The financial aspect of video games has long been a driving force behind internet discussions regarding the medium. Gamers have held hotly contested debates over just how much money is reasonable in purchasing a game that provides, say, forty hours of content versus the abnormally large amount of content games like The Witcher 3 contain. For a game that is relatively short, players might look at the first large addition of downloadable content as something that should have been included in the base game, while those same fans would likely have no problem shelling out an extra $10 or $20 for the first expansion to The Witcher 3. It’s all relative to the amount of value gamers believe they are receiving with each purchase they make, and that principle has informed the decisions being made by developers as they continue to look at new and innovative ways to present their work in both an engaging and profitable manner.
This debate has existed for some time, and it’s no closer to an answer now than it was in its infancy. Yet the industry has continued to evolve, and lately it has been the discussion centered around episodic content, not DLC, that has dominated internet forums and side-blog thinkpieces alike. Episodic content is an interesting premise that, though it has existed in various forms for a while now, first truly came to prominence during the rise of TellTale Games The Walking Dead series. Episodic content was a perfect fit for a narrative-based video game attempting to emulate a television show, and gamers and critics both happily embraced the way TellTale provided gaps in between episodes to really maximize the emotional impact of each installment.
The prevailing argument, then, is that episodic content can work, with an addendum that it won’t work for everyone and that it’s a methodology that indie developers should primarily consider. Episodic content in AAA titles, however, has been met with a level of vitriol that is usually reserved for pay-to-win schemes in multiplayer games. It’s easy to see why gamers might be hesitant to embrace this kind of content model – at its core, it promises several different installments of a game that will each cost a certain amount of money over time rather than getting all of the content up front. The result? A trial in both measured spending habits and patience, something that not all gamers consider their strong suits.
Although there haven’t been many blockbuster video game releases recently that have attempted to implement episodic content, there has been one notable debut that seems to have received less attention than it perhaps deserves. IO Interactive’s newest take on the Hitman series is episodic, and while it might not be the biggest release this year, it is certainly a game series with enough of a pedigree to merit some discussion when it decides to use a new release model. The Hitman franchise was big enough to spawn an admittedly poor movie – surely it still commands enough respect to generate some meaningful analysis of how episodic content might be implemented by giant publishers like Square Enix in the future.
Despite what popular opinion might hold to be true, it turns out that a stealth action game can pull off the episodic style just as well as a cel-shaded narrative adventure about the zombie apocalypse. The trick is, of course, in presenting something that on its own is worth the money spent but makes players want to spend more once additional content becomes available. If that is the goal, then Hitman has scored. Episode 1: Paris is an incredibly deep mission that, despite taking place in one location, offers well over twenty hours of gameplay in its palisade halls alone. For those wondering, the price of the first episode is $19.99, which equates to spending roughly a dollar an hour on quality entertainment.
Of course, the fact that the first episode is worth the money spent on it only solves half of the problem. The other is the very blunt question of whether or not it’s worth it for the game to use episodic content releases and if the series actually benefits from this specific model. The answer, though, is that Hitman might be the smartest take on episodic gaming yet from a series that no one would have marked as a prime candidate for installment-based content development.
In thinking about it further, though, episodes of Hitman just make sense. This is a game series that has prided itself on its nuanced level design and the creativity players are able to employ while controlling Agent 47 during his often ridiculous assassination missions. In previous games, however, I would find myself rushing through each level after finding one satisfying way of killing my target, eager to enjoy another level and another chance at making my completion of contracts look like accidents. I would progress all the way through the story, be satisfied with the narrative and the gaming experience, and then move on to the next game release without so much as a second thought.
See the problem? This kind of approach negates a lot of the theory behind what makes Hitman such an appealing game. In releasing just Episode 1: Paris however, I was forced to pace myself and really explore the level. It was the only one on offer, so I told myself to take my time and really engage with what the developers were offering me. The result was the best time I’ve ever had with the series, and at least fifteen hours spent inside that one mission with a few more creative assassinations left to try and tackle in the near future. That simply wouldn’t have happened had Hitman been released under its traditional content model.
While I was initially hesitant on the way Square Enix had been pushing for episodic content in its larger game series, I’m now more receptive to the idea – at the very least, I know it can be executed well enough that it feels like a benefit rather than a way to simply make more money. The true test, however, is coming soon. If episodic gaming is really something that can benefit both developers and gamers, I fully expect to see it executed to early perfection in the upcoming Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I’m not saying that I believe Final Fantasy is a perfect fit for episodic content, but then again, I wouldn’t have said that about Hitman either. Going episodic allows Square Enix to create a narrative that goes more in-depth with each character in the beloved classic’s all-star cast, and might provide the developers a chance at having different episodes contain different gameplay content. Bringing Final Fantasy 7 into the modern era could be the episodic content model’s history-defining victory.
If episodic content is going to succeed at shedding the negative stereotypes that some gamers have associated with it, it is going to have to continue down the path that Hitman has now very successfully laid out for it. Games will need to both offer players good value on each episode in terms of content length and depth versus money spent while also having a good reason to embark down the path of episodic narration. The fact is, though, that it appears we might be progressing towards a new era in video game releases, and the future might not be nearly as gloomy as it has been made out to be.