Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Game Divided

Valve and Blizzard are two developers that vindicate the nerve-wracking and insufferably pious “we’ll release it when it’s done” mentality. They will tease their fans, break promises, play hot and cold with screenshots and videos until entire forums threaten suicide. But when they deliver, they deliver a near-perfect product. Half Life 2 took six years, and it’s one of the best First Person Shooters ever. Gamers are inclined to forgive missed deadlines because they know their patience will be rewarded.

Listen: I love these studios. They mock and abuse me, but their products define the medium and set the pace for the industry. But in choosing to release their flagship titles episodically, they may have shot themselves in the foot. Gamers will wait three or four years for a single, cohesive game. Will they wait five or six years for three shorter, potentially discordant games, each increasingly alienated by the industry rushing around it?

Valve more or less invented the episodic format with their Half Life 2 series. HL2 was released in November 2004 after a particularly traumatic development process involving leaked code, a hacker, and even an FBI sting operation. Newell and his crew decided to try something different: Instead of releasing a 15-hour that would require three to four years of development, the next Half Life game would be released as three five-hour “episodes” in the same amount of time.

“If we were going to continue our trend with Half-Life 3 we would basically ship after we had all retired,” said Newell in a June 6 2006 interview with Eurogamer. “We're trying to come up with a better way of getting more timely updates to our customers and also come up with something that didn't have the complexities.”

Half Life 2: Episode One was originally slated for release at the end of summer 2005. Not one to disappoint, Valve missed its deadline by almost a year, releasing the five-hour game on June 1 2006. While on par with HL2, the offering was obviously slight. Critics noted that in order for the episodic format to work, Episode Two would have to be sturdier, and come sooner. They were somewhat assuaged by the fact that Two was developed alongside One, and was promised to arrive in a few minutes. With pizza.

Instead, it came to gamers more than a year after Episode One, making landfall on Oct. 17 2007. To its credit, the game was longer, better, and bundled in one of the best deals in gaming history, The Orange Box. Calling out Valve on its tardiness seemed ungrateful; after all, we had Portal. We had Team Fortress 2, as well. Valve had been investing considerable time and resources into the development of side projects and products. It paid off, and maybe a little too well. Portal overshadowed anything else in the package, including Episode Two. It was like a student upstaging a professor in a packed lecture hall – it smacked of indignity.

With the recent release of Left 4 Dead, Half Life fans are all but shouting to be heard: Where is Episode Three? Where is the new engine? Gabe, have you forsaken us? Both Newell and Doug Lombardi are mum on the topic of Episode Three. Valve is a developer forever surrounded by scaffolding, little sparks leaping over the drapes 24/7 – but what’s behind it? Valve committed to a story arc when they started this, and abandoning it now is both an embarrassing admission of failure and a crippling plot hole.

Episode Three needs to happen, but there’s the problem of the Source Engine. Portal and Team Fortress 2 deflected graphics criticism through unique art styles, and Left 4 Dead ducked the problem with frenetic gameplay – but not entirely. What was good in Episode Two is now merely forgivable. Episode Three is either half-finished, or Valve needs to put its developers on a death schedule right now – otherwise, Episode Three is going to be the old guy playing touch football: out of shape, out of shape and generally embarrassing to its former self.

Blizzard may be walking into the same quagmire. At Blizzcon 08, they announced that Starcraft II, for which fans had already been waiting swooningly for more than a year, will be split into three games, one for each race. The Terran game, Wings of Liberty, will be first.

The news was widely received as a blow, but there was the lingering hope that Blizzard would redeem itself by releasing Wings of Liberty if not that minute, then certainly that week.

Wings of Liberty release date? When it’s done.

Furthermore, it will be a full game, and so will Heart of the Swarm, the Zerg game, or Legacy of the Void, the Protoss game. We can expect an equally long development time for each – or can we? It doesn’t matter. Blizzard will develop at its own pace. It may take nearly a decade for the Starcraft II saga to complete.

Developers like Valve and Blizzard are tragically unsuited for the episodic model – tragically, because they may end up damaging two of gaming’s most venerable franchises in their attempt to divide what should be whole. Smaller games like Sam and Max and Penny Arcade Adventures can be produced efficiently and effectively – they’re simple, fun ditties. Half Life and Starcraft are titans. Their thunder should not be rolled under the din of passing time.