A video game company would need a truckload of chutzpah to release a first-person shooter in the wake of "Halo 3."
Such a company would have to be absolutely sure its game had enough fun and value to compete with arguably the biggest title of the holiday season, which launched to first-day sales of $170 million, according to its publisher Microsoft.
Valve, makers of the best-selling "Half-Life" series of PC shooters, is convinced its "Orange Box," launching on the PC, and for the first time, on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and is such a game.
After all, they've stared down "Halo’s" hero Master Chief before, and came out pretty well. Valve's "Half-Life 2" debuted next to "Halo 2" in November 2004 and went on to sell more than six million copies worldwide.
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But this time, the prelude to the showdown is different. The marketing blitz for "Halo 3" outstrips any video game launch bonanza to date. There is no "Orange Box"-themed Mountain Dew cooling at the corner convenience store. Wal-Mart is not opening up dedicated checkout lanes at midnight for "Orange Box." "Orange Box" isn't painted all over a NASCAR stock car.
As popular as "Half-Life" is with PC gamers, the name doesn't play outside the already converted. “Halo,” on the other hand, has achieved rare cachet, becoming synonymous with the Xbox platform in the same way Mario has with Nintendo.
To counter the "Halo 3" juggernaut and turn heads, Valve is stuffing its "Orange Box," due out October 10, with more content than any other title on the shelves this holiday — there are five games inside the package.
The stars of "Orange Box" are three previously unreleased games: "Portal," "Team Fortress 2," and "Half-Life 2: Episode Two." The latter continues the "Half-Life" storyline, while the other two titles are set outside that universe. As a bonus, “Orange Box” contains "Half-Life 2" and "Half-Life 2: Episode 1," an additional chapter that Valve sold on Steam, its downloadable gaming service.
"Portal" is a first-person game with heavy puzzle elements. Using holes in walls, ceilings and floors, players must run through a complex maze, sometimes even catching up with themselves as they melt through surfaces via the titular portals. "Team Fortress 2" is a multiplayer romp that divides different classes of warriors into teams and lets them have at it with very large guns.
Two of these games, "Team Fortress 2" and "Portal," could be released as standalone titles. At what point does a company cross the threshold between adding value and just giving away the store?
The disparity between sales of PC games and that of the vastly more popular console games may have prompted the new direction. Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Lazard Capital, said he believes that Valve's bundling is a means to make headway in the console market, a sector that Valve has rarely courted directly until now.
PC game sales totaled almost a billion dollars in 2006, but that is a significantly smaller figure than the $4.8 raked in by console-based games over the same period.
"The PC game market has not grown as quickly as the console market," says Sebastian. "The top titles on consoles sell better than the top titles on PC."
Bundling PC games has worked for Valve in the past. Just as the first "Team Fortress" was to ship in 1999, Valve decided instead to add the full version of the original "Half-Life" and call the entire package "Half-Life: Game of the Year Edition." The release took the number one spot on game sales charts and sold more copies of "Half-Life" than in the initial release in late 1998.
What remains to be seen is whether console gamers will cotton to Valve's game bundling the same way that PC gamers have.
Should consumers not react to "Orange Box" as hoped, says Valve's Doug Lombardi, the company can always break the package into its separate components and sell them individually over its Steam service. Valve could also strike deals with Microsoft and Sony to sell the content over their respective networks — Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.
"They are definite proponents of digital downloading," says Sebastian, referring to Valve's Steam service. "Perhaps they're trying to seed an install base of users and follow that up with additional content."
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are the first generation of gaming hardware to really expose console gamers to buying entire games over the Internet. Sony released its full-featured action game "Warhawk" on the PlayStation Network in August. Exposure to Valve's content via something like "Orange Box" could drive more gamers to investigate Steam.
However, the mainstream crowd, which drives the sales of consoles, may not see as far beyond the box as Valve. As they walk through the aisles of games this holiday season, all that may jump out at them is one oddly named game on a shelf — while the other was worthy of its own soda.
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