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15/9: We ask Gabe Newell about piracy, DRM and Episode Three
14/9: Valve want to see you sweat and make a game of itI was at Valve last month to interview pretty much everyone I could find, and play one of the most exciting PC games on the horizon: Portal 2. The preview I wrote, and the profile on Valve themselves, is in the new issue of PC Gamer in the UK. But we’ve also been putting up the interviews here on the site, one a day for the last week.
Today’s is the final part, in which I ask Gabe and co the big questions: what’s the point of Steamworks? Is piracy a solved problem? And where’s Episode Three? I wasn’t optimistic that they’d be willing to talk about it, but I couldn’t leave without asking. I’m afraid it didn’t go any better than I expected, but I’ve included the transcript so you can read for yourself. What they did tell me was how Steam revived the Russian games market, why Valve’s competitors actually help their sales, and how not to do DRM.
PC Gamer: What have you guys gained from people using Steamworks?
Steamworks is Valve’s free toolset for developers wanting to make Steam-compatible games – see here for more. Wait, that’s not it… here.
Gabe Newell: We’re getting much better visibility into what their experience is like, and much better tools for making those experiences better.
PC Gamer: The developer’s experiences?
Gabe Newell: Customers, but then developers get that same visibility. Like, the first time that a guy at a developer logs into the Steamworks page and finds out what’s really happening, it’s like, “Oh my god, I’m not selling any copies in Germany. Why am I not selling any copies in Germany?” And they find that out three months before they would through traditional brick and mortar, waiting for the charts to hit. They find out the German localisation is actually Lithuanian, or, I don’t know, what’s a real problem that they would have? Oh, that they hate the German localised version so they’re buying all of their stuff grey market from France. And that their decision to do some update that blocks the ability for those games to run in Germany might be a bad idea – that kind of thing.
So it gives our partners the same kinds of tools that we’ve been using. That’s super valuable. Just the ability to create value for customers and solve problems for customers is vastly increased. We had one company that shipped a whole bunch of DVDs to their customers that didn’t work.
Erik Johnson: They didn’t have keys.
Gabe Newell: Yeah, they didn’t work. And they’re in a position of, because they have Steamworks, their problem magically went away for their customers. And what went from being a potentially incredibly expensive recall that was super frustrating and damaging to their reputation, rightly so, suddenly just went away. And it went away over an 8 hour period, more or less invisibly to customers.
Erik Johnson: It was a hiccup to customers, that something didn’t work one morning and then it did.
Gabe Newell: The biggest thing is not just the distribution kind of issues, it’s the fact that you understand your customer a lot better, and you understand how your customer is reacting to the stuff you’re doing. That’s going to help you fundamentally make a better product. I don’t actually believe that we ever shipped Half-Life 1, because there’s no way you could actually build a product without giving it to customers to find out what you’re doing wrong. It would feel completely like you were on a trapeze without a safety net if we didn’t have those capabilities built. We can see what our customers are doing, where we’ve screwed up, see where our mistakes are and fix them so much faster than we’ve ever been able to before.
PC Gamer: I can see why it’s a good thing for developers that use it, but why is it good for Valve?
Doug Lombardi: Well, it’s more people on Steam. We’ve always been pretty up front about that, right? We make it free for developers to use, and the gain to us is that more people are on Steam. I mean, it’s very plain.
Gabe Newell: It’s one of those things where everybody benefits. I mean, we benefit from having our competitor’s products on Steam, and they benefit from our products being on Steam. There’s this presumption that our industry is a zero sum game, and it’s so not a zero sum game. Nothing is more likely to make a customer less likely to buy other games than a really bad game experience. And nothing makes them buy more games, and want to buy more games, more than having a good gameplay experience.
Doug Lombardi: And the bigger the hype on the game, the more true that is. It’s an amplifier.
Erik Johnson: Finishing a really high quality game makes you want to go out and buy another game right at that moment.
Gabe Newell: Call of Duty on Steam takes advantage of Left 4 Dead 2 customers.
Erik Johnson: Batman. Really good game, same thing.
Gabe Newell: We all win by being able to cross sell.
PC Gamer: It seems like that was really borne out by Killing Floor, which came out hot on the heels of Left 4 Dead, and couldn’t be more similar without actually being a Left 4 Dead game. And yet it sold really well at the same time.
