Does Episodic Content Belong in an MMORPG?

Episodic content has become a video game console mainstay in the current generation. Is there a place for it in MMORPGs?

Video games with episodic or staggered, chapter-based content aren’t anything new, but they definitely seem to be gaining popularity thanks to story-heavy adventure games, like Life Is Strange and Telltale’s The Walking Deadwhich are a perfect medium for an episodic approach. In an episodic video game, the developers release chunks of story in cliffhanger-embracing bits that mimic a television show. The approach makes a whole lot of sense for story-focused games since it keeps players anxiously awaiting the next chapter, plus keeps the content coming in digestible segments. It certainly worked for Capcom’s first episodic venture, Resident Evil Revelation 2, and it’s something Square Enix (publisher of Life Is Strange) is hoping to continue with this month’s Hitman

One game genre that hasn’t received much of an episodic treatment is the MMORPG. New content in MMORPGs tends to come in the form of expansions, of course, and periodic patch releases. Patches don’t typically have a great deal of story content attached to them, however, and instead focus on minimal story content along with new areas to explore, new progression methods, new dungeons/raids, and new gear. Star Wars: The Old Republic recently decided to try out the episodic approach in their Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, which was released in October 2015. The premise is simple—every few months, players will get a new chapter that advances the story the expansion set in motion.

On paper, the idea is pretty cool—and ideal for the SWTOR franchise. SWTOR has always been a story-heavy MMORPG—more so than most MMORPGs on the market currently. It’s a promising concept, and one that the developers pretty much banked on with the release of Knights of the Fallen Empire. The expansion’s endgame content—besides the promise of future story chapters—is a bit on the slim side, though. As I mentioned in my KotFE review, this development decision was indeed a risk since the expansion leans so heavily on that promise of episodic content and story.

“Chapter X: Anarchy in Paradise” is the expansion’s first story-based episode/chapter, which was released in early February. Players have waited months, contending with KotFE’s sparse endgame content in the meantime, hoping for new content that would make the wait worthwhile. Was Chapter X worth the wait? Unfortunately, no. We saw the return of a favorite (and badass) side character, which was pretty cool, but that’s… about it. Oh, and a hint of planets turning into dust. We didn’t see this dust, mind you. But hey, we heard about it.

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So what was the issue? Episodic content, much like my earlier comparison to TV shows, only works when each episode is actually worth watching/playing through. TV shows are created with the season’s overall structure in mind, so plot elements and surprises are hidden throughout, giving viewers a reason to stay tuned in every week. It’s arguably tougher to write for a TV show than for a movie, but the basic idea is that every episode has to drive the plot forward, otherwise those individual episodes risk falling flat—along with the entire show.

Similarly, when games like The Walking Dead or Life Is Strange are being developed, they’re written with each individual episode in mind. How will each drive the plot forward? Furthermore, how will the player’s actions drive the plot forward? This last bit is integral for excellent video game storytelling. Exploration-based adventure games are ideal for episodic content since they’re story-heavy, but also typically light in action/combat sequences, giving developers room to actually make sure that the player’s actions drive the plot forward.

The number one issue with “Anarchy in Paradise” is that the player does nothing to truly move the plot of the expansion forward other than collect another ally that might be useful at some point. We do see the overarching plot advance via those planets turning into dust, but that isn’t something the player has any control over whatsoever. We’re not there when it happens. We don’t even see it happening on-screen. We just hear NPCs chatting about it. That’s a failure of storytelling 101 right there. Ever heard the phrase “show, not tell?” Plot advancements should be shown in some manner. Or better yet, experienced directly by the player. Not merely mentioned.

Another requirement of episodic content is one that’s rather simple, but easy to overlook. Each episode must hold its own value and teach or reveal something new to the player and/or viewer. TV writers achieve this by withholding pivotal information until a later episode or by slowly revealing interesting backstory. Video game writers can do this in the same fashion. In Life Is Strange, this is achieved by slowly revealing how deep the friendship between Max and Chloe goes and by unlocking Max’s powers bit by bit. In most of Telltale’s games, we get a stronger foundation of character backstory and a larger image of what exactly is at stake within the overall story and based on the decisions made.

