Why the Hate for Episodic Games?

By Rebecca Smith, 7 months ago
If there is one thing that was pretty consistent throughout the buildup to March 11th, it was that you, the community, thought that HITMAN should not be an episodic title. A lot of players will be waiting to start the game until later this year, after the final episode has been released. Unsurprisingly, the number of players to start the game during its release week was positively dwarfed by fellow new release Tom Clancy's The Division. Interestingly, though, a slightly larger number of people started the game in its first week than the game's prequel, Hitman: Absolution, managed to accrue back in 2012. Admittedly, the TA community is larger now than it was 3.5 years ago so the increase is to be expected, but this still doesn't suggest that the game's release format has been a complete failure. So why have the tables turned on Agent 47 and why does he find himself in the sights of angry gamers?

Episodic games have been around for years. They started with Dunjonquest, a series of strategic pen-and-paper style RPGs that was released way back in 1979. While other genres have also experimented with this release format, it has become extremely popular within the Adventure genre; six of the seven episodic titles that were released in 2015 belonged in this genre. When you have a strong story to tell, a pause in between episodes can help to build up anticipation for the next part. It is a tried and tested mechanic that we have witnessed time and time again through other mediums, like TV series. For example, I played each episode of The Walking Dead as it was released. Did I enjoy this game more by playing it like this, rather than playing through all of the episodes at once? Quite likely. At the end of each episode, I was left with at least a month, sometimes two, to ponder the significance of my choices and the potential implications of my actions. By the time that the fifth episode reached its dramatic conclusion, I truly felt like I had been on a journey.

Whether waiting for an hour or a month, it's pretty clear that this situation isn't good.Whether waiting for an hour or a month, it's pretty clear that this situation isn't good.

On the contrary, Life Is Strange was experienced in a different way. In my first sitting, I played through episodes 1 to 3. I then waited for episodes 4 and 5 to be released before finally finishing the game in a second sitting. Did I enjoy the game? Yes, to the point where I consider Life Is Strange to be my Game of the Year for 2015. Did it have the same impact as The Walking Dead? I don't think so. Developer Dontnod Entertainment came up with a storyline that was truly engaging, but by playing the game as I did, the potential impact of some decisions and events was lessened by the ability to immediately see what would happen next.

Despite the two different experiences, I still think that I'm unlikely to ever play an episodic title as each episode is released again. If anything, I'm now more likely to wait until all episodes are released before jumping into a game. Like a book, I wish to experience the story of a video game on my terms. While waiting for future episodes to be released, my control is relinquished over when the story is experienced and I am left to the whims of the developer, and that's not something with which I'm completely comfortable. For many other people, their terms involve being able to experience the whole game at once. Society as a whole has changed to where people are no longer used to waiting for things, especially when there is little reason to wait. This is where HITMAN fits in. A title like HITMAN isn't known for its strong storyline; it is known for its gameplay. A pause at the end of each episode doesn't have the same significance in an Action-Adventure title where the story is not the main focal point. As a result, many players don't feel like there is a justifiable reason to release the game in parts.

Nobody likes waitingNobody likes waiting

This isn't to say that an Action-Adventure title can't be successfully released in episodic format. The seventh episodic title from 2015, Resident Evil Revelations 2, is also an Action-Adventure game but it did not draw as much criticism. It also sold better than its predecessor, Resident Evil Revelations. Then again, Capcom left just a week in between each episode of the game before following up with a full retail version just four weeks after the release of the game's first episode. At just a month, the wait between the first and last episode was less than the length of time that gamers have to wait when their most anticipated game is delayed for months.

Not only did players not have to wait very long, Capcom was also completely open about their release schedule. We know that HITMAN's second episode is due to be released next month before the third episode arrives in May, but we have no idea when to expect episodes 4-6. As many experienced gamers will know, this leaves the game open to delays. Aside from RER2, I don't think there has been a single episodic game that hasn't delayed one or more of their episodes. In contrast, TV series don't get delayed unless there's a major sporting event or newsworthy occurance ongoing, and even then it's only by a week at most. In other words, all of their episodes are filmed and edited before the first episode is released and there is very little justifiable reason for a delay. This isn't the case for games, where episodes tend to be developed as we go along.

