Metal Gear Solid V, to me, is an incredibly repetitive game. That is not to say it is a bad game, because it is not. It really is a fantastic game and fully deserving of all the praise it has been receiving. At the same time, I feel many critics completely glossed over the repetitiveness of the game.
The above quote is from my editor’s article regarding Metal Gear Solid, a game he otherwise greatly enjoyed. The game is receiving pretty excellent reviews overall, but this criticism does keep cropping up on the fringes of every discussion of the game I’ve seen so far, like that ominous “but” that hangs over a conversation. (“I really like this game… …but…”).
While one bit of criticism shouldn’t mar the overall reception of an otherwise exceptional game – and by all accounts Metal Gear Solid V is indeed an exceptional game (I’ve not had a chance to play it and with the frankly stupid amount of games I have on my backlog, I doubt I’ll get the chance) – it bears mentioning criticisms that could be easily fixed…or that are at least educational. And in this case, I think the fact that Metal Gear Solid V seems to be running out of ideas pretty early in the game is a very teachable moment. Or at least a talking point.
So back in 2006, Valve announced a followup to their excellently-received title, Half-Life 2 and surprised everyone by including the word “episode” in the title. In doing so, they announced a dedication to a more episodic style of releases, promising less content but quicker and cheaper than it would be otherwise. While they succeeded on the cheaper part of the promise (and the less content part), they pretty much flopped on the quicker part with episodes with more than a year lapsing between the two episodes.
Despite this gap between the two smaller’ releases, the episodic release of the Half-Life 2 followup games seemed to set the stage for other companies to do the same thing, which culminated in Telltale’s highly successful business model surrounding their adventure games series like the Walking Dead, the Wolf Among Us and, most recently, Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands.
Oh, and all those other games that no one talks about anymore.
Telltale truly showed off the benefits of an episodic approach to gaming, allowing their team to stop and breathe a bit between shorter but more frequent releases, to collect themselves and prepare – mentally and creatively – for the next episode, even to shift gears creatively and provide freshness in separate installments rather than that niggling feeling that the game has dragged on too long.
I tend to wait for all of the episodes to be released for a Telltale game before playing them through and let me tell you, they never get old. They are riveting from start to finish (which might be because Telltale is just really good at their job, but I have a feeling the episodic style helps too).
And at the same time, each new episode’s release – which are generally only a month or two apart – is met with almost as much fanfare as a full release of any other game, which is great from a PR standpoint for Telltale and certainly serves to hype up gamers, who are rarely left with a time where they’re just languishing and waiting for something to sink their teeth into.
Given all that, it’s a wonder more companies don’t do this. Have you ever played a game that started to feel stagnant about halfway through? Or a game that felt artificially lengthened somehow, as though the development team just kind of ran out of steam but was required to phone it in because they had a requisite length handed down from on high by the people holding the money?
Have you ever thought to yourself, “this game would have been great if both it and its price had been cut in half”?
I think episodic gaming is the answer and, from the sounds of it, could have been a boon even to a major release like Metal Gear Solid V.
MGS5’s problem of stagnation, perhaps, could have been avoided if the team was allowed to tell a story in smaller chunks because they could have had a chance to rest creatively and to gather their thoughts in between each release, to refocus their efforts and do something new and different rather than feeling constrained by the gameplay that led up to that point. Maybe the overall development time would have been a bit longer with these reprieves, but fans would have had regular pieces of gameplay to sink their teeth into and keep themselves occupied, so it wouldn’t actually have felt long. It might have even felt shorter than the seven years they already had to wait between MGS4 and MGS5 with those regular releases.
In addition to simply having a chance to breathe, new episodes could give a development team an easy excuse and opportunity to refocus on different themes, different characters, perhaps even different mechanics, and a long game like Metal Gear Solid could avoid becoming stagnant as it drags on. Television episodes allow the story to shift abruptly from on element or perspective to another in in a way that would feel jarring or even unsettling in a full movie. There’s no reason this wouldn’t work for games as well. A sudden shift in perspective or mechanical focus could feel weird in a full release like MGS5, but it would have simply been a well-received stylistic change between MGS5: Episode 1 and MGS5: Episode 2.
Television series also continue for much longer overall than their movie counterparts and I could see such episodic games becoming perpetual, having story arcs that receive resolution but continuing on to new stories in a much more prompt fashion than most full-scale sequels allow. This could be a boon to the business end of video game development, allowing a franchise like MGS to continue releasing content regularly, keeping hype high (as episodes would come out fairly frequently) and bringing in constant and regular sales.
This is all theoretical, of course. Maybe MGS5 wouldn’t work as an episodic game, I can’t say for sure whether it would or or not until I got a chance to play it myself (and given the ridiculous amount of cutscenes in MGS4, you’d probably get whole episodes where you don’t get to play anything at all if Kojima got his way) and of course there’s plenty of problems with an episodic format.
Episodic gaming requires a great amount of discipline on the part of the developer because there is an unspoken promise between them and the consumer the minute they tack that word “episode” onto the title of the game. Gamers start to expect them to make good on that promise by providing quicker, cheaper content. And on the same token, there is a difficult balancing act as well with the amount of content provided. As far as gamers are concerned, you can never give too much, but you have to balance how much you’re giving with the time it takes to produce that content. You can’t take more than a couple months to come out with each installment, but you have to give the players enough playtime to sink their teeth into or they’ll feel cheated.
This is a tightrope that I feel few developers in this day and age can walk.
And then there’s the elephant in the room of pricing. Episodic gaming, like the burgeoning free to play market, could seem to some unethical developers like a license to print money. Less content more frequently? Slap a full-price tag on that sucker and watch the money roll in. The Sims for example, despite being a game that I feel really and truly benefits from a release format that is basically episodic – though it is constantly adding content onto the base game rather than providing a new experience every time, but it’s close enough to use as an analogue, is a good example of how not to do episodic releases…because it is, at its core, an episodic game that charges full price for each episode (expansion pack).
And unfortunately, this business model works because gamers feel like they’re getting additions to the game. But it is also a business model which, if applied to an episodic title, would put a black mark on an otherwise fine method of distributing video games.
But at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with the concept or even the business model itself as long as it – and the consumer – are respected and there’s no reason we can’t start viewing episodic releases more favorably in mainstream releases and consider them a viable alternative to full-on releases that take many, many years to realize, both as a way to keep gamers hyped about a full release for much longer than they would be otherwise and to keep things feeling fresh and new from a game’s start to its conclusion.
What about you, episodic readers? Do you think episodic games are the wave of the future? Or do you hate them and hope developers stop doing them? Which games do you think would benefit from this style of release? Do you think it works for Telltale simply because they make point-and-click adventure games? Or could it work for more mainstream titles like RPGs (YES), FPSes, and strategy games?
Sound off in the comments below, and tune in next time – same Single Player time, same Single Player URL – for another thrilling episode!