Jan 102013

With the recent news that The Walking Dead game has sold over 8.5 million episodes, episodic gaming is back in the spotlight. In this article, I’d like to explore how episodic RPGs could work for an indie developer.

First off, there’s the question of how do you get people to try out your episodic series in the first place. With The Walking Dead series, they utilized a combination of a high profile IP (the TV show & comic are both very popular), a low price per episode ($5 is cheaper than most XBLA/PSN titles), and limited time free episodes (episode 1 was free on XBLA & iOS for a limited time and Playstation Plus owners got Episodes 1 & 2 for free for a time). Since most indie developers don’t have the benefit of a hugely popular IP at their disposal, I’m thinking they would have to compensate with an especially cool premise, high quality gameplay & writing, and/or lower prices.

I can see two main approaches working for an episodic RPG. The first is to have each episode be a direct continuation of the previous episode. If you can hook the player onto your characters & plot, this can be a powerful approach, however this approach pretty much requires every player to play the episodes in order which can be off-putting to some people and can scare people off from trying the game at all. This approach can also pose some problems with traditional RPG gameplay – RPGs are all about gradually become more powerful and facing more powerful opposition and that’s difficult to do well if you have some players who have played every episode and other players who have only played one.

The other approach would be to make each episode standalone with its own set of characters & plot. To add coherence, the episodes could all take place in the same world or location and there could be an overarching plot that gets pieced together as you progress through the episodes. There could even be an episode or episodes where characters from one episode team up with characters from other episodes. This approach would work better from an RPG mechanic standpoint since everyone would start from scratch in each standalone episode and it makes the series easier for newcomers to start playing – if someone finds out about the series and thinks that episode 5 sounds like the most fun, they could start with episode 5, discover that they love it, and then go back and play the other episodes. The downside is that without an ongoing set of characters & plot, there’s going to be less of a chance to hook someone and turn them into a diehard fan that eagerly awaits each new installment.

Next up is the question of how you actually pull off making each episode of an episodic RPG series in a reasonable amount of time. With something like The Walking Dead, it’s easy to see how they could release each episode a month or two apart – there’s very little in the way of gameplay mechanics (it’s more of a Choose Your Own Adventure than anything else), areas are small, and assets are reused between chapters. An RPG is a bit more complex since you have combat & character progression systems to create and balance and people tend to get upset at doing the same dungeon over and over again. To that, I’d say the solution is twofold. First, keep the tech simple – 2D retro is pretty much a requirement for fast RPG development unless you have a huge team. Second, get ahead of the release schedule – if it takes 3 months to make each episode of your 5-part series but you want to release a new episode every 2 months, you can keep on schedule if you don’t release the first episode until after the second episode has been completed and you’ve started work on the third.

Finally, there’s the question of is it even worthwhile to do an episodic RPG? And to that, I’m not sure. On the plus side, an episodic release schedule means more opportunities to get press and attention since you have more releases. It means you can start getting funding earlier (since people can start buying the game as soon as the first episode is released) and you can take feedback from fans into account while designing later episodes. It gives fans a chance to play through each episode over time without feeling overwhelmed like they might feel when presented with a huge RPG all at once. On the downside, some gamers have a negative viewpoint of episodic games – they’ve been burned by stuff that never got finished like the Half-Life episodes – and won’t buy episodic games until the entire series is done. With an episodic game, you have to make a good impression faster than you do with a larger game and if you mess up that first impression that can spell doom for your series before it has a chance to really excel.

What do you think? Would you like to see more episodic RPG series or do you prefer the traditional RPG format?

 Posted by at 11:43 am

  8 Responses to “On Episodic RPGs”

  1. I’ve toyed with this idea myself. The idea was to make mobile market RPGs that had light, fast stories, and then bringing out sequels. Like a TV series: different stories, recurring characters.

    One of the things that made Chrono Trigger great was it didn’t drag. Most JRPGs drag. In CT you had a short story, then a climax, then a short sequel, then a climax, all packed rapid-fire into one game. Each little segment makes its own great little story. Problem is, as you point out, the total character advancement, which arcs over all the stories, is one of the other key links in the game’s greatness, and this would be murdered by dividing the game into a series of smaller games. The heart of the RPG genre’s advancement mechanic is the coming-of-age story, where a protagonist grows from zero to hero. The advancement makes turn-based combat continually interesting — without it, it would be very hard to keep the battle system from boring players. Take out the story theme, then, and you weaken two of the key mechanics of the genre.

    One possible solution is snooping on your previous games’ saves, and making the stories about different characters, but bringing your old characters into the new games if the player has a finished save. Balancing for it would be a pain. A solution to that could be side paths that you can’t take without the backup… but that punishes players who don’t get the prequels with dangled, unreachable candy.

    Or you could load the sequels with two stories: the sequel’s own standalone story, and a concurrent story for the character from the previous game that is unlocked if you’ve completed the previous game. One game for the price of one, but three for the price of two that way (and six for the price of three if you keep it going. But this would quickly grow unmanageable).

  2. I have 2 games that pop into mind after reading this. Shining Force 3, of which I have only read about sadly, and Suikoden 3.

    Shining Force 3 is a multi part strategy rpg with each part being a differing side of a faction iirc. Only one of three, I think, was released in english, though it wouldnt surprise me if the other two aren’t being translated or finished being translated.

    Suikoden 3 features chapters. This game could easily handle a episodic release schedule, as the way it was set up was just annoying having to redo the same dungeons over and over and over again for each new character you start as. Having a break between characters would of helped enormously with that games issues, by making areas fresh again after a 2 month or so break.

