In case you couldn’t tell from the title, I’m sceptical about “AAA” episodic games. When Square Enix’s next Hitman title was announced as a fully episodic title, I thought: “so it begins.”
I’ve been saying to myself for a while that it wouldn’t be long until major publishers are turning AAA gaming IPs into episodic titles. And here we are with Hitman, a big budget, fully episodic title, coming out next month. I knew AAA episodic games were coming; thanks to games like Life is Strange and Telltales’ regular episodic output performing well both critically and commercially, more publishers are going to start seeing the dollar signs and jump on the bandwagon. Having episodic games on the scale of Hitman is almost like doing Early Access without actually saying it’s Early Access: sell the game before it’s finished to help fund the rest of its development. In practice episodic games are great, but AAA publishers have a tendency to take something that is selling well in the industry, and over saturate it.
It’s not surprising that Square Enix are the first major publisher to take the jump to a AAA episodic title, given the success of Life Is Strange. Let’s not forget that when Hitman was announced as a fully episodic title that this was the second time its release strategy had been changed. Obviously, players can buy the game at full retail price now buying into what will – at some point – be a finished product worthy of the price. Alternatively, players can buy its release content on its launch date of 11 March for £10.99.
At this point, most episodic games are created episodically because it fits; that’s the way they were always intended to be made. The trend started with Telltale Games, who have been releasing episodic games since 2006 with Sam & Max Save the World, but it wasn’t until 2012’s release of The Walking Dead Season One that the concept really became popular. Telltale have since controlled the market; no-one else was really doing episodic games , but thanks to their success and high sales, it was inevitable that competition from other publishers was just around the corner.
My first problem for the Hitman game stems from the small faith I have in Square Enix themselves. This is a publisher that said Hitman: Absolution and Tomb Raider didn’t meet their expectations, despite each selling over three million copies in their first four weeks. For most publishers, that would be considered a resounding success, but not Square Enix. I can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding that if this Hitman re-whatever-it-is doesn’t sell well enough through its initial release, Square Enix can it before completion. If the funds created by sales are the initiative to keep working on the game, and initial sales figures aren’t up to Square Enix’s seemingly sky-high expectations, it will leave them in a tight spot.
I fear that games may be pushed into becoming episodic mid-way through development to ease financial stress, or to meet an earlier release date. If a game doesn’t start out planning to be episodic but then changes mid-way through development, it could result in a disjointed experience with extreme problems in its pacing. It could start to become clear which games weren’t intended to be episodic in the first place, and never alluded to being so by the publisher.
Any developer or publisher involved in creating an episodic game has to stay committed throughout the project, and it can be as long as a year between the first and last episodes being released. I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before an episodic game is axed “mid-season” and has to be finished up in one last episode, like we’ve seen happen on TV series; Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, one of my personal favourites, is a prime example. With games, players would get shortchanged on the number of episodes and have a rushed and unsatisfactory ending; a serious issue for those who had bought a complete package at full retail price. I’m sure a very nice PR disaster would ensue if this was the case.
As consumers, we have to trust in publishers not to let us down. I don’t know about you, but personally I carry barely any trust when it comes to AAA publishers; let’s face it, just how many times have players been let down by unfulfilled promises from certain major companies? Releasing episodic games could just become a new way to charge players for a game that’s not finished, so why wouldn’t they push it as hard as they do with pre-orders, for instance? It wouldn’t surprise me if eventually you get more content if you buy, as IO puts it with Hitman, the “full experience”.
Regardless of my scepticism, I’m excited to see how Hitman turns out; I imagine an influx of AAA episodic games could soon follow depending on whether Hitman becomes a success or not. If it does, then we should all expect much more like it to come along in the following years – likely to be accompanied with all the potential controversy, and shouting into the endless void which is the internet. But who knows, maybe major publishers moving into episodic games will allow developers to create experiences they couldn’t before, on a grand scale, but with an episodic structure. Only time will tell.