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Editorial

More Games Should Start Going the Episodic Route

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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.

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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!

Writer, journalist, teacher, pedant. Reid's done just about anything and everything involving words and now he's hoping to use them for something he's passionate about: video games. He's been gaming since the onset of the NES era and has never looked back.

Editorial

Five Single-Player Games to Watch Out for in August 2019

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August

August is packed with interesting titles big and small, so without further ado, go, go, go!

RAD

Release Date: August 20, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One

Want some glowy, mutate-y, 80s-infected roguelite action? Look no further than Double Fine Productions’ latest stylish action-adventure. Like so many of Double Fine’s releases lately, Rad combines a popular genre with the studio’s mildly-offbeat weirdness. 

In this case, Rad takes the winning “Not-Quite-Roguelike” formula of The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy and makes it look a little like 2017’s underrated Hob. Players take on the role of a teenager sent out into a post-post-apocalyptic wasteland to forge a path for humanity. They must explore amongst a terrifying mutant bioscape that resembles Fallout if it took place in the pages of 2000AD.

That might sound like a hat on a hat, but Rad distinguishes itself by going full ’80s cheese: Double Fine Productions was practically made for this. Neon pervades the landscape, currency takes the form of cassette tapes, and being published by Bandai handily acquits them for using a Pac-Man decal on the avatar’s t-shirt.

As with other rogue-lites, players can mix and match powerups to experiment with different strategies, from spider legs to exploding skulls, to all manner of passive bonuses as well. With this rather standard progression in place, then comes the lore of the world and the story to be revealed; which in typical Double Fine fashion is much deeper than it seems.

Rad is less interested in innovating a popular genre than delivering what makes this genre so much fun with the added layer of Double Fine polish. Hopefully, we can all fall in love with the game the way its inhabitants seem to be infatuated with the ’80s.

Oninaki

Release Date: August 22, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Switch

Here is an unabashedly weird, smaller-scale game from Square Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory, possibly the smallest developer under Square that is still making console-release games. Both of the studio’s previous games (I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear) were essentially ‘budget’ titles, without the pretensions of matching up with Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Obviously, the team has a passion for old school RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Mana or PlayStation-era Final Fantasy, but Tokyo RPG Factory has not quite found its groove yet.

This could change with Oninaki, which despite a Final Fantasy X inspired story about liberating dead souls before they become monsters, has enough fresh ideas to stand out in 2019. To begin with, the game is an action-RPG, rather than another ATB-based affair (gamers have plenty of that this year with the re-release of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX). Additionally, the world of Oninaki looks gorgeous, budget-release or no, less generic than the washed-out chibi look of Setsuna or Sphear.

However the game turns out, it looks to be more of its own thing than either of Tokyo RPG Factory’s other games to this point. Worst case scenario, Oninaki is a buggy but interesting failure. Best case, players have a dark and quirky RPG to sink their teeth into until the next major release comes along.

Control

Release Date: August 27, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

This is the big one. We have written before about how much we love Alan Wake, but the excitement for Control has become greater than any other title in Remedy Entertainment’s oeuvre. Of course, the fact that Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break all boasted excellent action mechanics does help.

Max Payne famously made a banquet out of bullet time, while Alan Wake innovated the ‘action’ side of action-adventure almost as much as Half-Life 2. Quantum Break seemed like a speed bump on Remedy’s road to success—because no one asked for a series of television episodes in the middle of their game—but the time-based powers and fine encounter design were still a potent mix.

With the same high bar for action and level design, Control combines the best parts of its predecessors like a video game Voltron. Much more than Remedy’s design pedigree, however, Control simply ignites the imagination on its own merits.

Deep within the sprawling, non-Euclidean interior of the Oldest House, players must fight to stop a mysterious energy called the Hiss from invading our world. As with Alan Wake, the game draws from a variety of sources—this time weird fiction and in particular the ‘box of unexplained things’ tropes of The X-Files, SCP or Warehouse 13.

