Episodic Content as the Future of Story-driven RPGs

Last week Square Enix gave a first look at the highly anticipated Final Fantasy VII remake. They also shared several details. FFVII was an influential game back in the day, so the anticipation and hype surrounding the remake are already sky-high. Square has made it clear that not everything will be the same. It can’t be. The graphically enhanced version of the original on PS4 or PC still runs fine, so go play that if you want one and the same game. The remake will be different, the same approach on the same scale as AAA RPGs nowadays just wouldn’t work.

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One of the most discussed changes is the change in format: Final Fantasy VII remake will be delivered in episodes.

What? FFVII won’t be a single game? Is Square Enix milking their franchises? Can this be any good? Many people are losing their heads about this, so I’m going to try to explain that episodic content might be one of the best decisions for future AAA RPGs, and a solution to a problem of immersion that I’ve been asking myself for a long time.

Game industry is changing

Many aspects of game development (I know, not all) were much simpler back in the day. Graphics were simpler, team sizes were smaller, budgets were smaller and competition was minimal. Nowadays much more is at stake. Game worlds grow more voluminous and in many cases work has to be outsourced, graphics near photorealism and expectations for gameplay, audio and game content rise sky-high. On top of that, you need to promote your game, sometimes also taking up a huge chunk of a AAA game’s already astronomical budget. For AAA RPGs, it’s not feasible to create a game world of the same scope as traditional RPGs, with modern production values. It’s just too costly and time consuming, so cuts and sacrifices have to be made.

This results in some games with a good story, but lacking depth in gameplay, or vice-versa, or mandatory sequels that reuse content as an easy way of making some extra cash. In many cases developers try to find other ways to make money and release smaller (mobile) games, adding DLC or micro transactions or working with a monthly subscription to cover the expenses of these bigger games. Using episodic content is a good alternative to this, and frankly, the only alternative for AAA RPGs wanting to keep the depth, story and qualities of traditional RPGs without having to make any sacrifices.

To quote producer Kitase-san and Nomura-san on the recent announcement of episodic content in the Final Fantasy VII remake:

Nomura: “If we dedicated our time to a single release, parts of it would become summarized. We’d have to cut some parts, and additional parts would come in few, so rather than remake the game as a full volume, we decided to do multiple parts.”

Kitase: “As you can see in the trailer, we showed Sector 1 and Sector 8, but in those areas alone, I think you can see a lot of density. When you’re remaking the entirety of the original version in that quality, it’s not possible to fit it all in one release.”

Before moving on to more text, take another look at the recent Final Fantasy VII Remake gameplay trailer (for the record, already seen over 2 million times, the highest view count of all PlayStation Experience event trailers).

In the mood? Put on the FFVII soundtrack and read on for some advantages of episodic content in RPGs.

People are changing: Maintaining long-term player connection and accessibility

I feel that it’s sometimes daunting to jump into a big RPG that needs a large chunk of your time and dedication. People nowadays don’t always have enough time or motivation to play big games in one go, and prefer games of a shorter play length of 10-15 hours. Big RPGs also tend to add filler sections designed to extend playtime but not providing much value or adding to the story, and some people easily stop playing during these “boring” sections of the game and move to the next. People (and a large part of the RPG-target demographic) are busy with work, school or parenthood, and surrounded with loads of information and easily lose interest nowadays.

With episodic RPG releases around, say 15-20 hours, the window for a player to lose interest in the game decreases, and the game can be played in a normal timeframe.  When the episode is finished there should be enough optional things left to do, modern RPGs should be designed in a more open fashion anyway, a game like “Final Hallway simulator” just doesn’t work in this age (unless it’s a really tight and story-driven experience).

Furthermore having to wait for the next episode also allows for discussion and speculation on how the story will develop, and gets you emotional attached to the game, wanting the next episode to release to continue. This also might encourage players to revisit the episode they’ve finished and explore every nook and cranny for secrets they otherwise might’ve missed when playing a full 60+ hour game that tends to move you from one location to the other at a fast pace.

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Pretty sure these two minor characters will get much more attention and backstory in the remake

Feedback loop and episode length

RPGs could implement feedback from the previous episode into the next. To be honest, people aren’t game designers and it’s dangerous to listen to player feedback too much, but still, some high level mistakes only emerge when a developer distances himself and plays the full polished game in one go. It doesn’t hurt to improve the next episode, but it shouldn’t be drastically different and players shouldn’t have a full say in what will happen next. In the end it’s still multiple episodes of the same game after all, and they should be coherent.

It’s worth noting that episodes of an RPG should be considerably longer than other episodic games such as Life is Strange or The Walking Dead. It’s an RPG after all. Something like one disc of Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy IX would be great.  I would say one disc of Final Fantasy VII remade as a modern game, with added content/locations could easily take 20-40 hours to complete. A good deal considering that’s only one part of the full game, that might otherwise be crammed into that same timeframe if the game was release/rushed as one game.

Not going bankrupt

If you’d take something like the original FFVII and remake that for the current generation, it simply would be too massive and big an undertaking to do as one game. The time to finish the old FFVII would be much shorter than to finish the remake.

FFVII1

To put things in perspective, there are about 70 different locations in Final Fantasy VII, all which have to be reimagined in 3D, with added content, cutscenes, voice acting and all their minigames, not to mention the absurd amount of props. This is a Behemoth task which would eat up a huge amount of budget and time, and it’s just not feasible without compromising on some things. Final Fantasy XIII has 25 locations and still was a pretty long game. Compare that to FFVII’s ~70 locations and you might see why this wouldn’t work out as a single HD game.

On FFVII

But wait… Square said each episode will have the volume of content equal to a full-sized game. These games can still take 40-60 hours to play but in FFVII that would not be enough to cover the entire story, and frankly, FFVII deserves more time. Dividing FFVII up in episodes but really fleshing out the story/gameplay in each episode is something I’d like instead of them rushing some areas to fit everything in one game.

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I know what I’ve said about RPGs being rushed is not true for all, there have been some successful RPGs developed in one go, but this becomes increasingly difficult when wanting to maintain this next-gen quality. I feel like the Japanese RPG sector has been in a decline lately, part because Japanese developers had a hard time adapting to HD game development, but also because they couldn’t properly make the transition between SD (PS1-PS2) and HD (PS3-PS4) game development.

And yes, Unreal Engine 4 is single-handedly saving the Japanese game industry, but that’s another story.

Want some more reading on why the FFVII remake will be different, read Alex Donaldson’s opinion piece on VG247

Almost there

I’m curious to see how this will evolve, how other developers will react to this and what Square’s exact vision of Final Fantasy VII remake episodes entails. With games such as Kingdom Hearts III, Final Fantast XV, Star Ocean 5, Nier: Automata, Final Fantasy VII remake, Ni No Kuni II and more on the horizon, I’m finally pumped and excited about the JRPG genre again.

Originally I was pretty convinced the FFVII remake was more like a homage for fans, something that quickly revisited all important story bits of the original, but now I’m actually more optimistic that Square can, once again, deliver a large and compelling story to fans both old and new, without having to compromise or make pointless spinoffs like they did before. RPGs are about freedom, exploration, player choice and story, and they should never have to be compromised because of time or budget.

 Nick ~

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