Doug Lombardi: And we were totally cool about that, and Tripwire’s one of the people we talk to the most and are friendliest with out of all the developing community. That was totally a fine thing, they got it and we got it and there was never a moment of like, “Hey you’re treading on our stuff!” or vice versa.
Gabe Newell: Torchlight wouldn’t exist without Steam and Steamworks. So, yeah. We really do view ourselves as being part of this larger community, and our big competitor is not just another first person action shooter, it’s thinking that games aren’t worth our time. Games sucking are a much bigger threat to us than good games from other game companies.
PC Gamer: Do you have a good sense of piracy rates with Steam games?
Gabe Newell: They’re low enough that we don’t really spend any time [on it]. When you look at the things we sit around and talk about, as big picture cross game issues, we’re way more concerned about the stability of DirectX drivers or, you know, the erroneous banning of people. That’s way more of an issue for us than piracy.
Once you create service value for customers, ongoing service value, piracy seems to disappear, right? It’s like “Oh, you’re still doing something for me? I don’t mind the fact that I paid for this.” Once you actually localise your product in Russia and ship it on the same day that you ship your English language versions, this theoretical hotbed of piracy becomes your second largest- third largest after Germany in continental Europe? Or third after UK?
Erik Johnson: In terms of retail units?
Gabe Newell: In terms of sales of our products, yeah. Overall, Steam plus retail.
Erik Johnson: Probably second. It’s a big number.
Gabe Newell: The point is that there’s this market that you shouldn’t waste your time on, that went from, “You shouldn’t waste our time on it, they’ll just pirate it,” to “it’s actually a really large market for us now,” once you actually do the things that allow your product to be played. And that’s why some of the DRM approaches are so bad, because they create negative value, not positive value.
I’ve had this problem with software, where my machine crashes and I wasn’t able to release my license. So I have high-end CAD software that I have for hobbies, and my machine crashes and now I’m screwed because of their DRM solution. And that’s bad because it’s much harder to justify purchasing software that might just magically disappear and create a huge hassle for you to recover. What you want to do is go the other way, and say, “Anywhere in the world, any time, you can get your software.” It’s even better if you can get it to run on more platforms, which is why Steam Play is cool, so I can buy it on a Mac and play it on a PC and vice versa. That’s a good thing, that moves customers in the direction of thinking, “Oh, my content is more valuable.”
Erik Johnson: There hasn’t been a case where we’re making a trade off that could negatively impact a customer’s experience to reduce this theoretical piracy rate. Those always seem like awful decisions.
Gabe Newell: You were just saying, you’re making this trade off, and it’s always the wrong one if any customers can be affected negatively by it.
Erik Johnson: Being able to log into any computer and play our games on Steam was a feature that we thought was interesting in the early days of Steam, but has turned out to be an incredibly high value thing for customers, and that’s the kind of thing where a flawed anti piracy strategy would be at odds with that.
Doug Lombardi: The other thing, too, is that gamers are generally good people. If you’re making a good game and you’ve done a good job both from a quality and on the communications standpoint, they’re more than happy to give you their money. I mean, we get mail all the time. Gabe gets more mail I think directly from customers but EJ and I get a fair amount. And like, after we ship something that’s good, we get mail saying, “I just went out and bought a second copy of it, just because I liked it so much I wanted to pay you guys again.” Or, “I went and bought it from my uncle or brother,” or whatever. So that’s my take on a lot of it, just do your job and people are more than happy to pay for it.
Gabe Newell: The other thing that’s always funny is how unbelievably smart the gaming community is, and how accurate. You see other people just lying or making up stuff, and it’s like, “Oh my God, no. Don’t go there.”
PC Gamer: Last time I was at your old office, on the whiteboard there was a pros and cons analysis of another weapon versus the Gravity Gun – something called the Weaponiser. Was that an Episode Three thing?
Gabe Newell: No, it was an internal design experiment that we were doing, which hasn’t seen the light of day.
Erik Johnson: That must have been a long time ago, that must have been during our direct to design experiments.
PC Gamer: Is there some sort of big surprise in Episode Three?
Gabe Newell: …
(Long, uncomfortable pause)
Doug Lombardi: Next question! (Laughs)
PC Gamer: When are you going to start talking about it?