Episodic games are usually faster to be released than full retail titles because of the shorter development time for each episode and the ability to spread out the cost of development, but this also means that the product may be rushed to market. Now that consoles rely upon online connectivity, it is incredibly easy for developers to patch and update a game once it has been released to the public, especially when they have tight production deadlines that aren't necessarily of the developer's own making. However, this is where episodic games come into their own. Developing the game in smaller episodes means that the developer can respond better to community feedback. IO Interactive has already stated that their episodes and future content will be improved as feedback comes back from previous episodes. This should leave players with a much better final product when improvements are being made before release, rather than a game that was released in its entirety and has to be patched numerous times after the fact.

The objects weren't the only thing missing from this gameThe objects weren't the only thing missing from this game

At least there's a good chance that all of the episodes will be released. A developer with the might of Square Enix behind it is not likely to leave a game hanging, unlike Sonic The Hedgehog 4, which made it to episode 2 before being cancelled. Some games, like Hydrophobia and Disney The Little Mermaid: Undersea Treasures! (Win 8), didn't get further than the first bit of content before meeting the same fate. Of course, who could forget the fate of the most famous episodic title of them all: Half Life 2 Episodes 1 and 2. Eight years and far too many false alarms later, we're still waiting for Episode 3. Problems like this rightly make people fearful of episodic games. When you invest in something, you do so on the promise of receiving an entire product. For episodic games, that guarantee isn't there. At least there wasn't a Half Life season pass.

Yes, I mentioned it -- the sometimes loved, but more often hated season pass. Developers have many names for the purchase that allows players to pay in advance for all of the game's future content, but they all serve the same purpose. In theory, a season pass offers a discount if you're willing to pay upfront for all of the game's future content, rather than buying each episode separately. If all episodes were to be released in a timely fashion, this would still hold true. Unfortunately, it often doesn't and developers like Telltale only have themselves to blame for this one. They've got quite a reputation for releasing a season pass and then discounting it before all of the episodes have been released. In the case of Tales from the Borderlands, they discounted the pass and the game's first episode before the second episode was even released. Those people rightly feel short changed and it leaves no incentive to buy the passes at full price. Square Enix discounted the Life Is Strange season pass before the release of the final episode. Whether they will do the same with HITMAN is yet to be seen, but will you take the risk?

Agent 47 can still cause plenty of mayhem, even with just one episodeAgent 47 can still cause plenty of mayhem, even with just one episode

The final issue with HITMAN is knowing exactly what we are getting. When season passes for DLC first appeared, there was no way that I would buy a pass without knowing exactly what DLC I would be getting. A vague description like "major single player expansions – further information to be revealed at a later date", taken from the press description for an expansion pass for an upcoming release, will not tempt me to purchase a season pass. Episodic games don't usually have this problem because the developer will state exactly how many episodes you will be receiving, but then HITMAN isn't just an episodic game. As well as the six game episodes, the season pass includes regular monthly content updates that have not yet been detailed. What do these monthly updates really include?

The recent trend is that developers and publishers are unclear as to what people will get with a season pass and HITMAN is no exception. Unfortunately, a lot of recent season passes, such as that of Batman: Arkham Knight, have eventually fallen short of expectations and have left people feeling like they've paid too much for the content that they have received. While additional and optional DLC releases are a bit different to the vital episodes of a game, this sentiment and suspicion has been extended to episodic games too. Yes, it is unfair to assume that all games will be like this, but gamers are extremely vocal if they feel like a product is not meeting expectations. Some gamers have been burned too many times.

As a fan of the Hitman franchise, I'm not entirely sure that it deserves all of the hate that it has received. The game seems to be paying for a lot of the damage done by episodic releases that have come before it. It is still a game that Agent 47 aficionados will enjoy and the episodic nature does allow for a smoother development cycle. Having said that, I won't be buying the game right now. I'll wait for all of the content to be released so that I know exactly what will be included in my purchase. More to the point, I can enjoy the game in as big a dose as I like, when I like. Whether this means waiting for all of the game's episodes to be released or, more likely, the disc release in January 2017 remains to be seen.
Rebecca Smith
Written by Rebecca Smith
Rebecca is the Newshound Manager at TrueGaming Network. She has been contributing articles since 2010, especially those that involve intimidatingly long lists. When not writing news, she works in an independent game shop so that she can spend all day talking about games too. She'll occasionally go outside.