In the spirit of these episodic stories, Control is also Remedy’s first experiment with a Metroidvania structure. As the game progresses, protagonist Jesse Faden acquires skills that unlock new areas and side-missions, as well as just being cool powers for use in combat.

Above all, the best part is that the game is not a Microsoft exclusive but available on both home consoles at launch. Also, please send us a Switch release, pronto.

Astral Chain

Release Date: August 30, 2019
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Thank you, PlatinumGames, for always giving gamers that sweet, sweet spectacle action. Not a whole lot can be said about Platinum’s trademark design that has not already been more eloquently described elsewhere—but in an age where even Capcom’s Devil May Cry seeks the heights of meticulous detail and realistic human faces, the world could use more developers like Platinum.

Focused on varied and elaborate game mechanics rather than always improving graphics tech, Platinum has continued to turn out singular games that truly evolve the stylish action subgenre, from the precise and silly Bayonetta series, to Nier Automata‘s surprise hit, even through cartoony misfires such as The Wonderful 101 and Transformers Devastation (both of which were still very good, for the record).

Quite simply, Astral Chain is another helping of action heaven from the masters, though with plenty of interesting features to call its own. The game takes place during an otherworldly invasion of incredibly designed monsters; some of which have been harnessed for the humans to fight back. Each of these captured monsters, known as Legions, offer the player different fighting styles as they explore and defend a futuristic city modeled off Tokyo

Alright, fine, that last part is less original, but what makes Astral Chain more than just Devil May Cry wearing another costume is the investigative element. The player character is a police officer and can lose “duty points” if they cause too much chaos during the action portion of the game. To make amends, players switch back and forth between action scenes and mystery scenes where they explore the city and solve crimes.

Will this combination of hardcore action and police work mesh perfectly, or are we looking at a lesser Platinum—fun, but disjointed? Gamers only have to wait a month to find out.

The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan

Release Date: August 30, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

Dropped at more or less the same time as this title back in 2015, Until Dawn seemed doomed. There had already been the wet thud of The Order: 1886 back in February, this game also seemed like a prime example of choice-based David Cage nonsense, and worst of all, it was too early for spooky season.

We were proven wrong. Until Dawn was not only fun, not only a pretty accurate video game adaptation of the teen-slasher horror genre, but also beat Quantic Dream at their own game in terms of delivering an engrossing thriller with a constantly (if sometimes illusory) branching story.

Now, Supermassive Games are finally back after their trip around ‘Weird Sony Land’ with a spiritual successor to Until Dawn, and Man of Medan sounds like it can fit the bill in every way. Once again, the story centres on a cast of disposable teens as players attempt to not have them all dead by the end, though this time taking place on a ghost ship: an upgrade over a cabin in the woods if you ask me.

Play functions more or less the same as Until Dawn, a mix of exploration and dialogue choices, switching control between the various characters as the story moves forward. There are a couple of multiplayer modes, but the single-player experience is strong enough.

According to Supermassive, The Dark Pictures is an anthology that will see new titles at a roughly six-month cadence from here on, so expect to hear about a followup to Man of Medan sooner rather than later. Spookums for everybody!


August is positively jam-packed with games, so maybe we can try and hit a few more interesting single player releases. There is cult-infiltration action game The Church in the Darkness coming on August 2, followed by the epic 4X Age of Wonders: Planetfall on PC, and the wacko President-in-a-mech game Metal Wolf Chaos XD on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, both releasing August 6.

On August 8, Nintendo Switch owners can dive into Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition, and on the 13th PC gamers get Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, a prequel to 2015’s space sim Rebel Galaxy. Fan favourite studio Gunfire Games has yet another action game coming, their procedural, Souls-ish Remnant: From the Ashes, releasing on August 20.

PS4 and Xbox One players finally get to play The Bard’s Tale IV on August 27, and come August 30 is the intriguing video game adaptation of Blair Witch releases on PC and Xbox One.

Have we missed anything that you’re looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below and be sure bookmark OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion on our community Discord server.

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