In Praise of the Videogame B-Side

The Orange Box, otherwise known as “five games for thirty quid, at least three of them worth buying alone”. Launching Portal on the back of Half-Life was a terribly smart move. / Gamespress.com/Electronic Arts

Last year saw one of the biggest multiformat releases ever, in the form of Portal 2 – 360, PS3 and PC multiformat releases, TV advertising, microtransaction stores, the whole lot. However, Portal 2 is a dark horse among modern games because of its’ heritage – specifically the heritage of the original Portal.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Portal was a game of firsts: the first of the ‘first-person puzzlers’ to see a wide release (beaten only by Narbacular Drop, a game made by the same team a year earlier); the first time Valve would attempt a simultaneous release on consoles, and the first time we would see a modern game bundled with a ‘b-side’ – in this case, Half-life 2 Episode 2 in the role of Reason To Believe, while Portal was Maggie May – weirder, a little unusual for the developer, and overall something of an experiment. Perfectly reasonable in Episode 2’s case, as the “core” game is a six-hour affair, was this idea of bundling two ‘b-sides’ with it: Team Fortress 2 on one hand, and Portal on the other – neither would quite stand up alone, but to fans, the sequel would bring a degree of nostalgia, while the new game might pique the interest of players looking for something different. After all, nobody had ever released a commercial first-person game with no shooting, almost no cast, a silent protagonist, and no cutscenes.

Would a game about nazi zombies have sold? Maybe. Would it have sold as well as Black Ops? A question for the ages / James O’Donnell/Activision Blizzard

History writes the rest for us: while Episode 2 remains a high water mark for many older players, Team Fortress 2 is a runaway success and possibly Valve’s most valuable property; Portal spawned a full-length standalone sequel, and pushed Valve games into a new audience entirely. The A-game, meanwhile, has been awaiting a sequel for five years – while speculation is rife as to just why Episode 3 hasn’t been made, it still definitely hasn’t been made. Instead, it falls to the B-game properties to carry on the business for now, and they do an admirable job indeed.

The ‘b-game’ phenomenon is more prevalent than this, too: reflecting on Treyarch’s work with the Call of Duty franchise, we have a collection of zombie modes, almost separate from the main game (though sharing core technology and assets) – this is perhaps the spirit of the ‘b-game’ laid barest. Shorter, less intensively developed, concept sketches with a purely speculative appeal. What matters most to the b-game developer is that the sketch gets some exposure: whether the game is a runaway success like Portal and TF2, or a throwaway curiosity like Nazi Zombie mode, or the topdown shooter minigame, the point is that these games would never be made without the A-game to carry them.

Nazi zombies are one thing, but a top-down shooter? It’ll never sell! / James O’Donnell/Activision Blizzard

In this era of ultra-conservative megapublishers putting out near-exclusive sequels, and where the announcement of a new IP is something to trumpet from the highest towers, the B-game fills a critical niche: that of a low-impact way to seriously trial an uncertain property. With the rise of always-enabled online services, a publisher can collect real-time data on exactly how many buyers of their A-game decide to take the B-game for a spin. The ability to take a punt on a game too big and expensive to release for free, but too risky, short or shallow to launch as a separate product is something to be valued and cherished – who knows if Mirror’s Edge might have done better if it had gotten started as a three-hour experiment in the box with Dead Space, Skate or Crysis. All that we can say with any degree of confidence is that we are currently in the depths of a new-IP drought among the major publishers – sequels or franchise titles are the order of the day. Perhaps the era of the B-game is only just beginning: for every megasuccess, there are hundreds of pitches left on the drawing board by marketing executives. Letting a few of those make it to shelves might just be the kickstart the industry needs.