Square Enix has done in different types of gaming, perhaps it's not a surprise that they've been among the first to really pick up the Telltale Games way of doing things on modern consoles. When Hitman was released in March, it was hailed by many as an immediate success. Although, some players and critics felt mildly teased by the new episodic format and the promise of more to come. But now that we're a few episodes down the line, the success of Hitman appears to be solidifying.

A recent announcement about Episode 3 of Hitman, titled Marrakesh and released on May 31, discussed the perks of the episodic format for IO Interactive and Square Enix, and made some interesting points. Not only does the transition to episodes highlight the creativity and flexibility of the development teams, it also helps the game to stand out in the modern entertainment industry. The article notes that instant gratification has gone mainstream thanks to things like film and television streaming sites. Yet, by setting up a delayed gratification system, the developers might be doing a better job of keeping (or re-gaining) players' attention for the duration of the game. It was also noted that the developers are leaving themselves the ability to respond to any issues players may have with early episodes, improving the game as they go. Right now there are seven episodes scheduled, inc luding t he two that have already been released.

Where Hitman is concerned, it's becoming quite clear that adopting the Telltale Games strategy of releasing episodes over time has been a success. What we don't yet know, however, is how many other developers and franchises might follow suit. The perks just referenced are certain to attract the interest of a lot of people working to design and sell innovative gaming experiences, and consumers tend to appreciate the narrative focus that comes with episodes.

The IO Interactive studio head, for his part, has already predicted that other AAA games (those with the highest development and promotion budgets) will be going episodic too. And that brings us to an interesting bit of speculation: which other high-end console games might be well suited to the episodic format? That's a matter of opinion, of course, but here are a few that come to mind.

James Bond 007

The James Bond video game series (which never really was a single concrete franchise so much as varying games using the Bond license) has fizzled out of late, despite some excellent titles over the years. However, the man in charge at Curve Digital Entertainment has indicated his desire to take on the Bond property (stating that he could make a "cracking" 007 game). And because the Bond games have always been heavily based on levels, an episodic release seems like a natural next step. The studio could even take a particularly ambitious route and release episodes not for individual levels but for segments based on popular films, each with its own set of levels. Such a game could carry players through the history of James Bond, employing different settings, varying eras of tech and weaponry, and perhaps even different animations of Bond.

Call Of Duty

At this point, Treyarch and Co. are basically just inventing new wars with each new Call Of Duty, and revamping the weaponry and multiplayer options to suit those settings. In fact, this is pretty much what most modern shooters are doing. It would be interesting to see any of them, but particularly a leading franchise like Call Of Duty or Battlefield, start a new game in the past and release episodes either chronicling real wars from human history or invented ones through time. As with the Bond games, a lot of the fun would come via the progression through time of characters, weapons, and technology. And for CoD specifically, it would be a nice rehashing of what the franchise has done up to this point.

Civilization

Sid Meier's Civilization series, which has long been at the forefront of PC gaming, could be a pioneer in helping the episodic style expand beyond consoles and mobile gaming. The Civilization games have always been very popular, but if there's a knock on them it's that they tend to move a little bit too quickly. Fifty years in history go by in a matter of a turn or two (particularly when you're still in the B.C. years). By releasing a new Civilization game with episodes to follow, the developers could eliminate this problem, with each episode focusing on a particular era. This would allow players to enjoy a slower progression and more detail, rather than flying through ancient times and find themselves discovering gunpowder so soon that sword-wielding armies are rendered useless after an hour of gameplay.

Super Mario NX

We know a little bit about Nintendo's mysterious "NX" console that's allegedly coming in early 2017—but not a whole lot. There are a few popular rumors about game releases and the general style of the console, but we don't quite know what to expect overall. Some envision it as Nintendo's Xbox One, and others see it more as a second attempt at the Wii U. The best odds might be that it falls somewhere in between those two. Whatever the case, Nintendo likes to push the envelope with ideas that some gamers may not be sure of (such as the Wii U handheld integration, the recent Miitomo app, and going a ways back even the Gamecube's tiny game discs). Episodic is trendy but a lot of gamers still don't like it, which frankly makes it seem perfect for a Nintendo experiment. It might be a very interesting twist if the next Super Mario flagship game were an episodic adventure on NX.

FIFA

For a while, EA Sports one-upped itself on an annual basis with new FIFA releases. But by now there's a pretty widespread opinion that the games have been perfected, and new FIFA titles bring only incremental changes and improvements. So why wouldn't they turn FIFA 17 into a sort of ultimate FIFA game with episodes to follow with each new season or major world soccer event? Each new Premier League season could come with updated rosters and small changes. By 2018 there could be a special World Cup episode released. It would be a fascinating way for FIFA to stay current and realistic without having to force "improvements" year in and year out.

These are just a few ideas, some based on existing franchises and some on more general concepts. But you can see how the episodic format might apply to a fairly wide range of modern console games. As stated, there are plenty of gamers who find the gradual release of content to be somewhat tedious. However, whenever it's been done by a AAA game developer, it's been successful. So long as games like these focused on using episodes to make releases bigger and broader—rather than simply to complete an initial release that might have felt inadequate—there's potential in all genres.

This could well be the next major trend in modern game design.

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