Despite the fact the episodic genre of games is old enough to have seen The Empire Strikes Back in-theater, titles that are broken up into individually-released parts have only recently started to gain proper footing in the gaming sphere. Many notable projects in the early years had glaring faults that held the model back, from lack of mass appeal (was anyone excited for the aborted Bone: Out from Boneville?), to erratic releases (I'm looking at you, Half-Life 2), to flat-out disturbing prices ($19.95 for each episode of SiN Episodes? And there's nine of them?!?)
But after years of figuring out what not to do in the physical realm, episodic developers are now poised to make up for the stumbling of yesteryear and stick the digital-distribution landing. The solution is to create widely appealing titles made consistently and conveniently available at decent prices, and digital delivery has made three-quarters of those requirements significantly easier to meet. The first titles to execute this framework were met with nearly overnight success (The Walking Dead and its $40 million-plus earnings say hi), proving that the episodic format has unique, untapped potential.
The allure for consumers there is fairly obvious - cheap, convenient and appealing are all sexy descriptors - but perhaps the best thing about episodic games is their wide availability to all sorts of players. The now-standard option to pay for episodes as you go works well for dabblers trying out new games, eliminating the stressful possibility that you might spend $60 on Duke Nukem Forever: The After-Dark Episodes and not realize what you've done until it's too late.
At the same time, throwing down for a full season and getting a free episode is a nice bonus for dedicated players, and binge-playing is still totally an option for those who prefer the traditional, big-package experience. The basic layout of many episodic titles also makes the conversion to multiple devices relatively simple, so these titles can be played on anything from a hardware heavy console to a tablet or e-reader. That means even those without the time or money to invest in a dedicated gaming device can still get play-time in on the machine they already own.
While all those adjectives might sound like a nightmare from a creative standpoint (cheap, convenient and good in one package usually requires a magic wand or selling your soul to the devil) episodics are equally kind on the other side of the development fence. Unlike traditional games that make most of their money in the first three months following launch and have to rely on a high-pressure, front-loaded ad campaigns, episodics have a longer marketing tail. Following a presentation at GDC 2015, EEDAR founder Geoffrey Zatkin noted that, "Instead of having the huge curve and fall off, [episodic games] tend to have a more steady, and in some cases a much longer marketing presence as well." That means more buzz over a longer period of time, so there's more opportunity to get eyes on the game, and a small but effective retail release is still an option.
That isn't to say that every developer should start creating strictly point-and-click adventures - even the most loyal episodic fan would probably jump out a window if the industry became nothing but Walking Dead clones. But while the current crop of episode-based games is largely of the adventure persuasion, that isn't an inherent limitation. The fact that an episodic shooter like Resident Evil: Revelations 2 gives your nerves and trigger finger plenty of exercise shows that the format isn't inherently limited by genre. Plus, bring in games that are episodic in spirit but didn't commit to the breakdown (Alan Wake and Asura's Wrath spring to mind), and the possibilities for what will work in episode-form expand even more. Ultimately, episodics can appeal to everyone from point-and-click console players to Tablet-toting, fighter-loving commuters, because they're versatile enough not to be limited to one specific play-style or mode of delivery.
Naturally, episodics aren't about to displace all-enclosed gaming powerhouses, and there are still kinks to work out when it comes to porting certain episodics to certain systems (you probably won't see RE: Revelations on iPad for a while yet). However, as the episodic category continues to grow and makes a wider range of games available to more and more players, its poised to change how we - and it's a much bigger 'we' now - experience games for the better. Now is the time to invest in the future of the episodic format, and not just for the little guy. One day, you may very well find yourself playing Black Ops V: Episode 1 on your morning commute. Welcome to the future.