Although episodic games have been around for quite some time now, it is really in this post-Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead world that we see developers excited to utilize this release mechanism. As they’ve become known today, episodic games are anywhere from two episodes to twenty and each episode tends to release sequentially after the original. Some developers can keep to a set release schedule while others end up with unforeseen delays. Whatever the case, episodes typically relate to one another and bring everything to a conclusion with the final episode. Although rare, a few titles are successful enough to generate multiple seasons, similar to TV show production.
One reason episodic games are so popular, aside from their current “hotness” in the gaming scene, is that it is less expensive to get your game started. Instead of having to pour tons of resources into a 10+ hour project with tons of voice acting, sprawling locales, and whatever else you only need to deal with creating a small portion of it. The belief of developers tends to be that a first episode will cost a bit to make but hopefully make that up in sales. The ideal situation is that sales do well enough to actually fund a second episode, and so on. If your game fails to generate much attention then it will still be sad but not nearly as much as it would be with a complete title that spent three times more money and effort.
Of course, had it not been for a few high profile episodic successes more developers probably would not even view this as an option. Since this is an established aspect of gaming culture now though many developers utilize episodic design. As more developers move to crowdfunding instead of pure self-funding it follows that some titles on Kickstarter and IndieGogo are also episodic in nature. There are a lot out there, but this article will focus on some of the best known. Over the past few years we’ve seen a few of the games reach completion but most others are proving that it is incredibly hard to produce an episodic game in its entirety.
Despite a litany of crowdfunded episodic games, it appears only two have reached completion. Those proud titles are Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller and Republique which were funded in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Thanks likely in large part to Phoenix Online Studios’ expertise all four episodes were able to release in a pretty timely manner. Republique stands as a bit of an odd example because nowhere on its Kickstarter page did it ever suggest being an episodic release. That news came later, although Camoflaj released all episodes by the close of 2014. Now they’re working on remastering the set!
Speaking of games that were crowdfunded without ever uttering the word “episodic”… how about that Broken Age Act 1? As neat a start as it was, Double Fine never intended for their game to be split into two parts. As isn’t that difficult to believe, the team spent far and above what they estimated they’d need (the Kickstarter goal was set at $400,000). Yes, that $3.3 million raised was still not enough to create this dream adventure title! In any case, Broken Age Act 2 is still up in the air but hopefully it’ll launch in 2015. So far things are shaping up for that to be the case, at least.
One of the smartest, but criminally underused, approaches I’ve seen to funding episodic games comes to us from The Last Door. Their Kickstarter simply requested funds for a pilot chapter. The pixelated horror title reached its goal easily and a first episode was produced. With a small audience, their next move was to offer a crowdfunding initiative on the official website. Since it was implemented four other episodes have been funded and developed. Because they always seem to be able to subsist off fans it’s not likely that they’ll ever need to return to Kickstarter. Right now a funding campaign is live for Season 2 – Episode 2.
While some developers struggle to raise funds for even a first episode, others are lucky enough to have a powerful following – far greater than The Last Door’s. Sekai Project utilizes its devoted group to fund many visual novels, including episodic titles such as the Fault series. So far only Fault Milestone One is out, but fans seem perfectly content to wait. Their other big episodic release, World End Economica, also found easy Kickstarter success. Basically, no matter what type of game they choose to promote (a single game, a series of titles, or an episodic one) they’re poised to receive little criticism and tons of support.
For the most part it appears the majority of crowdfunded episodic titles are in varied states of limbo, and players are not taking it quietly. Recent releases like Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey have yet to prove if they’re going to stay on schedule or not so fans are mostly happy to shower it in affection. However, others have players lamenting and questioning upcoming episode releases. Just a small sampling of games which have gone relatively long periods of time between episode releases are: AR-K, The Fall, Kentucky Route Zero, and Saturday Morning RPG. Games such as Kentucky Route Zero continue to impress, but the fairly long span of time between Act II and III seem incredibly slow when compared to the usually reliable schedule of Telltale Games. Then again, at this point Telltale is a master of project management in the episodic realm so it’s not exactly a fair comparison.
Although there have not been too many known failures as of yet (we’ll have to wait years to see if any episodic developers eventually can their projects – or simply disappear) there is at least one notable unique event. Dysfunctional Systems by Dischan did not begin as a crowdfunded game. The first episode, Learning to Manage Chaos, was well-liked but the developers decided to put it on hiatus. Then came the fan response calling to put the series on Kickstarter! Despite initially deflecting the comments, they eventually went forward with a campaign which ended successfully. As we’ve heard from some other campaigns, money matters are very difficult after being funded. Dischan found themselves in more challenging situations and since had to cease full time development on it. Will we ever see that game completed? If only it were possible to predict an answer right now.
One of my biggest fears is that funding only a first episode may not be enough, although it is the trend so many crowdfunding project leads follow. Jenny LeClue is perhaps the best example of this so far. Their goal of $65,000 was only for one episode which actually sounds like a fair cost. Despite a good deal of attention, additional episode stretch goals were not met. Does this mean we’ll never see a conclusion to the story? Will we instead get a seriously compacted tale in one episode? It’s impossible to say, especially since the first episode isn’t even out yet. Perhaps the developers will jump onto a second Kickstarter campaign in the future or even pursue Early Access for additional funding.
Despite the unpredictability of episodic games they are still getting crowdfunded and will continue to in the future. Heck, just look at a recent campaign by the name of Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire. Developer Whale Hammer Games happily announces their game’s episodic style near the top of the page! So far it seems to be working for them too as the title has received a heavy amount of funds in a short time span. That’s likely attributable to Tahira looking like a very interesting game, and not its episodic nature. After all, a large amount of episodic games have failed to receive funding. Episodic game design is neither a burden nor a boost.
Developers seem to have no fear with creating an episodic game because for many this is their first attempt at it. As has been demonstrated by many other episodic titles, there’s rarely a sense of true “security” with one. The most notable failures come from outside the crowdfunding space, though, where development studios either closed or moved onto other things without ever looking back. Luckily it seems Kickstarted-games are less likely to just disappear because developers owe something to their backers. Despite all possible issues, some developers will continue pursuing episodes because of their many perceived benefits.
Then there will be campaigns where developers turn to episodes out of necessity. As has already been shown by both small and large developers, going episodic sometimes becomes best choice to make. As a backer, would you prefer to have some of the game you backed in a year or wait four to finally get the complete thing? Although it’s not ideal, getting an episode every four months to a year may be better overall at keeping folks appeased. Whether you like it or not episodic games are here to stay.
What are your opinions on episodic games? Would you personally prefer to get a taste of games you’ve backed sooner in parts or are you willing to patiently wait much longer?