Gabe Newell: …
(Long, uncomfortable pause)
Doug Lombardi: Next question!
PC Gamer: Nothing at all? I have to ask.
Gabe Newell: I understand, and I have to not say anything.
PC Gamer: Every now and then you guys give a hint of something.
Gabe Newell: And then he (points at Doug) yells at me!
Doug Lombardi: So I tend to sit in and just cut it all off. (Laughs)
The sheer awkwardness of that exchange made me glad I’d left those questions till last. For the rest of our enormous interviews, everyone at Valve had been remarkably candid, articulate and obliging. You expect Valve to be smart, you don’t always expect them to be so accommodating. So while I’m still no wiser about when the Half-Life series will continue, the sheer tonnage of everything else they told me paints an extraordinary picture of what they’re up to in the meantime.
We have our own ideas about where Episode Three will go, what will be special about it, and why they’re taking so long about it. We’ll be putting those up in a special speculation post soon.
13/9: Gabe Newell: next-gen game engines will be ten times harderI was at Valve last month to interview pretty much everyone I could find, and play one of the most exciting PC games on the horizon: Portal 2. The preview I wrote, and the profile on Valve themselves, is in the new issue of PC Gamer in the UK. But we’re also putting up the interviews here on the site, one a day for a week. Today’s is my conversation with Gabe Newell, Erik Johnson and Doug Lombardi on how they test their games, how they can see your pulse race, measure your stress and sense your sweat. And how they’d like to use that in a game.
PC Gamer: Josh [Weier, project lead on Portal 2] was telling me you guys had one of your accountants play Portal 2 just to see how she got on with it, not being a gamer. Is that an important part of the testing process?
Gabe Newell: Yeah. With any game you want to find people who’ve never played games and put them down and see what happens. You learn a lot more from those people. You need fresh eyes, always. Because we live so much in this space, it’s interesting to be reminded that some people don’t know what a rocket launcher is. Like, literally don’t know what they’re supposed to do.
Erik Johnson: Having someone that never even intends to play or buy a video game is useful because you’ve still got them to make your game so that they’re entertained if they’re that far out of it that you will definitely learn a bunch of things that are really applicable to everyone else.
Gabe Newell: Yeah, and the lessons you learn are applicable much more widely than to the specific demographic they represent.
Erik Johnson: Yeah, there’s this common misconception that if you take this unskilled or junior video-game player, that the result of that will mean that you change the game to make it easier for unskilled players. It always benefits all players.
Gabe Newell: It forces you to have a lot of clarity. Not change a skill curve or something.
PC Gamer: I had my dad play Portal 1 once, and he completely grasped the portal thing, but he couldn’t get the hang of changing his angle of view and moving at the same time. So he’d walk along, then use his mouse to look around, walk along and so on…
Gabe Newell: I remember back when nobody used the mouse to play, and that was this huge scandalous thing. And Romero would get on and say, “I’m not going to use a mouse.” (Laughs)
Erik Johnson: We had a playtester from Half-Life 1 who – I don’t even know his name, he ended up being in the games industry – but we nicknamed him Keypad Boy, because he used the keypad to navigate everything.
PC Gamer: I must’ve used it, like… two years after it was cool. Because in the Build-engine games, you’d look up and down with the mouse and the whole thing goes [cry of existential terror at the world distorting], because they had no vertical vanishing point.
Doug Lombardi: Yeah, you could tell the Duke players from the Quake players…
Erik Johnson: They’d all have inverted mice.
PC Gamer: Yep, I invert my mouse.
Gabe Newell: Well, Robin for a long time was an inverted mouse guy.
PC Gamer: I very rarely hear of people switching actually. I’ve tried to switch…
Erik Johnson: If you work at this company, and you’re hazed for long enough, you find you switch. (Laughs)
Gabe Newell: Have you met with Robin (Walker, project lead on Team Fortress 2) yet?
PC Gamer: Not on this trip, no. (When I did, he told me about the future of Team Fortress 2.)
Gabe Newell: Remind him he’s Australian.
PC Gamer: Maybe that’s why, actually.
Gabe Newell: You should make that joke, say “I heard that you use reverse mouse. That makes sense because you’re from the southern hemisphere.”
PC Gamer: (Laughs) So it’s come to that kind of discrimination?
