Here’s an old article I wrote right around the time Half-Life 2: Episode 2 released. It’s interesting to read now in retrospective with what Valve is doing with Left 4 Dead 2. Many gamers believe L4D2 should be released as an add-on to Left 4 Dead rather than a standalone installment.
Valve Software is one of my favorite developers. That’s why my excitement for The Orange Box was nearly on par with my hype for Halo 3 (I think I can already hear fanboys yelling “blasphemy” in the distance). It goes without doubt that the Half-Life franchise is one of the best in its respective genre. Despite this, many of Half-Life’s followers questioned Valve’s decision to take the episodic content route. Was it the right thing to do for both the developer and the fans? Let’s take a look.
Following the release of the critically acclaimed Half-Life 2, Valve originally intended to release an expansion pack entitled Half-Life 2: Aftermath. Later on in the development process, they decided to create multiple episodes rather than a single product that, together, would extend Half-Life 2’s storyline. This was a clear nod to the company’s new episodic-distribution structure, headed by its successful Steam platform.
The primary reasoning for episodic content was that it avoided the issue of painfully long development time, but many argued that it was simply a money-farming scheme because Aftermath was supposed to retail for around $30, and they speculated that it would cost more to buy three separate episodes. However, it was argued that, in reality, the cost of the three episodes Valve planned on releasing would be equivalent to what Aftermath would cost, considering each episode would retail around $10.00. This proved to be false as Episode One originally sold for $19.99 (it was later reduced to $9.95 on Steam), but it was also argued that the value of the episodes shouldn’t be disputed until all three are put into perspective.
Despite the controversy, Episode One was well-received. Among its immense success came immense anticipation for its successor, which appeared in Valve’s most recent title, or rather, compilation, The Orange Box, which appeared on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The Orange Box includes Half-Life 2, Episodes One and Two, Portal and the long-awaited Team Fortress 2. It is, according to Valve co-founder Gabe Newell, what grew out of the experiments they’ve been doing with episodic content. It was intended to allow smaller, easier-to-manage projects to be developed, which further enabled them to “take some of the risk out of the financial side and the project-scale side and put some of the risk back into game design.” This grants them more room to try more experimental things, such as the cartoon-style art direction taken in Team Fortress 2.
“Some of the challenges of having, you know, in the case of Orange Box, five different games going into a single box, it actually ends up being easier because having smaller teams that are really focused rather than having to spread their attention across years and years of development, it’s just a lot easier,” Newell mentioned in an interview. “It’s easier on the team. They have more fun; they can feel like they’re getting things out to customers sooner, so it’s actually an easier project for us than, say, the five years that we went through on Half-Life 2. I think it’s the most exciting set of products we’ve put together since we’ve been a company.”
The idea of episodic content makes sense, but the question still remains: are people willing to switch over to this new concept just yet? PC gamers have been dealing with this style of distribution for years, so there’s no doubt that they are ready. Console gamers, on the other hand, have always been used to owning a hard copy of everything they buy, that is, until the addition of integrated online services such as Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Wii Shop. Not only do these platforms open up new opportunities for consoles, but they introduce the downloadable-distribution method. Despite this, full-fledged episodic content has yet to really be encountered on consoles. Sure, games may have a small expansion here or there available for download, but we’ve never seen a regular occurrence of expansion installments.
A primary concern for distributors is price point. Providing small pieces of content is something that’s never really been done before, so price is something that has to be experimented with before it can be set in stone. If you’re an Elder Scrolls fan, you may recall the ridiculous cost of downloading horse armor in Oblivion. This was something that caused quite a stir in the Xbox Live community for how insignificant it was. But in reality, it wasn’t insignificant. It was an event that, at least for Bethesda, set the bar (albeit in the wrong spot).
Going back to Half-Life, with the release of Episode Two, people are already wondering about Episode Three. “[With Episode Three], we know how the trilogy ends, says Newell, “and there are a bunch of loose ends and narrative arcs that need to come to a conclusion in Episode Three, so that’s going to be a big focus for us.”
On the Xbox 360, Episode Three will certainly appear as a download on the Xbox Live Marketplace. It’s supposedly the final chapter in the Half-Life story arc, but with Valve’s expansion into the console scene and its new push towards episodic goodness, we may be seeing more things like this in the future.