Episodic games aren’t new to the industry, but they have taken more of a hold recently thanks to a variety of factors, including the increased prevalence of digital distribution and independent development. Popularized by developers like Telltale, whose episodic games include licensed IPs like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Fables, these games are encouraging more and more developers to choose a staggered, episode-by-episode release schedule rather than releasing a complete package all at once.
There are reasons to be both critics and fans of this release structure—any way of releasing games will have its benefits and drawbacks. But for independent developers with big aspirations, releasing episodic games is a great way to make their ideal game without burning out.
Raising money as an independent developer can be difficult. Sure, there’s crowdfunding and early access, but crowdfunding can easily fail if you don’t already have a following, and early access can attract a lot of negative attention for a variety of reasons.
The benefit of releasing an episodic game is that a developer can make a highly polished first episode and release it, and use the revenue from that episode’s sales to finance the next episode. Having consistent financing is crucial to independent developers so that they can continue working; this lets them put as much effort into each episode as they can rather than settling for a less polished product due to financial constraints.
Of course, it’s not a flawless plan. If episode one doesn’t sell enough to fund episode two, developers are stuck with having to deliver without the money to work consistently. That means long waits between episodes or having to release a less polished product, both of which can damage the relationship with the people who have purchased episode one.
If the delay between episodes is just long enough to get people slavering for the next installment, the excitement can be a great marketing tool. Though Telltale’s games hardly need the extra marketing, each episode tends to end on a cliffhanger; when the next episode releases, the social media uproar can be enough to get new fans invested in the game. The same is true of games like Kentucky Route Zero, which are less well known. Fans of the series have been waiting almost a year for the newest installment in the series, and constant teases from the developers—including a strange auction of an old telephone—keep the game on the forefront of everyone’s minds, even though a lot of time has passed since the last episode was released.
On the other hand, without constant engagement, updates, and news, it would be far too easy for an episodic game to slip into obscurity. Episodic games allow players to play multiple games at the same time, but that can easily mean that some games get forgotten in favor of those that update regularly. It’s a precarious balance, and not something that every developer is capable of keeping up on.
Even with the potential drawbacks of releasing a game episodically, it’s still an appealing option. Unfortunately, it’s not right for every game. Story-based games like Life Is Strange are the perfect fit for episodic release, as their plots are more like a television show than the traditional game structure—the protagonist has one or two major conflicts that are largely resolved per episode, rather than something like Bloodborne, where the conflicts are many, varied, and mysterious in a way that just wouldn’t work for every game.
Still, there are other unconventional ways to market games that can help developers for whom episodic release might not be the best option. The uptick in popularity for episodic games is helped along by success stories like Telltale Games’ work, which generally releases high-quality games on a steady schedule. For developers looking to tell a serialized story to the best of their ability, or for gamers looking for a bite-sized approach to gaming, episodic games are a great choice.