Mobile Games: The Advantages of the Episodic Model

When it comes to business models in the gaming world, the three most talked about (and dominant) are free-to-play, premium and subscription. However, the use of a fourth—although less talked about—model is on the rise: the episodic model.

According to the episodic model, a game is broken down into individual episodes which are each sold for a fraction of the cost in comparison to the price should they be sold together as one game under the premium model. For example, a $24.99 title will be split into five episodes each priced at $4.99.

The most successful game based on this model is The Walking Dead by Telltale Games. This critical and commercial hit is now in its second season. Telltale is also using the episodic structure for a game based on Game of Thrones. Canadian developers are also seeing the advantages, with Vancouver Island-based Hinterland Games working on the highly anticipated The Long Dark.

So when does it makes sense to use the episodic model and what are the advantages of using it?

Mitigate Risk, Encourage Innovation

The episodic model generally works best with relatively linear and 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, the working of network effects and the power of stories as retention mechanisms.

For most developers, the episodic model’s most exciting aspect is likely how it encourages the development of more creative, daring and innovative games. By breaking up a game into several episodes, a developer can spread out the risks and costs of its development and commercialization. If the first episode turns out to be a flop, developers can save themselves tremendous amounts of time, money and anguish by immediately axing any further development. The stakes are thus lowered, as are the risks of innovating and experimenting. Longer, more complex games that appeal to more dedicated “core” gamers also become more accessible and viable when their development is based on the episodic model.

It also allows to combine the “games-as-a-service” approach and both single-player and core games such that developers can use analytics to improve future episodes and further decrease risk as a series goes on.

Camoflaj used this model to bring République to iOS. The game features 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 even at all) given the platform’s nature.

Widen Appeal and Increase Sales

Any developer is sure to be tempted by the massive combined install base of iOS and Android, but the most successful games based on these platforms are sold under $5 or even available for free. The episodic model makes larger, pricier core games such as République palatable for the mobile audience given they are more in line with mainstream price expectations on an episode-to-episode basis. This in turn allows players who are “on the fence” to fork out less money to try a game. Developers hope they become hooked once they’ve experienced a first episode.

Episodic games can also reduce barriers to purchasing for reasons other than 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 increased presence in mobile app stores and curation platforms via multiple app icons. This is especially important given the surfacing and searchability issues on both iOS and Android.

Player Benefits

The episodic model mitigates the risks of developing new concepts and thereby provides players with innovative games that might not otherwise ever be developed. An additional benefit for players is that the episodic model can result in a gaming experience of increased overall quality.

Most of us don’t finish our games; developers know that and put 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 to last episodes—less hacked together sloppy endings and rehashing of gameplay.

An Interesting Alternative

Given all the talk on the demise of premium games and the rise of the free-to-play market segment, the episodic model offers an attractive way to present both premium and core games to wide audience bases while mitigating risks and allowing developers to take advantage of analytics and live development.

Developers who are interested in harnessing this model should look at how to break their project up into episodes as early as possible in order to identify changes in pacing, storytelling and development cost structure that such a move may require.

Kevin Oke
Kevin Oke is co-founder of Victoria BC-based LlamaZOO Interactive, an award-winning educational technology start-up. Kevin has worked as an employee and consultant in digital interactive entertainment for 10 years. He has worked with Fox, Electronic Arts, Sky Sports and Nickelodeon on 40+ projects.
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