LOS ANGELES — Three seemed to be the magic number at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, with “Gears of War 3,” “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” and “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” among the upcoming video games capturing the most attention.
Noticeably absent at the annual extravaganza otherwise known as E3? Games without any digits in their titles.
The developers of “Rage,” a post-apocalyptic, first-person shooter that’s not — gasp! — a sequel, are crossing their fingers that consumers who seem more interested in spending $60 on the latest franchise installment than a built-from-scratch game will discover “Rage” when the gritty original drives onto store shelves later this year.
In “Rage,” players portray a gunman who awakens from a deep sleep similar to “Halo” hero Master Chief. They race dune buggies through a fallen landscape akin to “MotorStorm.” And they plunder corpses and containers for loot not unlike “BioShock’s” ransackings. Yes, comparisons to other games and maybe the “Mad Max” films are easy, but “Rage” is a truly untested endeavor.
Buzz has been mounting for the desert-dwelling, gun-toting escapade since “Rage” was unveiled four years ago by id Software, developer of the hallmark 1990s first-person shooters “Doom,” “Quake” and “Wolfenstein.” Tim Willits, id Software creative director, said marketing the completely new entry hasn’t been easy, even with id Software’s impressive list of credits.
“It’s so different from anything we’ve done in the past,” said Willits earlier this month at E3. “Educating consumers that it’s from the guys who made ‘Doom,’ ‘Quake’ and ‘Wolfenstein’ — but it’s not actually ‘Doom,’ ‘Quake’ or ‘Wolfenstein’ — has definitely been a challenge for us. I think getting the game in front of as many people as possible is getting us over that hill.”
Other methods that Rockville, Md.-based publisher Bethesda Softworks have employed to increase “Rage” awareness included unleashing commercials during the NBA finals featuring goofy Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin petitioning the gamemakers to inject him into “Rage,” as well as releasing a comic book series set within the game’s vivid wasteland.
“It’s definitely not the same world when ‘Doom’ and ‘Wolfenstein’ first came out,” said Willits. “There are so many games and so much noise out there. You really need to do everything you can, especially toward people who may have never heard of id Software. For instance, we developed an iPhone game, and its primary goal was to be a marketing tool for ‘Rage.”’
In recent years, successfully launching a game featuring unknown characters, storylines and locales hasn’t been an easy feat in the sequel-heavy world of gaming, where developing high-definition shooters is an pricey proposition. Willits declined to say how much “Rage” has cost to create over the past four years but insisted it’s “definitely expensive.”
The developers at Dallas-based id Software have been crafting “Rage” with id Tech 5, the company’s latest game engine, which promises richer and more detailed graphics. “Rage,” which is set for release Oct. 4 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, could be the next “Halo” — or “Daikatana,” the infamous 2000 flop from former id Software developer John Romero.
Last year, the gaming industry failed to triumph with new intellectual properties — or IPs, as they’re commonly known. The top 10 best-selling titles could either be classified as the latest installments in long-running franchises (“Madden NFL 11”), spiritual successors (“Red Dead Redemption”), prequels (“Halo: Reach”), or sequels (“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”).
“In no way are we expecting to come out with ‘Rage’ and do ‘Call of Duty’ numbers,” said Pete Hines, vice president of marketing at Bethesda Softworks. “That would be a fool’s errand. That’s the best-selling franchise, the 500-pound gorilla in the room. We’re competing in terms of quality, but it’s not realistic to think we could do those numbers with just one game.”
It’s a challenge that even “Gears of War” mastermind Cliff Bleszinski, design director at Cary, N.C.-based Epic Games, faced recently with “Bulletstorm,” the tongue-in-cheek, kill-with-skill, first-person shooter released earlier this year by Electronic Arts Inc.
“I’m huge on launching new worlds,” attested Bleszinski earlier this year. “It’s the bread and butter of any entertainment industry. Everybody is so scared of it because they want to go with the established brands. ‘Gears of War,’ ‘Halo’ and ‘Spider-Man’ all started somewhere. These things were existing IPs, and then they were committed to and built into full universes.”
“Bulletstorm,” which was created by Warsaw, Poland-based developer People Can Fly in tandem with Epic, failed to kick down gamers’ doors, despite boasting mostly favorable reviews and including a code for early access to the “Gears of War 3” multiplayer beta test.
“Bulletstorm” debuted at No. 7, behind six sequels and a “Zumba” fitness game, selling a modest 285,600 copies, according to NPD Group, a research firm that tracks the sales of games at retailers.
“Easily, the most difficult thing to do in gaming is to build a new IP,” said Frank Gibeau, president of the EA Games label at Electronic Arts, the Redwood City, Calif.-based publisher of “Bulletstorm” and ongoing series like space saga “Mass Effect” and military shooter “Battlefield.” “Sequels have to come from some place. You have to innovate and keep it fresh.”
But there could be hope on the horizon for “Rage” and other forerunners scheduled for release this year. Gamers have recently been more receptive to trying new titles. Last month, two games without numbers in their names, Rockstar Games’ detective period piece “L.A. Noire” and Bethesda Softworks’ faction shooter “Brink,” topped NPD Group’s sales chart.
Several developers’ sophomore efforts also fared well this year, including Visceral Games’ intergalactic horror “Dead Space 2,” BioWare’s role-playing epic “Dragon Age II,” and Valve Corp.’s physics puzzler “Portal 2.” Each game was based on franchises launched just a few years ago and among the top four on NPG Group’s chart the month they were released.
“We’re always going to see sequels at E3 every year,” said Adam Sessler, co-host and editorial director of cable network G4’s gaming series “X-Play.” “That’s probably not going to change. That’s just the nature of the industry now. But the success of a game like ‘Rage’ might give some comfort to publishers to actually finance more risky original projects.”