LIGHT YEARS AHEAD
Origin breaks new ground again with free game saga by Omar L. Gallaga
Soap operas have been around since radio and the Star Wars movies introduced space operas.
Now, Origin Systems Inc. adds interactivity to serial entertainment with an online version of its Wing Commander series. The game, called Secret Ops and released this week, allows players to download a new episode from the Web for seven weeks.
Neil Young, general manager of Origin, said the company is hoping to break new ground in "episodic entertainment" on the Web.
"This is really a prototype of this kind of delivery system for us," Young said. "What's cool about this is it's the first time that anybody has done anything episodic in the interactive gaming space."
Secret Ops picks up where Wing Commander: Prophecy left off. The team of about 50 developers decompressed after wrapping up "Prophecy" and then moved on to work on Secret Ops for six months.
After downloading the game itself, players will be able to come back each week for seven weeks to download new installments in the storyline. In all, there are 56 missions.
In addition to the Secret Ops game, users will be able to read e-mails and bulletins relating to the storylines on the Web site. Any game company touting a game as revolutionary is like saying you've reinvented the wheel. But Origin has proved it can change the way software works with last year's Ultima Online, a mammoth project that created online virtual worlds for players to interact with.
In putting that game together, Origin, a unit of Electronic Arts Inc. of San MAteao, Calif., overcame system problems, network crashes and complaints from users about slow gameplay. As Ultima Online's mulitplye worlds grew, the problems were ventually fixed and the game is still going strong, with about 90,000 active subscribers.
"We just have a real focus in our economy on online leadership right now," Young said, "We're just really excited about the potential for online gaming in general."
Like Ultima Online, Wing Commander: Secret Ops has had to leap an early hurdle. On its debut Thursday, game files were found to be infected with the CIH virus, which can rease a user's hard drive. Origin removed the files after two and a half hours, cleaned them up and reponsted them later that afternoon.
The company offered links on its site to anti-virus software available on the Web for users who thought they may have downloaded infected files. It said the virus originated from a computer at Origin that was transmitting the files to the server.
The Wing Commander series, started in 1990 by creator Chris Roberts (now head of Austin's Digital Anvil), has sold 5 million units. Young said Wing Commander's popularity made it a good bed to introduce a new kind of gaming structure. Early indications suggest players are anticipating the game beacuse of its popularity and because it's free, said Alan Duncan, associate editor at Gamespot.com, a gaming news Web site.
"People are getting really hyped up about it," Duncan said. "Whenever there's something new in the series, people automatically get attached to it. It's got a pretty big following."
Duncan said one challenge for gamers will be just getting the game. The basic game is a 63 megabyte-sized download -- the file will take at least four hours to retrieve on a fast modem connection. An additional file adding speech to the game is another 51 megabytes.
Duncan said some players may be turned off by the download time and may wait for a CD-based version of the game. Secret Ops will be included with Wing Commander: Prophecy in a package called Wing Commander: Prophecy Gold to ship at the end of the year.
For gamers who can't wait, several sites will offer the game for free. Young said the bandwith required to make the game available will be achieved by using mirror sites. Among the sites carrying Secret Ops will be C-Net's Download.com, Happy Puppy and Gamespot. With seven to 10 mirror sites, about 500,000 user's will be able to download and play the game, Young said.
Wing Commander has gone through many incarnations since its debut. Originally a graphical space combat simulator, the game evolved to include full motion video sequences. Actors appearing in the series included Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell.
A movie based on the Wing Commander series is being produced by Digital Anvil with Roberts directing. Filming of the movie was completed in February in Luxembourg. Roberts company is doing postproduction work on the film and should have it completed by November, a spokesman for Digital Anvil said.