    I would say my favorite kind of episodic content is different view points. Example would be having 3 factions, and the first 3 episodes has you playing as people from each faction. As you get to the end of each faction, you get a bit of a cliffhanger, not a drastic one, but you get an ending, but are left knowing there is there is more. So you do 3 releases with the 3 factions, and then do a fourth release where all 3 factions work together for some common cause. If you played the 3 previous games, you can have all your characters from each faction be at the requisite levels to take on the final episode’s content. If nobody played the other 3, you can have them do some kind of elaborate tutorial that nets them a lot of lv’s fast, because honestly, its episodic content, and expecting a full game from lv 1 in a episodic finale shouldn’t be expected.

  3. I think that there are two important examples already out there for this concept. The first is Mass Effect. For the most part I’d call this a great example of how to pull it off right (even if some argue that the ending was awful). Mass Effect gave you the ability to tailor the game in a lot of ways, but in a similar fashion to Walking Dead, its just minor variations on a mostly linear path. However short of doing an open-world game, linearity is really going to be necessary (we’ve seen how many issues open-world games end up with).

    The counter-example would be the Penny Arcade series as a whole. This was a grand plan to have 4 episodic games, where the original developer bailed half-way leaving the story untold. This is why I never bother playing episodic games anymore until they are all released and the story is complete. Now on the good side, this story has a good ending which is pretty obvious to most everyone on this site. But it is a story to be aware of. I’d also add in Too Human as a failed attempt at an episodic RPG (if you consider it an RPG), as the company has more or less folded before releasing Two Human.

    I don’t think that the appearance of choice mattering (whether it does or not) like Mass Effect and Walking Dead is necessary. Personally, Dragon Quest 4 is one of my favorite RPGs of all time, because the chapter system provided an incredible unique experience. I could see a similar system employed as an episodic game, although maybe with more balance in the time (chapter 5 is longer than all the rest combined, maybe subdividing?). Even a generational game like Dragon Quest 5 could be a way to look at it.

    There are currently two episodic RPGs that I have in my “to-play” queue. The first is FF4 The After Years, and the other is Final Fantasy Dimensions (although on android, FFD is one single whole game). I’m also waiting for PA4 at this point. As usual though, I will wait for the entire product to be released before I invest my own time and money into it following what I learned from Penny Arcade years ago. (Many thanks for completing that for us!)

  4. An example of one recently that I know has done well is the Millenium series by Aldorlea games. The fifth one is about to come out, and all four previous ones have sold well, and see a spike in sales whenever a new one is released. While I’ve only made it through part of the first one so far, it’s been neat following how it’s been a staple for the company to return to inbetween other projects.

    I like the concept of episodic rpgs. While not quite the same scale of size as you are talking about, I felt the .hack G.U games did a great job of showing how to do a series of games released relatively close to each other covering the same story can be a great thing. They’re actually my vote for best PS2 rpg, due to how well they pulled it off.

  5. Episodic games certainly worked for Apogee and Epic Megagames back in the 90s, and I don’t think the market has changed so much that it couldn’t still work. It could also be just as if not more profitable in theory, as RPGs are generally assumed to be very long, elaborate games, so if you took a typical RPG and split it into 2-5 episodes, not only could you be getting a return on investment before its totally done, but you could be getting more overall charging $5-10 per episode then you would if you just waited and released the entire thing for $25-30 (or more for a more mainstream/AAA release).

    It still of course comes down to quality, but as with Apogee and Epic, I think the release of a “full” game for free does a lot to convince a customer base that you have faith in your product. After all, if you release a steaming pile as a free game, nobody is gonna pay for *more* steaming piles.

  6. One example that comes to mind are the games Golden Sun and Golden Sune: The Lost Age (both for the GBA). The Lost Age was a direct sequal to Golden Sun, with two of your four party members having been introduced in the first game, as major characters no less. The game more or less starts off where the previous game ended, with a new continent, but the same world.

    About halfway through the game, your party from the previous game joins you, culminating with good story points. Utilizing a data transfer/password system, you were able to import saved data from the first game, bringing forth items, summons, and levels when the first party joined you.

    The Lost Age was a solid enough game to stand on it’s own, but the story greatly benefited from playing the first.

  7. Live A Live is also a good example of how it could be done. Another possibility would be to have the overarching story span a huge span of time, with each episode jumping forward one or more generations (Phatasy Star III, where at the end of each generation you choose a bride, the decision affecting the character you get to play next). You could also adopt something like the Chrono Trigger world map, with general locations of places remaining the same, but marked changes occurring between each era.

    A possibility to reduce development time and tie the stories all together would be to have players revisit certain landmark dungeons following different critical paths, with perhaps later groups going through seeing the aftermath of the actions of previous characters. The same could apply to certain towns or hubs, which would warrant spending extra time working on these locations and giving them some extra flair, making them stand out as especially important areas. Another possibility would be to have access to some areas being restricted somewhat in earlier episodes, and then later episodes allowing the player full access to all the different areas used so far.

    Another thought: what is your opinion on allowing the player to carry their info from the save file of one episode to the next, and having things change depending on certain player actions?

  8. I think if done well, you can pull one off. The two games I look at that show how an episodic game could be pulled off are Dragon Quest 4 and the SaGa Frontier games. In DQ4, you played a chapter staring a certain cast members in order, each with their own stories. Then all cast members were brought together for a final chapter. In SaGa Frontier, you got to choose which character’s story you played and other characters would cross over. All in one persistent world.

    By doing something like that, you could release a “season finale” in which all characters come together to finish the overall arc. You could even grant bonuses to characters in which the player completed their episodes.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.