Episodic Sequels

Recently I watched a gameplay exposition and review for the upcoming Total War: Warhammer II video game, the highly anticipated sequel to Creative Assembly’s landmark title, Total War: Warhammer, set to release on September 28th.  The review itself was straightforward and highly informative and I had no trouble with it.  However it brought up an interesting point that relates directly to the nature of episodic titles in video games.
An episodic series of video games is a run of at least two titles with a single, overarching plot that runs through each title, tying the series’ storyline, characters, and even mechanics and themes together across the series.  Normally the release dates, intended consoles, and even genre of the titles don’t define if a title is part of the episodic series; content is the only determining factor.  Yet perhaps the most important aspect of an episodic series versus a franchise or saga is the proximity of each title’s release to the releases of the other titles in the series.  It’s not enough to share the title, setting, and mechanics of prequels and sequels; an episodic title must be an indispensable part of a larger whole.
In the review noted above the author commented that Total War: Warhammer II, while more polished and greatly expanded than its predecessor, was essentially the same game.  Mechanics, graphics, and user interface had not undergone any dramatic changes and had not received any significant technological advancements.  There’s no harm in expecting such development in a sequel, but the reviewer seemed to suggest that Warhammer II would only be a worthwhile product if it included such advanced changes and upgrades.
Thus is a critical difference between episodic titles and traditional sequels revealed.  From the beginning Creative Assembly had made it known that the Total War: Warhammer series would be a trilogy of interconnected titles.  During the development process Creative Assembly had also announced that Warhammer II would feature an update that would link the grand campaign single player modes of the two titles to form a unified whole.  This is one of the purest examples of episodic titles that can be found in the modern market.
Warhammer II specifically, and episodic titles in general, are indeed standalone titles and their content should be judged on an individual basis, but their quality should be taken in context of the larger series that they form an essential part of.  The lack of technical and mechanical advancement in Warhammer II doesn’t make it an inferior product, it makes it a direct continuation and expansion to the first part of the Warhammer series of Total War games.  As a stand alone title Warhammer II does include fully developed single and multiplayer components, which it should if its going to be sold at full retail price.  Yet its true potential rests in, and can only be appreciated when taken with, its place in the Warhammer series.
The Starcraft II trilogy also exemplifies these points.  Each title was released in quick succession, featured fully expanded content, and continued the plot and themes of the preceding titles.  Technology and mechanics hardly changed, but they didn’t need to in order to make each title viable and entertaining.
These kinds of endeavors should be encouraged among developers in the gaming community, particularly in the field of strategy games.  Its not unreasonable for design companies to expect gamers to stick with well-made titles if said companies continue to provide large amounts of content at proper rates and intervals, just as it’s not unreasonable for gamers to expect improved graphics and mechanics when a sequel is released four or five years after its predecessor.
Every episodic title is a healthy dose of content that eventually leads up to a massive, dramatic climax and each title should ultimately be judged by the satisfaction of gamers with that climactic finale.  There can be poorly built titles in a perfectly good and successful series, and developers should be held accountable for that, but that is done in the context of content and experience instead of technology.  Warhammer II, with enough content to justify its standalone status, is shaping up to be an exemplary title in what so far has been a very successful endeavor, and a lack of new graphic design or revised mechanics is a small price to pay for a developer to deliver on its promises.