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With the current news swirling around the re-release of Final Fantasy VII, the topic of episodic game releases has been brought up again. Are these good for gamers? Are they bad? Is this just another way for publishers and devs to trick consumers out of more money, or is there a good reason for games to be released in this way? Voice your thoughts in the comments, but first my opinion.
So for those who don’t know, Square Enix, developer of the long lived and more recently slow to die Final Fantasy franchise has announced a remake of the widely loved, 1997, JRPG classic, Final Fantasy VII. In the last week they’ve also announced that the game will have an episodic release, meaning it will be sold in parts over a longer period of time, not simply hitting selves all at once. How many episodes this will be, the amount of content in each, what sort of release schedule they’ll have, and how much each will cost seems to be a mystery.
Some have speculated three episodes, keeping in line with the three discs the game was originally released on, but that’s pretty arbitrary since back then the discs were all sold together as one product, and were used out of necessity to hold what was the biggest game ever released at that time. Others have speculated the price per episode will be $80 (Canadian; $60 US) divided by the number of episodes, making the complete game cost the same as any other new game, but there is nothing to back up this assertion, especially considered Square themselves have claimed that each episode will have a full games’ worth of content. Basically, the whole thing is speculative mess for games media to jump on, and Square isn’t helping much by holding back key information. It seems to me that something like this should be handled very upfrontly, and Square should announce these things now, before their game gets muddied by negative speculation. Unless they’ve gone full Ubisoft on us, the truth can’t be as bad as some of the things being said.
Anyway, this isn’t about FF7 in particular, but rather the general concept of episodic games. I’ve written about this before, in regards to genres of games that have come to be accepted as episodic –Visual Novels and Telltale’s games– and said that the only thing wrong with them is the much too slow and unpredictable release schedules. But there is an obvious difference between The Walking Dead and a AAA JRPG, so we’re going to have to look at the situation differently.
First, the best argument in favour of episodic releases. Presuming the overall price isn’t raised at all (that is, a 4 episode game would be sold at $20 CAD $15US per episode), this doesn’t impose any new cost on the consumer, and is in fact better for gamers. Rather than pay for a full game only to later find out you don’t like it, with an episodic game you can buy just the first part to see if the rest is worth it. This can save you the majority of the cost of a game that turns out to be bad, and would stop developers from trying to release a game before reviewers have seen it. People will know whether or not he game sucks after only paying a fraction of the usual cost.
While this is all good in theory, there’s really no way of saying how the model would develop. If games are released episodically, that would completely change their scope. Say there’s a developer who planned to release their new game in three episodes at around $27 ($20 US) each. But, due to the game’s popularity and demand from fans, the developer decides to make a fourth episode, but has already set the price per episode. Now this game in full will cost much more than a standard retail game today. That’s just no way of trying to say the price will, or even should stay the same under an episodic model, so it’s very hard to compare.
Also, VNs and earlier Telltale games have a very good reason for their episodic releases. For one, they’re made on small budgets that couldn’t support the scope of the project under a traditional model, so they need revenue and a show of demand throughout in order to get made. Square Enix obviously doesn’t face this problem. Second, they are not just episodically released, they are, in their essence, episodic. It’s not just a business model, it’s their storytelling structure.
Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is a much more consistent, single story that cannot be consumed in isolated parts, as is the case with most games in general, and JRPGs in specific. This isn’t limited to story, the leveling structure and gameplay of RPGs requires that players move through the whole game and get the whole experience. There’s a reason games have a learning curve, it varies the gameplay to train and improve the player while consistently providing a challenge. It just doesn’t work in parts.
Under this assessment, there are really only two possible reasons for someone two buy the first episode of the Final Fantasy VII remake. Either they plan to eventually buy the entire game, or they’re buying it as a demo to see if they’d like the full game, and that’s where the issue really is for me. While episodic games could protect gamers from crap rushed for release without letting reviewers see it, for the vast majority of games it would only make the first episode a paid-for demo. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be patient and wait a few days for reviews, than contribute to the continuing destruction of games criticism by developers by giving them my money for a trial run. But that’s just me. Let me know what you think.