Erik Johnson: It’s not discrimination, I mean technically you’re his superior right?
Erik Johnson: Just ask him “Whose Queen’s on your money?”
Gabe Newell: Ask “Where is the silverware anyhow? We’re still looking!”
PC Gamer: Gabe, I think last time we met you were…
Gabe Newell: He’s going to try and turn this into an interview.
PC Gamer: I have to! You described yourself as a cheerleader and chief playtester. What do you actually find yourself doing these days?
Gabe Newell: These days? So my job is always changing, right? That’s the nature of the industry; it changes for a lot of people here. So right now I’m thinking a lot about longer term stuff, I’m thinking about thin client architectures, I’m thinking about cross media authoring, I’m thinking about the problems that game companies have getting movies made out of their games, and movie companies have to get decent games made. What else am I thinking about? I’m in thinking mode… oh, I’m also thinking about biometrics. Sorry, that was one thing I forgot.
PC Gamer: What does that mean?
Gabe Newell: So when you look at our games, more and more we have this representation of player state, where we think we know how you feel, essentially. And with biometrics, rather than guessing, we can actually just use a variety of things like gaze tracking, skin galvanic response, pulse rate, and so on.
Through combining those pieces of information, we can get a much more accurate indication of player state. So that’s something we’re super interested in. We’ve done some experiments in that space, and feel like there’s some easy wins for customers and for developers.
And then there’s some surprising side-effects that we didn’t expect, like what happens when you expose that information in a social gaming context. It surprises us that how much value there is to the people who are playing. So if you’re in a competitive situation, and you see somebody’s heart rate go up, it’s way more rewarding than we would have thought. And if you see somebody in a co-op game who’s sweating, people tend to respond to that way more than we would have thought.
So we can stop using our guess at what your player state is in Left 4 Dead, that we kind of expected. But the value of being able to see what other people’s biological state is in social gaming, that was not something we were anticipating. But that’s just the way things go.
PC Gamer: This is for internal testing right? You’re not going to sell me a heart rate monitor and plug it into Steam?
Gabe Newell: Well, what you want to do is figure out how clients can expose their state. So you’re trying to find non-clunky, non-stupid ways of getting that data. I mean, if you sit there and give a medical technician 30 minutes to wire you up, you can get awesome, awesome data. But it’s just not the consumer experience.
Doug Lombardi: We can ask them to shave their heads before they play…
PC Gamer: That’s a small price to pay.
Gabe Newell: Right. But if someone comes up with a clever way to take some non-visible light and bounce it off your retina, and read it with your web camera, and get your pulse rate that way, then that’s pretty cool. Because it may be a hard problem, but if you solve it once then you’re done. It’s not like a recurring hard problem.
So we think there are several people out there with interesting approaches on the hardware side. Enough that we have confidence that the hardware side will be a sort of resolved problem in the not too distant future. So we need to figure out how to take advantage of it.
PC Gamer: Right now, how much do you track of your tester’s behaviour from a computational side? Do you track exactly where they look with their mouse at all times?
Doug Lombardi: We’re getting gaze tracking now.
Gabe Newell: You mean internally?
PC Gamer: Yeah.
Gabe Newell: Oh internally yeah, we do gaze tracking. We’ve got this $50,000 system – it’s a lab system for doing gaze tracking.
Doug Lombardi: That was way more valuable than we expected it to be, influencing work pretty much immediately.
Gabe Newell: So when you’re designing a game, you think every pixel is just as important as every other pixel, and you certainly expend effort that way. Which, when you think of Half-Life 2, is sort of ludicrous right? You’re whizzing on this boat, and you’re going down this river, and then something’s falling in front of you- and somebody worked on the texture on the door over there and you spent one billionth of a second even being aware of that.
With gaze tracking it’s even worse than we could have ever imagined. A huge percentage of the stuff we draw on the screen people never even look at. And so what you want to do is use that and redesign it.
Your first reaction is, “Oh man, we’re not designing these things right, because if they’re spending all their time looking this rectangle on the lower half of the screen. Maybe that should just be the screen?” So you want to actually provide meaningful stuff on the screen. And even then, if you end up finding that people spend most of their time looking here or here, then obviously you want to allocate your rendering quality or whatever ‘budget’ you have that way.
