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?