In SWTOR’s “Anarchy in Paradise,” we get nothing of the sort. We find out nothing new about the Fallen Empire (unless you count the realization that Vaylin seems a little… unhappy with her brother’s decisions) or nothing new about the fledging alliance. We already knew that ally-collecting was going to be the next step in building our alliance, but an entire chapter focused around grabbing one ally? It starts off as a weak premise and doesn’t quite pick up by the end of the chapter, as you realize you’ve spent under two hours following Kaliyo around and the chapter’s over already.

The chapter’s story gets a little more interesting when playing as an Imperial Agent due to the Agent’s ties with Kaliyo, but not interesting enough to turn a weak premise into one that’s wholly compelling. Compelling story shouldn’t depend on player class to begin with. To make matters worse, the combat encounters in this chapter are rather boring and not even remotely challenging, even for my DPS Guardian, who had no raid gear whatsoever.

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Some players have complained that player decisions in “Anarchy in Paradise” have no impact whatsoever, and while I would say that choice doesn’t seem to matter a great deal in this particular chapter, I will hold back on saying those choices have no impact at all until I play through the later chapters. One of the most interesting opportunities BioWare has here is to make player decisions matter during later chapters—when things should start to get more interesting. That said, overall, “Anarchy in Paradise” was rather disappointing. With any luck, the story will pick up significantly in the next chapters (the next, “Disavowed,” is set to be released on March 10).

Given the issues with Knights of the Fallen Empire’s first episodic chapter, is it safe to say that chapter-based content doesn’t belong in an MMORPG? Nope. In fact, I would argue the opposite. BioWare had/has some great opportunities here. Episodic content can add a lot to an MMORPG if created well. Content released in story-based episodes encourages players to stay interested in the story, but each episode has to add value to the game and be strong enough to stand alone as new content.

Each episode also has to build up from the original game/expansion. If, for instance, KotFE’s chapters each added a teeny bit of map content that could be fully explored on the planet that serves as the alliance’s base, that would have been awesome since it’d allow players to explore new areas in addition to experiencing new story content. As it stands, the chapters (so far at least) give explorers absolutely nothing new to do. As I argue in my rather critical editorial regarding how SWTOR can be improved as an MMORPG, exploration-based content needs to be a large focus of an MMORPG. SWTOR currently swings far too heavy towards story and doesn’t offer enough content in regards to endgame or exploration-based content.

Both Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft have toyed with the idea of episodic content in the past. World of Warcraft has probably accomplished this the most successfully within Mists of Pandaria’s The Thunder King (5.2) patch. While all of the patch’s new story/exploration-based content was technically released on patch day, all of it wasn’t accessible until players completed a certain amount of objectives per day in the new area. As these objectives were completed, additional exploration areas were freed up, giving players more content and new daily quests to undertake.

New story also became available through short single-player scenarios. This worked well since it gave players something new to experience story-wise and exploration-wise. That’s a good balance for an MMORPG. The content also came quick enough as to encourage players to not lose their focus. One huge risk in releasing episodic content in an MMORPG is releasing content too slowly. MMORPG gamers need to become and stay invested in their games of choice. When you take away their reason to stay invested, with mediocre content or a slow release schedule, it becomes increasingly simple for your fans to wander off to greener pastures. This, coincidentally, is also why endgame content is so important. Any episodic content should add more endgame content to the game. MoP’s Isle of Thunder accomplished this goal perfectly.

With careful planning and an approach that balances story with exploration-based content that also focuses on endgame, an MMORPG with episodic content could do extremely well. It’d give us a reason to frequently check in with our favorite games, even if we’re playing other MMORPGs at the same time. More importantly, it’d give us a reason to feel invested in the current content we might otherwise be kind of bored with. The promise of something new, as we’ve seen with every World of Warcraft expansion, brings players back or keeps them around for more adventures.

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One of the largest issues with how current MMORPGs patches tend to be organized is the fact that there’s commonly a quick flood of new content followed by a rather large lull in between. Episodic content would create a better pace—one that’s a little more relaxed, but also more immersive and a little more interesting. It would kind of be like exploring the world of a Telltale game, but with dungeons, guilds, epic shinies, and goofy trade chat. Sign me up.

Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.