So I think we’ll move from the era of homogeneous allocation of screen real estate to rendering performance and visual quality, to a much more accurate [system where] the things that you actually look at are the things that’ll be drawn the best.
People know that when they play games, they recognise that the little dragon that’s on the edges of the screen becomes invisible after a certain point in time. So nobody actually spends any time drawing those things. But there are things we spend a lot of time drawing that just don’t matter to the player, so this just teaches us that that’s waste.
PC Gamer: I get a degree of players guilt when, in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, I’m driving past all that gorgeous scenery. I’m thinking, “Oh this is gorgeous, it must’ve taken someone ages to design each little metre of this,” and just blowing through it.
Gabe Newell: Well, I think that’s totally a design flaw, right? If it doesn’t matter, people don’t look at it. So the challenge is to create stuff that has significance. If it doesn’t represent a choice for you, then why waste time building it? Games are about phenomenological difference, not about scenery. So unless you’re putting logical information or choices into that stuff, then you’re making a mistake.
PC Gamer: Episode Two sprung to mind, but that’s actually only a brief section where you’re driving and there’s nothing in the scenery. Because once you get the scanner in your car, that scenery is presenting you with a choice. You can stop and explore it looking for the caches of goodies.
Gabe Newell: A design experiment I’ve always wanted to run is: nothing can be different unless it matters. So everything has to be exactly the same colour unless there’s information there. And just see where you end up. I think that’d look really weird at first, it would be like the first time someone saw abstract expressionism. “That doesn’t look right.” But then after you’ve played it for a while, you suddenly discover that everything that was different had significance.
PC Gamer: There’s interesting little hints of that in Portal 2 – and you did this to an extent in Portal 1 too. Sometimes there’s just a mark on the wall that, in terms of the fiction of the game, is decorative or just an accident. But in terms of the game logic, that’s a good place to put a portal. You don’t have to, but if you’re already thinking about putting one around there, you instinctively focus in on the exact right place.
Gabe Newell: I think we’re getting better about that, actually. It’s just for us in our copious spare time to do the experiment of: “OK, you can’t spend any time on anything unless [it has significance],” as a hard rule, and see where we end up.
In our final interview tomorrow, I ask Gabe what the piracy rates are like on Steam games, and what’s going on with Episode Three. You might not like the answer.
12/9: Valve on why Alien Swarm is freeI was at Valve last month to interview pretty much everyone I could find, and play one of the most exciting PC games on the horizon: Portal 2. The preview I wrote, and the profile on Valve themselves, is in the new issue of PC Gamer in the UK. But we’re also putting up the interviews here on the site, one a day for a week. Today’s is my conversation with Gabe Newell, Erik Johnson and Doug Lombardi about the difficult but exciting future of game engines, and why they hire who they hire.
Gabe doesn’t spare me the technical terms, so if you’re allergic to jargon skip to “So what’s the interesting thing from a gamer’s point of view?”
PC Gamer: You’ve mentioned one of the things you’re thinking about is changes on the hardware front – what’s changing?
Gabe Newell: I think we’re going to see a lot of features in CPUs that makes them work more like GPUs, in terms of throughput architectures. So the specific instructions are going to look a lot more like GPUs, and depending on how they get there – there’ll be a couple of different approaches that the different CPU companies use to get there – but essentially they’re trying to provide the what, in an architecture independent way, is called throughput architectures. So you’ll see each different company coming up with a different answer that they’re essentially solving that problem.
PC Gamer: I remember hearing a similar sort of thing a few years back where the cores on a graphics card were getting more like a CPU, and we’d be able to use those cores for things like AI and stuff like that. Is that still happening?
Gabe Newell: Well, you can kind of go both ways. You can make GPUs more general purpose or you can increase the parallelism of a CPU. And it’s a lot easier to do this than it is to do this. So… I think that I’d like to do it, but it’s harder to get people to write code and instructions for that. If you’re not Intel, if you’re not ARM.
PC Gamer: So what’s the interesting thing from a gamer’s point of view, what practical impact might that have on your game?
Gabe Newell: I think we’ll continue to see accelerated performance, even faster than we’ve seen before, that’s applicable to a wider range of functions that you perform. Right now it’s easy to do scalable graphics, and I think that it’ll become similarly easy to do scalable AI, scalable physics and the top end will stretch a long ways. So in the same way that there’s a huge difference between embedded graphics and a high end GPU, game engines are going to have to accommodate a much wider range of potential performance for AI and physics. But the top end is going be awesome in terms of just the sheer amount of computation that we’re going to do.
