"Orange Box" emerges as video game sleeper hit

SAN FRANCISCO Fri Oct 19, 2007 10:48am EDT

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Life!) - What do you get when you throw together a 3-year-old video game, two sequels, a multiplayer variant a decade in the making and a quirky concept game involving a gun that shoots teleportation holes?

If you're Valve Corp, one of the best-regarded independent video game studios, you get "The Orange Box", which is winning rave reviews and emerging as a sleeper hit.

The main game is "Half-Life 2", a shooter set in an Orwellian future where aliens walk freely among us. The game came out in 2004 but is going strong thanks to two expansion packs, 2006's "Episode One" and now "Episode Two".

"We wanted to provide a mix of gameplay mechanics and environments," Valve marketing director Doug Lombardi said of the latest installment.

"We try to give you more of an epic scale than we've done before."

As Valve was putting the finishing touches on "Episode Two", it was also wrapping up "Team Fortress 2", an online multiplayer combat game. The original "Team Fortress" came out in 1996 as a popular free modification for the game "Quake".

"'Team Fortress 2' and 'Episode Two' were kind of on a collision course release-wise," Lombardi said of the decision to sell the games together.

"We said do we want them competing or complementing each other?"

Meanwhile, it also was polishing "Portal", a first-person puzzle game in which players use a gun that shoots holes to teleport them around complex mazes. Valve toyed with the idea of selling it separately for $20, then reconsidered.

"That's a new price point, a new genre, you're putting that out there and trying to succeed, whereas we haven't really been on the new consoles before, so we said let's throw it in the box anyway," Lombardi said.

Of course, Valve isn't ignorant of the bottom line. They figure they end up making more money by adding new content to "Half-Life 2" and keeping the price at the premium $60.

It looks set to pay off: "The Orange Box" scored a rating of 97 of 100 on Metacritic.com, a Web site that calculates the weighted average of scores assigned by other game reviewers.

The simExchange, a prediction market that forecasts game sales, expects the version for Microsoft's Xbox 360 console to sell half a million copies in the United States in October, far more than originally anticipated.

"The market was probably concerned that 'Orange Box' was going to be over-shadowed by all the other major shooter genre releases. Obviously now the market expects it to have a strong showing this holiday season," said analyst Jesse Divnich.

"The Orange Box" is published by Electronic Arts and is available for the PC and the Xbox 360. A version for Sony's PlayStation 3 is due to come out next month.

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