Is bitter rivalry driving gamers’ suspicion of episodic games?
Gaming: The fifth episode of Game of Thrones is about to be released by the king of episodic gaming, Telltale, but, despite the great success of the format, gamers remain divided. But what’s so wrong with going back to your roots, asks Emer Sugrue
The character of Daenerys Targaryen, voiced by Emilia Clarke, in a scene from Telltale's Game of Thrones, episode five
One of the tragic consequences of becoming an adult is that while I can now afford to buy games, I don’t have so much time to play them. Gone are the days of endlessly killing Rattatas and Pidgeys to level up. I often put off games I know I’ll love until I have more time and energy. I’m still waiting. A two- or three-hour game on the other hand requires much less investment. Even if it’s the most amazing and absorbing game ever, I’m still going to be able to get some sleep that night.
As highly anticipated fifth episode of the Game of Thrones game series hits our virtual shelves this week, one thing is clear - episodic games have never been more popular. There has been a lot of hand-wringing over whether this trend is a good or bad thing for the games world, but, for me, episodic games are bringing gaming back to its roots. While a lot of AAA games compete on graphics and huge sprawling sandboxes, episodic games focus on characters and storytelling.
Episodic games are, simply, games released in a series of short episodes. While you would expect a regular game to have 20-40 hours of gameplay, episodic games are usually only two to four hours each, with five or six episodes to a series. The king of episodic gaming is undoubtedly Telltale, who are behind bestselling game series such as Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Back to the Future, Tales from the Borderlands and the upcoming Minecraft: Story Mode. All of these were already popular television shows, film or games with a built-in fanbase before Telltale went near them -obviously a huge advantage for the developers.
Trailer: Game of Thrones, episode five
However this type of game has big advantages for players too. Episodic games are also cheaper, at least per purchase if not per hour. This gives people a lot more freedom to take a chance on a game they’re not sure of. If it’s good, you have a whole series to splurge on, and if not, hey it was only five quid. This gives the game developers a lot more incentive to make sure each game is actually good. Game episodes are usually released every two months or so, and developers can use that time to get feedback and address issues, making the next episode even better. But that also give the players a long time to forget about the game, so developers need each game to be engaging and memorable. Compared to the big releases where you pay €70 up front and hope that the game will actually work, it gives the consumer a lot more power.
The lower commitment level might be what has gamers suspicious about episodic games. A bitter rivalry exists between ‘hardcore gamers’ and what are dismissively called ‘casuals’. I say rivalry; people who only play casual games don’t go on gaming forums so it’s entirely one-sided. Casual games are quick simple games aimed at a mass audience, things like Candy Crush, Angry Birds or 2048. They are usually mobile or browser games and don’t require much time or skill to play. Gamers loath them.
Episodic games have awkwardly positioned themselves in the no-man’s land between the two. They are well written engaging games, but they’re two hours long. They need skill and concentration, but are available on mobile. It’s a dilemma for gamers whether they are allowed like them or not. The popularity of these games suggests that people are coming around to the idea however - Telltale announced earlier this year that it had sold 28 million copies of The Walking Dead.
Mostly though, episodic games are just fun. Whether it’s my slow reflexes or my tendency to panic under fire, my favourite games have always been ones with puzzle-solving or strategy rather than shooters. Episodic games are much more linear and smaller in scope than the big releases, but every bit as immersive. Telltale treats their borrowed characters with great love and care, and really put you in the story. They are character and story driven first, graphics second and that it how it should be. Space Quest didn’t need more than 16 colours to be hilarious and brilliant and when you’re in Game of Thrones trying to talk Ramsay Bolton out of murdering your family, graphics are the last thing you’ll be thinking about.
If you’re short on time or you don’t have a console or a good computer, episodic games are a great way to dip your toes into the gaming waters. You might discover a fun new hobby and start looking into the more serious stuff. And if you hate it, hey, it was only five quid.