The other thing that it’s going to do is, the best programmers are going to become even more valuable. This will effect everybody in the industry so all the programmers, anyone associated with programming. The amount of difference between a good programmer and a great programmer is going to get wider, in terms of the amount of value that you can create.
So that’s a function of the fact that it’s just hard to write the architecture that allows you to take advantage of these hardware approaches. You have to sort of redesign all of the code so that not only can you create batches of work to do, but you also have to make sure that it’s relatively bulletproof. So somebody can’t come along and accidentally break the entire system by not understanding what the trade-offs are. You don’t want somebody who’s sitting there making a rig for animation to accidentally blow through some constraint, so that by adding two more creatures on the screen your framerate drops by a factor of, say 50.
You have to create an architecture that not only allows you to take advantage of this kind of hardware, but you also have to do it in such a way that it’s resilient in the face of people writing leaf code (not core engine code) and people creating assets for that pipeline. So that’s just a hard problem. If there were 500 people who could write a good game engine in the last generation, you’re really talking 50 people who are going to be good enough to do it in the next generation. Which is good for those people.
PC Gamer: Do you have those people?
Gabe Newell: Well, we think we do, yeah. But a good programmer could create an engine to take one of these architectures, and a great programmer could come in and do the same kinds of things and do them ten times faster on the same kind of hardware. In other words, it’s a non-linear return. And you just don’t see that today. Nobody walks in onto an Xbox or a PS3 team and can make something that runs ten times the amount of content on the screen. But in these emerging generations, that will definitely be the case.
So you know, guys like Carmack or Sweeney or the guys at Crytek can do it, but it’ll be harder and harder for other people to be able to program at that level. So that’s a side effect of it. The games will be great; I mean the opportunity is just immense for what’s going to be possible going forward.
PC Gamer: You guys seem to hire people who have good ideas on the back of the fact that they have good ideas. When you look at a bunch of indie guys, like a DigiPen team, what’s the difference between a game that looks cool and has a nice idea in it, and a game that makes you want to hire everyone that works on it?
Gabe Newell: It’s talking to the people, right? This is like a four hour side conversation. What it really comes down to is that you talk to the people, and you get a very clear sense, quickly, about what they can contribute, and how they’re going to impact the people around them. Everybody here has a huge impact on everybody else, so when we bring in somebody like Bay Raitt (the Weta Digital engineer responsible for Gollum’s facial animation in the Lord of the Rings films), or Kuda, it’s weird how much impact, even at this point in our history, one person has on all of the people around them.
The decision to do that is all about the people, and not about the game. The game is something that happens to go with them. Hopefully we help them make something sooner and better than they would be able to otherwise, but it’s always the people decision first. And we don’t have reqs, it’s not like somebody says, “Now we’re going to hire three texture artists.” We hire anybody who walks in the door who fits. We’ll make them an offer, and we’ll pursue them relentlessly. We have one guy who I think we’re finally going to get to move here that we’ve been pursuing for twelve years now, and we finally have convinced him to join the horde. What do we call ourselves?
Doug Lombardi: Horde is not it!
Gabe Newell: Alliance? (Laughs) Red? Blu? Company?
Doug Lombardi: Studio would work.
PC Gamer: Who is that?
Gabe Newell: I can’t say. I can tell you there are people out there that we would love to work with that we aren’t working with yet. The guys at Media Molecule. We think those guys are awesome. There are a bunch of guys at RAD Game Tools that we think are awesome. Who else?
Erik Johnson: In the game space? There’s a lot. There’s people at id, there’s people at Epic, there’s people at DICE.
Gabe Newell: So yeah, for us it’s always about [the people]. I see Erik more than I do my wife. (Looks at Erik) You’re looking really nervous.
Erik Johnson: My awkward scalar just started going.
Gabe Newell: So, you know, we want people who are going to make us smarter, and make us excited to go on the move. I mean, I get to be the biggest fan boy of all. I get to see everything everybody does and all the different versions of it. I get to see it first, so it’s a huge amount of fun to work here. It’s exciting. Like I just reviewed 48 different box concepts for Portal 2 – 48! – and so I get to see 48, and customers only get to see 1. Actually, Valve’s just a very clever way…
PC Gamer: To become the world’s biggest Valve fan?
