An Episode at a Time Puts Half-Life in the Fast Lane

A scene from Half-Life 2. Delivering the game episodically allows Valve to lessen players' waits.
A scene from Half-Life 2. Delivering the game episodically allows Valve to lessen players' waits.
By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, June 8, 2006

For a form of entertainment that's supposedly all about instant gratification, video games seem to keep fans waiting a long time for the next big thing to arrive.

Take the Half-Life game series from Bellevue, Wash.-based Valve Corp., for example. When Valve's second epic entry in the series hit the market in 2004, fans had been waiting six years for it to come out.

But Valve is exploring a way to cut that enormous wait down to size. Its latest Half-Life title is out now, a mere two years since the previous entry. And it is a partial game, an "episode" in the Half-Life story that represents about four to six hours of play, instead of the usual 20 hours-plus represented by a full game. Two more installments are on the way, in a trilogy scheduled to wrap up by the end of next year.

The game -- with the slightly cumbersome title Half-Life 2: Episode 1 -- also comes with a smaller price tag. Half-Life 2 cost $50 when it was released; the new game costs $20.

Valve co-founder Gabe Newell said that this approach is an experiment and that ultimately the company's fans will decide whether this will be how his company approaches game releases in the future.

"This is an old idea within the game developer community," he said in a phone interview yesterday. Newell said Valve's approach is a natural response to an industry in which budgets and man-hour requirements are growing quickly, and projects with a smaller scope thus have an increasing appeal. "If you want to do a game that's twice as big, it's going to take you four times as long to do it," he said.

But retailers aren't necessarily used to the idea of selling something that a game developer is marketing as only an "episode" of its latest title; that's one reason Valve created an online digital delivery service for games a few years ago. Fans who don't need or want a shrink-wrapped box can pay the company directly and download games through its online service, called Steam.

Buy a copy of the new Half-Life installment at a retailer and publisher Electronic Arts gets a cut; buy it online and that $20 all goes to Valve, since it designed and owns the Steam service. Newell said the new game is selling about 350 copies an hour online, compared with 400 an hour at retail. Valve's Half-Life 2 sold more than 4 million copies.

For the rabid fan, there's a tiny advantage to buying Valve's products through Steam. Those who wanted to play the latest Half-Life content at the soonest possible minute last week -- and there are many such folks -- were able to download most of the game ahead of time. At the designated hour, those copies were unlocked and players were able to launch into the latest adventures of physicist Gordon Freeman, as he and his gravity gun proceed to save the planet again.

Steam is easy enough to use, though download times can be massive -- cutting-edge games do not make for small file sizes. Monday afternoon, it took three hours to download a playable chunk of Episode 1 on my home computer; the rest of it downloaded in the background as I played. At first, the games I downloaded wouldn't play unless my computer was online, an annoying situation that later fixed itself.

For game fans, there's a lot to like about the prospect of digital game delivery services like Steam whether or not they count themselves fans of Half-Life. Valve not only distributes its own games through the service, it also makes available games by other developers. Some of those companies have licensed Valve's technology -- others simply couldn't find a publisher elsewhere.

John Gibson, president of Tripwire Interactive LLC, a young game developer based in Georgia, said his company's game might never have reached an audience if it weren't for Steam.

"We spent about six months doing what I call the dance of death with publishers," said Gibson in a phone interview yesterday. "They didn't get what we were doing." After Valve agreed to sell Tripwire's military shooter game on the Steam service, publishers eventually came sniffing around.

Publishers who sell games at retail have so many overhead costs to take into account that unless a game can be proved to have a massive, mainstream audience, they aren't interested, he said.

But Steam's service doesn't come with such costs attached, and Gibson's small company started making money almost immediately after the title became available through Steam.

"We were able to become a profitable game developer in four days," he said. "That's unheard of in the industry."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company