This GamePlayer article asks the question: What is episodic content? Well, defining things has always been a fun game to me (it appeals to the scientist in me), so here's my answer.
First, what does the "epi-" mean in "episode"? The epicenter of an earthquake is the surface point directly above the earthquake's origin/center. An epilogue is the last section of a literary work or musical score, usually intended to bring closure to the greater work and often reflective.In literature, the word "epic" originally referred to stories, like Beowulf or The Odyssey, which were long adventures told a segment at a time. In fact, epic stories like those probably represent the first form of episodic content.
Next, what sorts of things do nearly all people accept as episodes? TV episodes can be steps in a linear story, like 24 or Heroes, or they can be related only in their connection to a general setting, like Star Trek or Seinfeld. Certainly, there are episodes of the latter shows which are connected to each other more strongly, but many of them can succeed without any familiarity whatsoever with previous episodes. So episodic content doesn't have to be part of a linear progression.
What about the timeliness of delivery? Episodic content encourages, but perhaps does not require, multiple occasions of delivery; and the delivery doesn't have to be regular.
Take Beowulf, for example. From what I remember, I doubt most students who have to read that epic poem in school think of it as episodic. That's because they don't absorb the tale in sections; they read straight through (stopping wherever the teacher thinks the endurance of the students will fail). Dividing a tale into segments doesn't force an audience to perceive hard distinctions between sections. It's like reading a thrilling book and leaping to the next chapter with hardly any notice of the break. Beowulf was episodic when it was first delivered by a poet over a series of nights, but not so much anymore. By contrast, the break between the first Jurassic Park film and the second would be noticed even if one began playing directly after the other. Delivery is often a factor, but it's not always a necessary part of episodic content.
As for regularity, think back to epic stories. If the poet delivers a bit of a story every night, that's cerainly episodic. But if he delivers the story at random intervals, does that mean it's not episodic? I don't think so. The progression of Alien films could be called episodic, despite that they were not produced in regular intervals. Likewise, wouldn't the Everquest expansions count as episodic content? Afterall, each expansion facilitated the continuation of a single player experience. Couldn't a veteran player's experience, which spanned many years and multiple expansions, be rightfully considered epic? If so, couldn't that be translated as episodic in the same way as the epic stories of literature?
Honestly, I think there's room for reasonable disagreement here. But am I far off?
One last thing. Episodic content may not have to be story-related. There's some grey area there, because stories don't have to involve dialogue or absolute linearity. I frequently talk about player adventures as narratives when their experiences are unrelated to scripted stories. But my point is that maybe "episodic content" can refer to item-based, physics-based, and otherwise non-story additions to gameplay which are clearly an extension of some kind to an old setting. The extension doesn't have to be progressive, but the two must be obviously bound. Perhaps the series of Mario and Zelda adventure games are good examples of this. Each new Mario game contains similar characters, but those games are focused on mechanics. The gameplay changes from one to the other, but the general style of gameplay, the philosophy behind it (broadly accessible, upbeat, environmental puzzles, simple whack-a-mole action, etc), remains the same.
.... Really, I'm not too proud of this article. =/ But at least it's a good challenge, right? What do you think makes game content episodic?