Why episodic gaming and virtual reality are a match made in heaven

Living a virtual life, one reasonably priced chapter at a time

I’m not a fan of episodic games. Even when the total price of a seven-or-so chapter game adds up to the same amount as if I’d bought it outright, I can’t help but feel conned. Almost a tenner for an hour long slice of game? Get out of here! 

There have of course been great episodic games, none more obvious than the superb success that Telltale has had with its The Walking Dead series and other licensed properties, ranging from Game of Thrones to Jurassic Park, which weave a story through a modernised take on the point-and-click genre. But for every Telltale success, there’s a Kings Quest leaving huge gaps between episodes which break the flow of story, or titles that remain unfinished altogether, as with D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die.

After 10 years of episodic gaming and with the advent of virtual reality, I think episodic content may have found its perfect home. And it’s all down to your wallet - and your stomach.

Life with VR

I’ve been living with PlayStation VR for just over a week now, and, as you’ll already know from our hardware review, it’s amazing. It’s not quite as powerful as its PC-based rivals, but is accessible in its price and set-up, and truly isn’t far off what the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift experiences offer in terms of fresh, immersive gaming opportunities.

However, with a few exceptions like Eve: Valkyrie and Battlezone, I was initially worried that many of the games on sale for the headset we’re worryingly short. Most could be seen through to their conclusion within a few hours, and though the budget pricing often reflected this the fear was that there wouldn’t be much meat left to chew after that initial launch weekend and the headset would gather dust.

But once I actually started playing, it turns out that these complaints not only went out the window, but are pretty much irrelevant.

Take Batman: Arkham VR. Its core game (not including second play through Riddler puzzles) lasts about an hour and a half. And you know what? For the price of a cinema ticket, I’m now of the belief that that’s totally fine. Batman Arkham VR is one of the most intense gaming experience’s I’ve ever had, purely thanks to the virtual reality technology underpinning it. Putting on the cape and cowl (as literally as VR allows for) and delving deep into a fully-realised Bat Cave, coming face to face with the Joker - it was an incredible hour and a half’s worth of lifetime wish fulfilment for this wannabe Dark Knight.

And it turns out that an hour and half was around the perfect length too. Allowing for a quick toilet break, I finished the game in one fully-immersed sitting. While the initial VR awe may eventually wear off, it was a more rewarding 90 minutes of fun than I’d often get from the same spend at my local cinema.

VR goes episodic

So where’s episodic content come in? I was left wanting more. I got a taste of being the Bat, but didn’t I didn’t get to drive the Batmobile, I didn’t see Two Face or Catwoman, I didn’t get to use the shark repellant (!). 

But I also couldn’t handle more than that 90 minute stretch in the headset. PlayStation VR is very comfortable, and Batman: Arkham VR is well optimised so as to prevent nauseating side-effects related to VR motion sickness. But it’s still a stand-up-to-play title, and having a screen strapped in front of your eyes (especially one throwing up the odd jump scare) is both physically and emotionally tiring.

I want to jump back in, but don’t want to go back over old ground. So I’d be well prepared to pay the same again for another full-on 90 minutes. In that respect, for me, the goalposts have moved in terms of what I’m prepared to pay for an episodic title, given the immersive qualities of VR.

And it puts a surprising amount of power in the hands of gamers. You can speak with your wallet – if a game proves technically inept, causing motion sickness, or shoehorning a gameplay type into a VR format it’s ill-suited to then, well, you simply don’t buy the next chapter. 

Likewise, as we all have our favourite gaming genres outside of virtual reality, the format challenges expectations and mechanics within established gameplay forms. Any eventual Call of Duty: VR game is unlikely to be the same as the CoD you’re playing now, but you may find yourself tempted just by the familiarity of the brand. Should it prove to be drastically removed from your expectations, you’ve not committed to a full-price purchase to get a taste of any fun that may be waiting for you inside that headset.

There are wins to be had for developers too. Virtual reality is a fledgling, nascent technology, only just really starting to blossom. There’s a tentatively intrigued potential user base waiting in the wings, but the headsets and associated peripherals are costly (even for the relatively affordable PlayStation VR) and thus only hardcore early adopters have as yet jumped on board. This leads to a chicken-and-egg dilemma for game devs – building even a standard game from scratch, at least one with a vestige of premium production values, is an incredibly expensive endeavour. How can you justify the expense of building a new game for an unproven platform, one that brings with it added expense due to the nature of its required technology, when its potential audience is only a tiny slice of the market?

Minimising risk

An episodic approach negates some of this risk. A studio can test the waters with bite-sized chunks of gameplay, trying out slices of ideas without committing to an epic production. Existing franchises can be remixed in VR (ala Batman: Arkham VR) to see what fits best, and, so long as pricing is set at an “impulse buy” rate, you can get it out into the hands of gamers to see what resonates most keenly, what would be worth either spinning out into further episodes or a fully-fledged, full-length VR game.

Of course, there’s a flipside to this theory, at least when it comes to the benefits offered to developers. With episodic content, it’s often the very first episode that costs a studio the most to develop. It’s here where the research and pre-production efforts are most keenly spent, and the hard work of building a working engine is brought to fruition. Further episodes can drip feed cash into the coffers, but it’s that initial outlay that represents the greatest risk.

But the benefits of episodic development still stands in other respects. Virtual reality gaming is uncharted territory for many studios – and for many gamers too. What may seem like a good idea on paper, and even in QA testing, can prove to have quite literally nauseating effects on the masses. An episodic release schedule allows gamers a taste of the VR experience, with the promise that any bugs or stomach-turning flaws can be ironed out in time for the next instalment.

And then there’s Steam Green Light and its ilk, which put out games in an alpha or beta preview state, charge for access, and then crowd source feedback from the paying community so as to fine-tune the direction of the final full-priced game. It’s a business model that’s irked me even more than episodic content in the past but, given the argument above, it too seems well suited to these pioneering early days of VR development.

You only have to look at the somewhat surprising (and surprisingly innovative) episodic Hitman series to know that there’s still unexplored depths to be scoured in gaming in instalments. I’m surprised to admit it, but I think it’ll be within VR chapter where I’ll want to spend the next stage of my gaming life.