LOS ANGELES (AP) — Cliff Blezenski was initially hesitant to think of "Gears of War" as a trilogy. The design director at Epic Games and mastermind behind the chainsaw-slicing video game shooter series knew that gamers were a particularly judgmental bunch, especially when it comes to the interactive industry's gluttonous strategy of constructing franchises from the ground up.
"I think if you come out and say, 'This is the start of a trilogy,' gamers get defensive, cross their arms and say, 'We'll see,'" said Blezenski. "You have to play it game by game. We had ideas of where each game could go in the series, but until we had confirmation, we never really started work on a sequel, except for coming up with pie-in-the-sky ideas."
Churning out three "Gears of War" titles over the past five years paid off.
"Gears of War 3" sold more than 3 million copies in its first week and was the second best-selling game in September behind "Madden NFL 12," propelling the entire Xbox 360 series past the $1 billion mark, according to Microsoft Corp. and NPD Group, which tracks retail game sales. Microsoft also said more than 4.5 million gamers played it online since it debuted.
"For some reason, three is the magic number," said Blezinksi of the omnipresence of trilogies in pop culture. "I can't explain it. Narratively, they make sense because you've got that 'Lord of the Rings' vibe where there's a definitive beginning, middle and ending. There's something about that contained pack-of-three that's just incredibly gratifying."
Other game developers and publishers seem to agree, too.
Sequels have always been an important part of the gaming world, but with the release of "Gears of War 3" last month and games like superhero brawler "Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds," first-person shooter "Killzone 3," horror shoot-'em-up "F.E.A.R. 3" and alien blaster "Resistance 3" earlier this year, it seems 2011 is the year of the threequel.
The trend continues this holiday season — or should that be holiday threeson? — with the arrival of such third installments as the epic action-adventure title "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception," bawdy open-world gang war saga "Saints Row: The Third" and explosive first-person military shooters "Battlefield 3" and "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3."
For some of this year's threequels, the third outing is less about the story moving forward and more about the technology leaping ahead. "Battlefield 3" from developer Digital Illusions CE will be the first game to utilize the Frostbite 2 game engine, promising players more realistic graphics, fuller sound and amplified environmental destruction.
"'Battlefield 3' is the true next-generation successor to 'Battlefield 2,'" said DICE producer Patrick Liu. "We're utilizing the latest technology with our new Frostbite 2 engine. It's by far the most ambitious game we've ever made. It's a bigger game with a single-player campaign, co-op and multiplayer. It's the most pressure we've ever felt making a game."
Six years have passed since Electronic Arts Inc. deployed "Battlefield 2" for the PC, though there have been other entries in the 9-year-old series. This time, the publisher is positioning "Battlefield 3," which will be available for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on Oct. 25, as a combatant to "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" from Activision Inc.
The marketing campaign for "Battlefield 3" cleverly suggests that the game goes "above and beyond the call."
The original "Modern Warfare," which was developed by Infinity Ward and released in 2007, transformed Activision's aging "Call of Duty" series into the most successful gaming franchise. "Modern Warfare 3," which is due out Nov. 8, is expected to top the previous two installments, as well as last year's top-selling "Black Ops" edition from Treyarch.
"From a commercial standpoint, as far as 'Modern Warfare 3' is concerned, it's a one-shot kill," said Scott Steinberg, CEO of game consulting company TechSavvy Global. "The competition is not in a good position because millions and millions of players have been playing 'Call of Duty' online with their friends and are already hungry for the next installment."
"Modern Warfare 3," ''Gears of War 3," ''Resistance 3," ''Uncharted 3," ''Saints Row: The Third" and "Mass Effect 3" are among the threequels on the same platforms as their predecessors, a striking difference from past gaming franchises that spanned consoles. Steinberg blames a combination of the economy and "dumb luck" for the one-two-three punch.
"Traditionally, you don't see three iterations of a series on the same console because previous sales cycles and technical evolutions have moved more quickly," said Steinberg. "In the past, publishers used console launches as a reboot point for new installments. This longer cycle has given developers the chance to eek more horsepower out of the systems."
Steinberg thinks the third time on the same platform will ultimately charm gamers because developers have honed both their technical talents and storytelling skills without the burden of figuring out how to create games for a completely new system, an issue developers tackled when transitioning from such consoles as the Xbox to Xbox 360 and the PS2 to PS3.
"When you've got a stable technology platform underneath you, it's nice because you can focus on design elements and storytelling aspects," said Aaryn Flynn, general manager at developer BioWare. "I think anyone who has developed multiple games on these platforms is doing what we're doing — honing their craft and getting better and better each time."
Flynn and his colleagues at BioWare are currently preparing for the launch of "Mass Effect 3" next March. The third chapter of the intergalactic sci-fi saga centers on the ominous alien Reapers invading Earth. Flynn said the trilogy, which features a highly customizable protagonist named Commander Shepard, was always envisioned as a three-part series.
"Certainly, when we first imagined 'Mass Effect' as a story for Commander Shepard, we did think of it as a trilogy," said Flynn. "That said, we've made tweaks and adjustments all the way along as we've heard from fans what they want to see, but certainly the story has been building to the Reaper invasion and to Shepard's ultimate battle against them."
In addition to "Mass Effect 3," other threequels expected in 2012 include Ubisoft's open-world shooter "Far Cry 3," Blizzard's fantasy title "Diablo III" and Rockstar Games' third-person shooter "Max Payne 3." As long-running franchises like "Super Mario," ''Final Fantasy" and "Resident Evil" have proven, the third time out doesn't always mark the end.
"When it comes to video games, never say never," said Steinberg. "Players aren't dense. They realize that as long as there is interest left in a franchise, it will make an inevitable return. There's usually so many holes left open in a plot, that it's of no consequence when you reach the end of a trilogy. There are a thousand other stories that can be told."