The Advantages of the Episodic Model
When talking about business models in games, the three most talked about (and most dominant) are free-to-play, premium and subscription. However there is a less talked about model that is being used increasingly more - episodic.
In the episodic model, a game is broken down into individual episodes which are each sold for a fraction of the cost compared to if they were sold together as one game under the premium model. For example, a $24.99 title being split into five episodes at $4.99 each.
The most successful game to use this model is The Walking Dead by Telltale Games - a critical and commercial hit now in its second season. Telltale is also working on a game based on Game of Thrones using the episodic structure.
So when does it makes sense to use the episodic model, and what are the advantages to using it?
The episodic model generally works best with relatively linear, story-driven single player games as opposed to more open-ended social games. This is owing to a number of factors such as ease of inter-episode connectivity, how network effects work and the power of stories as retention mechanisms.
For most developers, the most exciting aspect of the episodic model is likely how it encourages more creatively daring and innovative games. By breaking a game up, a developer can spread out execution risk and cost over multiple episodes. If the first episode isn’t successful, they can save themselves tremendous time, money and tears by not proceeding with further development at that time. The stakes are thus lowered, and innovation and experimentation become less risky. Longer, more complex games that appeal to more dedicated “core” gamers also become more accessible and viable through the episodic model.
It also allows for a marriage between the “games as a service” approach and both single-player and core games, so that developers can use analytics to improve future episodes and further decrease risk as a series goes on.
Camoflaj used the model to bring République to iOS, a game with in-depth storytelling, a moody dystopian setting and gameplay mechanics that are decidedly more core than casual. Without the episodic model it’s highly unlikely this game would have been released first on mobile (or at all) given the nature of the platform.
The massive combined install base of iOS and Android is tempting for any developer, but the most successful games on these platforms are under $5 (or free). The episodic model makes larger, pricier core games such as République palatable for the mobile audience by being more in line with mainstream price expectations on an episode-to-episode basis. This in turn allows players that are “on the fence” to try a game with less financial risk (and hopefully become hooked).
Episodic games can also reduce barriers to purchasing in ways beyond just pricing - less perceived time commitment (“I’ll just play the first episode”), and relief from the anxiety of adding another large game to one’s backlog (an increasingly common phenomenon).
An episodic structure also leads to more of a presence in mobile app stores and curation platforms via multiple app icons. This is especially important given the surfacing and searchability issues on iOS and Android.
The episodic model mitigates risk around developing new concepts and thereby provides players with innovative games that might not otherwise get made. An additional benefit to players is that the episodic model can lead to better games overall.
Most of us don’t finish our games, and developers know that, putting this knowledge to work when budgeting time and energy over the course of a project. The episodic model makes larger games more digestible and easier to finish, which puts more of an onus on developers to make sure their games are strong all the way though from the first episode until the last - less hacked together sloppy endings and rehashing of gameplay.
For all the talk of the death of premium games in favour of free-to-play, the episodic model offers an attractive way to present both premium and core games to wide audiences while mitigating risk and allowing developers to take advantage of analytics and live development.
Developers interested in harnessing this model should look at how to break their project up into episodes as early as possible to identify changes in pacing, storytelling and development cost structure that such a move may require.