Erik Johnson: It’s still a big event when we hire someone, everyone’s still super excited about that. It’s just like it was 10 years ago pretty much.
Gabe Newell: It’s amazing how much of an impact the right person has when they come on board.
Tomorrow Valve tell us about their evil genius plans to measure how much we sweat, and make games about it. Seriously, you need to read this one.
11/9: Valve on why they'd make the Half Life movieI was at Valve last month to interview pretty much everyone I could find, and play one of the most exciting PC games on the horizon: Portal 2. The preview I wrote, and the profile on Valve themselves, is in the new issue of PC Gamer in the UK. But we’re also putting up the interviews here on the site, one a day for a week. Today’s is my conversation with the creator of Alien Swarm, about how the game turned from mod to polished Valve product, and why it’s free.
PC Gamer: So when you came on to Valve, what were you doing?
Jonathan Sutton: Well, the first thing we did was get Alien Swarm up and running on the latest version of the Source Engine. We’d been receiving source code from Valve and working on it privately, so we updated it and then started applying Valve’s play testing process to it. So we would get people in every week to play the game and see, was it working? What were the problems?
PC Gamer: Did you find they found it hard?
Jonathan Sutton: Yes! A lot of people said it was too hard, although interestingly, the version that’s out now, the most popular difficulty level is the hardest one by a factor of four times.
PC Gamer: Really? Wow. I was going to ask that. It seemed like the original mod was intentionally hard.
Jonathan Sutton: Absolutely, the game is set out like a puzzle where you have to figure out, “What do I use where to get through this mission?” And you’re meant to replay it and try different things. You’re meant to change your load-out, you’re meant to change the position of your guys in each of the rooms, until you find this solution that you then have to execute perfectly. It’s that last run when you just make it through and you’ve done all the right things, and all of you work together as a team, is the highest high in Alien Swarm.
PC Gamer: So obviously you decided to make it easier, what was the thinking there?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, it wasn’t intentional, it was more that happened from the play testing. I suppose the original mod, when we tested it, was with a lot of hardcore gamers. With Valve there’s a bigger spread of people, and we were able to make the game work for more people by having lower difficulty levels. They were still hard for them, like it’s easy for us, but it’s still hard for them. And the game will actually recommend a difficulty level that has you retrying a few times, because if you just blast through every mission in one go, you’re not really doing the puzzle. So it’ll monitor your performance and if you’re blasting through it’ll say, “Why not turn the difficulty up?”
PC Gamer: Before you joined Valve you were working on a Source version already, right?
Jonathan Sutton: Yes.
PC Gamer: And that was going to be retail, wasn’t it?
Jonathan Sutton: Yes.
PC Gamer: So what happened exactly?
Jonathan Sutton: We built the Unreal version and that was great and fun, but obviously we couldn’t make any money off it, we couldn’t do it full time because you can’t sell a mod. When Valve contacted us and asked us to move the game to the Source engine, one of the reasons we said yes was because we had this path with Source where we could actually release as a standalone game. This was our attempt to to what we were doing as a full time job, rather than as a hobby. Yeah, so we worked on that but when we showed the game to Valve they were so impressed that they said, “Come work for us.” And so that changed all of our plans.
Doug Lombardi (Valve marketing director): Where were you all when you were Black Cat?
Jonathan Sutton: We were all spread out. I was in the UK, Ivan was in Switzerland, Simon was in Australia, so we were just working on the internet at the time.
PC Gamer: So when they asked, was there a unanimous yes?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, pretty much.
PC Gamer: You were talking before about how it was an intentionally hard mod, it was kind of like a puzzle that you would keep trying again and again and again. Does that gel awkwardly with it being a co-op game, where you need three other people, and you need to be playing with the same people every time you play?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, Alien Swarm is definitely at its best when you’re playing with friends or people you know. But over the course of a single mission, you can establish enough of a relationship even with random people to make it work. At least, whenever I play online randomly we see people form a random group, it only takes one or two people to start talking and recommending a strategy and it all forms together.
