Bungie: Harbingers of Episodic Content?
If you are a fan of Halo 2 and haven't seen this yet, go check it out now.
Bungie has officially announced that they'll be releasing 9 new multiplayer maps for Halo 2, some for free, some for sale (though all will be free by the end of the summer). They will be released for download over Xbox Live and also on store shelves as a $19.99 disc.
First off, I have to say that it's really cool to see a prominent developer trying out this sort of business model. Others have certainly dabbled in post release, "premium" content, but to see Bungie/Microsoft pursuing it to this degree gives me hope for the future of game distribution. Although 9 new maps could hardly be called "episodic content," this model could be seen as the first step towards a distribution system that sits somewhere between retail-only releases and constantly updated MMOGs.
I can envision a day (very soon) when a player will buy a $19.99 retail box that includes the game engine and base-level assets, along with, say, the first 5 episodes of the game story. Each episode would be a self-contained set of levels. Episodes would be tied together with an overarching theme or story. After release, the developer would release new episodes for purchase (download or at retail) on a regular schedule, once-a-month, for instance. Episodes could cost $5 or less. With this model, developers and publishers would have a chance at making more than the standard $50 on a single game, and by using the same engine for what could be more than a single game's worth of content, the developer stretches technology farther.
From there, it's not to hard to imagine games that have no retail releases, just online, downloadable episodes. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.
These are not new ideas.