There is some parallelism between episodic games and shareware. But there’s also parallelism between shareware and demo versions. So, does that mean math is right , and there are parallels between episodic games and demo versions? Perhaps.
Shareware was, as the name implied, a software which was distributed for free, and people would give its creator money if they liked it. Sharing and word of mouth made such software popular. In games, its usage was slightly different – because gamers were a lazy bunch, giving them the entire game for free was too risky. Rather than the whole game, you’d get a small part of it. Usually, the story would be divided in three episodes (or sometimes more, but it always started as three – some pirate had an idea on why people always write trilogies, but unfortunately we can’t read that book on Phatt Island). Buying the episodes would also net you access to to hints, cheat codes, and other general support.
Generally speaking, the concept of shareware fell in misuse in the late 90’s already. That’s when demos arrived instead.
Demos didn’t look all that different at a glance. You still got a small part of the game for free, with the promise of more content if you bought the full game. The differences were in presentation – demos usually lacked the sales pitch of shareware – and length. Demos were, often, not even one hour long, and they also lacked features such as multiplayer or support to mods. Sometimes they would even let you play from a point halfway through the game. So in a way, demos were a more limited verson of shareware. Perhaps the fear of giving players too much for free, and risk that they would be content enough with it, was seeping into the developers’ minds. Nintendo has sworn by this fear for a very long time, and only recently gave up (but their idea of “limited demos” would deserve an article of its own).
Before we get into episodic games, a slight detour is necessary. As games grew bigger and more expensive, demos started to fall to the side, just like shareware years earlier. A reprieve was offered by downloadable games, which at the time were pretty much exclusively small titles and arcade ports. Xbox Live Arcade paved the way, and when the 360 launched, Geometry Wars put the service in the spotlight. There was one problem: Microsoft forced all XBLA developers to release a trial version of their games. To keep development costs down, a trial version was almost always the full game, just with a time limit (usually something ridiculous like 10 minutes). Thus the concept of shareware was reborn.
So, episodic games. A lot of people know the format thanks to Telltale and its Sam and Max seasons, but it wasn’t quite the very first use of it. Bone (by the same developers) was released one year earlier, although it didn’t meet with success. SiN Episodes was also released a few months before Sam and Max. But it only received one episode before development was cancelled. Perhaps what Bone and SiN lacked, was the appearance of commitment. Each episode was released by itself. The dog and rabbit-thing duo made things differently: episodes would come out in succession, but you bought an entire season. It proved a lot more successful, and now episodic games are a staple of the industry.
A few times, such as in the case of The Wolf Among Us on XBLA, you would buy the first episode separately, and then buy a season pass that contains the other episodes. In at least an occasion, the single episode has been made free.
And thus we return to the concept of shareware. The present is not that different from the past.