Before consoles came with hard drives and high speed internet was readily available, video games were released on disks in their entirety. Even when games started to arrive via digital download, players still got to download the whole game in one shot. It was rare to see one released in the episodic format, where a few hours of content was released every few months over the course of a year. It was the domain of smaller indie developers who often used the money earned from one episode to finance the development of the next — a different formula than the “obligatory DLC” model used by AAA publishers. Now, the giant publishers actually are experimenting with proper episodic games and are releasing games from major franchises in this format, while the smaller publishers are wildly inconsistent in how they use it. The episodic format has mutated into a way for developers to torment players by riddling a story with cliffhangers while stretching out their development time by an extra year or more.Telltale Games was the vanguard for this business model in the early years, but they wisely experimented with the format back then, trying several different models. Their games varied between three and seven episodes, sometimes releasing as frequently as every other week or month. Eventually, though, they settled into a format of five episodes for most of their games, with the last episode arriving less than a year after the first. It was a good arrangement for players who could savor the cliffhangers between episodes, but still reach the conclusion in a reasonable amount of time. The developer had enough time to factor in player feedback before completing the final episodes.With the popularity of their games, Telltale has begun experimenting again with the number of episodes used in each game. Telltale’s current series, Minecraft: Story Mode, has five episodes, but the main storyline was resolved by the end of the fourth. A fifth bonus episode looms on the horizon, and hopefully it won’t be a superfluous wheel.AdChoices广告Meanwhile, other games by Telltale are so short that even all the episodes combined are still smaller than some DLC packs for proper games. Telltale launched a spinoff of their Walking Dead series with a mini-series that stars the character Michonne. It has just three episodes, with about two hours of play per episode. The Hearts of Stone DLC for The Witcher III is likely to be longer than every episode of Michonne put together. Overall length isn’t a measure of storytelling quality, but it does question the necessity of the episodic format for a short game where every episode will arrive within two months.At the opposite end of this spectrum is Telltale’s adaptation of Game of Thrones. This series was announced with six episodes, but even with the extra episode, almost every story thread ended with a cliffhanger. The story will be resolved in a second season coming for an unannounced price, concluding at a yet unannounced date. The implied contract of an episodic game is that it will tell a complete story over a reasonable amount of time, and for an agreed-upon price. Episodic games that are secretly designed with cliffhangers in mind violate this implied contract. The same is true for games that take years to release their conclusion.Some of the worst perpetrators of the slow release schedule are crowdfunded games. Crowdfunding proved to be a surprisingly successful way for seasoned game developers to raise large sums of money, with some veteran designers amassing millions of dollars (Star Citizen has pulled in over one hundred million dollars). However, crowdfunding is also popular with tiny indie teams who desperately need meager sums to get their project off the ground. Then the sale of the first episode can finance development of the second, and so on. Many such smaller projects proceed at a deliberate pace, with months slipping past between episodes, and even years passing by between release of the first episode and the last. The crowdfunded game Republique, for instance, had its final episode arrive just this week, despite the first episode appearing in 2013.If Republique fans had a hard time, think of the players who started The Longest Journey in 1999. Living up to its name, The Longest Journey is still not over. The first game in the series was a self-contained tale, but its sequel Dreamfall ended in a cliffhanger way back in 2006. The episodic game Dreamfall Chapters took the first step on the final leg of this journey in 2014, but the final episode is not here yet. Even more hapless are fans of the critical hit Kentucky Route Zero. They have waited over three years since its first episode launched, while the fourth and fifth are still on their way.Cult games and indies have an excuse for such behavior; the episodic format allows a smaller pool of fans to directly finance a game that is too risky for a large publisher. Without episodic releases and long development times, these games might never see the light of day at all. This is not the case with some of the high profile episodic games that have appeared lately. Long-running franchises with large fanbases have been toying with episodic games, like Resident Evil and Hitman.Last year, Capcom released Resident Evil Revelations 2 in an unusual episodic format. They put out a new episode every week for four weeks, along with a pair of bonus DLC episodes that dealt with side stories and weren’t essential to the plot. For Capcom, this was obviously an experiment rather than a business necessity; the staff didn’t need the proceeds from the first episode to keep the company afloat while waiting for the second episode to arrive a week later.With such a brief period between launch and conclusion, the developer had little opportunity to refine the later portions of the story. However, that extra month was enough to tinker with the online mode. The game launched with a solo version of the Raid Mode mini-game, but the online features were only added after the full game had been released. With a weekly episodic format, a developer could gain a brief period to perfect the multiplayer experience while players progress through the single-player game.Just this month, another big publisher released a major franchise in an unexpected format. The new Hitman game was scheduled to be shipped as a full game as recently as last December, but it arrived with an “intro pack.” Players who enjoy the Introductory Pack (which is essentially the first episode) can buy an upgrade that will unlock a series of upcoming episodes that are scheduled to arrive over the coming year. Each new episode will take the titular hitman, Agent 47, to exotic new locations where he’ll meet interesting people and kill them for money. Meanwhile, in the real world, players are financing these missions with real money.Major publishers are beginning to act like seasoned hitmen, demanding payment up front before executing the contract.