Wing Commander Secret Ops - Eight Years Ahead of its Time!

By Aaron Dunbar - May 7, 2006
Edited by ChrisReid

With each new installment in their favorite series, Wing Commander fans waited to see how the next game would break the old PC gaming mold. Fans eagerly shelled out their hard earned money to hear Prince Thrakhath speak in the WC2 intro, which ushered in Creative Labs as the multimedia force it is today. They bought 386s for Wing Commander 1 and CD-ROMs for Wing Commander 3. Every game in the franchise pushed the technological envelope. Wing Commander Secret Ops was built on the same engine as Wing Commander Prophecy, but broke ground with its unprecendented free distribution online. Many people were shocked at the prospect of downloading a 100+ megabyte package when dialup modems were still used by the overwhelming majority of internet users. But Wing Commander fans were up to challenge and spent all night downloading that famous first starter package. Although the full game is only available now as a part of Prophecy Gold, its starter pack is still handy and continues to provide a powerful foundation for amazing fan projects today.

The true extent of Secret Ops' ground breaking nature has only recently been realized after almost eight years. Wing Commander Secret Ops was a bold experiment in episodic internet distribution. Beginning in August 1998, one episode was released each week for seven weeks. New fiction and back-story was released on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and a corresponding mission pack came out on Thursday. Depending on their performance, players were given a password that would influence the fiction they read the following week.

Major developers such as Valve, Ritual Entertainment and Atari are all following the path set out by Origin and EA so long ago. Each company will soon be offering games in an episodic format online. May 10 is the release date of Sin Episodes: Emergence. A nine episodes run is expected.

“Buy as little or as much of the game as you want, with each instalment offering 3 - 6 hours of action-packed gameplay. But tread lightly, as the choices you make may influence future episodes in unforeseen ways.”

Shawn Ketcherside, the project's lead game designer, had this to say about episodic releases on his Blog:

What does episodic gaming mean? I think the idea of episodic gaming varies from developer to developer. Everyone's going to bring something different to the table. For us, it didn't make sense to simply make "one" game and chop it up into multiple pieces To me that seemed to negate many of the advantages of being episodic. Specifically the freedom to innovate and evolve. From the beginning of the project, I was adamant that every episode serve as a standalone piece of gameplay. Meaning that each episode has the components of a story in and of itself (A beginning, middle, and an end.)

Essentially, for us, SiN Episodes works on two levels. The first level is on an episode specific arena. We want every episode to be a rewarding and satisfactory experience for the player. So, we endeavor to make each episode not a "part" of a game, but a complete game in and of itself. It's an idea of scope, not division. Now, there is also a secondary "higher" level as well. While each episode answers questions and tells its own story, it also fits into a larger scale tapestry, asks new questions, and foreshadows events to come. This allows us to have twists and turns in the overall plot.

To give some examples from other media, let's look at two outstanding television shows: X-Files and more recently Lost. In both cases, there's certainly an overarching idea behind both shows – Something that extends beyond any individual episode. So, fans that watch the show episode to episode, season to season, get insights into this overarching idea.”

Valve's Half-life 2: Episode One (formerly Aftermath) will be released June 1.

“Half-Life 2: Episode One is the first in a series of new adventures created by Valve that extend the Half-Life 2 single player experience… Valve's first episodic game [is] a four-to-six hour adventure of greater density and detail than non-episodic releases.”

Part of the goal is to shorten the development cycle for new releases. In a recent interview at Valve's Eric Johnson said,

“Yes, and I would think the team at Ritual would tell you the same thing. During the six years of Half-Life 2 development, we realized - from working on more iteratively developed projects such as TFC, CS, and DOD - that we could make better Half-Life game experiences via an episodic approach. Allowing the team to concentrate on a specific episode has allowed them to live and breathe just that area and not three parts of a game that need to be stitched together with two or three other parts built by someone else. From our customer's perspective, this means they should be getting content more regularly, and of higher quality.”

The first Sin and Half-life episodes are already available to pre-load from Steam, Valve's online content delivery service. Both will also get retail releases on their launch dates as well.

Atari's announcement seems to fit the Secret Ops format a little more closely. “Alone in the Dark” will be coming to the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live.

“Each episode will contain just "30-40 minutes of gameplay," and will end on a cliff-hanger and a teaser video showing what's in the next instalment. At the beginning of every episode, a wrap-up video will summarize the previous events, much in the same way TV shows catch viewers up with preview episodes.

Why the drastic change? Atari is explaining that it it's taking its cue from the "presentation style and structure of a number of acclaimed and globally popular TV action dramas." They're not naming specific shows, but you can bet that shows like LOST and 24 are at the top of the list.”

“Alone in the Dark” seems to be a more structured game with a more frequent release schedule than the projects in work at Valve and Ritual. This should make it more similar to Origin's weekly episode releases with Secret Ops.

It took almost a decade, but companies are now embracing this episodic model for high profile projects. Electronic Arts has recently unveiled EA Downloader, and Bungie is rumored to have an episodic project in the works as well. With the growth of online interconnectivity and server infrastructure over the last few years, this appears to be the beginning of a small revolution in gaming. Rather than replace retail distribution, it seems that this method of game delivery will complement it, and we'll have Origin's Wing Commander Secret Ops to thank for pioneering the way.

Italic portion borrowed from the CIC Background section