PC Gamer: I have had that, great groups that I’ve just stumbled into, but just lately I’ve had a string of terrible groups. The second you do one thing wrong it’s like, “Get out fag.”
Jonathan Sutton: Oh yeah, that happens. We definitely saw with the Unreal version over time. As the community got more and more experienced, they were less tolerant of beginners and that’s a real problem. I’m not sure of the best way to solve it.
PC Gamer: Why is it free?
Jonathan Sutton: This is an experiment for Valve to see what would happen if we released a free game, with all of the tools and the SDK, and we could see what results came out of it, how quickly people start using the tools and building things with it. Historically Valve have had great success with mods, from Counterstrike to TF, so this was really something they wanted to encourage, so that’s why we did it for free.
PC Gamer: Is there any kind of plan to do any paid for content or extra campaigns or anything.
Jonathan Sutton: We haven’t announced anything yet.
PC Gamer: Is the whole point of the experiment that it’s free and free forever and that’s it?
Jonathan Sutton: Everything we’ve released so far will definitely be free forever.
PC Gamer: The campaign that’s in there at the moment is pretty huge. It takes an hour at least to play through, in my experience, and so it’s quite rare to find a game at the start of the campaign and get through it all the way with one team. Is there a reason you wanted the campaign to be that length?
Jonathan Sutton: Through the matchmaking, you can say, “I want to start on this mission, find me a game on this mission.” No, I mean, it wasn’t really intentional that your single player experience should be the entire game, so that’s why we let you go halfway through. Because in the Unreal version you couldn’t actually do that, you had to start from the beginning every time you started a game, so here we pretty deliberately said that for this to work with random people, you have to be able to start at any point. So, play with friends.
PC Gamer: There’s quite a lot of story stuff going on, did you intend for people to go through in single player and read that or did you think they would in co-op?
Jonathan Sutton: Well in co-op, when you’re in any multiplayer game, the tolerance for that is really low, most people just want to run through and shoot. So we knew that was going to happen. But there is a small group of people who will read through everything, and they will harvest all these little story pieces and get immersed in the world that way. And we thought, even if you don’t do that, it’s still good to have these things in the game just as a background, you might not read them but just knowing they’re there will help enrich the world and make it seem more real.
PC Gamer: I think that’s been my experience. I always stop and find out what they are, but I won’t read them because I’m with other people.
Jonathan Sutton: We did talk at one point about making them collectible so that you could look at them later, we just didn’t have time to do that.
PC Gamer: It seems that, as you level up, the unlocks become really universal. When you first start out the class you choose seems really important because you’re going to choose their primary weapon and the way you’re going to play, but the further up the ranks you get, the less it seems to matter. Was that an intentional decision to make class less relevant as you became higher level?
Jonathan Sutton: No, that’s mainly a result of: we wanted leveling up to still have a reward associated with it, and if we give you an item you can’t use, then people are going to have a negative response with that. But we do still have some class specific weapons, even high up, for example the the minigun that only special weapons can use. I think it was more just, fictionally, there wasn’t any reason to constrain the items, we wanted everyone to be able to use every one.
PC Gamer: What’s been the general reaction to the fact that it’s free?
Jonathan Sutton: It’s been really good. A hugely positive response! Its been great to read all of these reviews and comments and forum posts from all these people who have tried the game.
PC Gamer: Is there a degree of people saying, “Eh, it’s good for a free game”?
Jonathan Sutton: No, but we do see that people are more forgiving of any bugs or problems there may be in the game. If someone criticises something there’s always a dozen people who say “it’s free”.
PC Gamer: Do you have any plans you can talk about about what you’re going to do with Alien Swarm in future?
Jonathan Sutton: Not this time, no. Right now we’re just releasing bug fixes and tweaking the modding tools so that everything works smoothly.
PC Gamer: I noticed the first person mode seems to be all in there and ready to go, was that going to be an option at any point?
Jonathan Sutton: (Laughs) No, that was just leftover code from Half-Life that just happens to work, but there was no intentionality there.
PC Gamer: You must have played around with it though, right?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really strange to see things that you’ve designed to work top down, to see how they look from the front. In the Unreal version we had a feature where you could look through the helmet cam of the other players, but we didn’t do anything like that this time. So, yeah, it’s just Half-Life code.
PC Gamer: It seems like the design of the aliens changed a fair bit from the mod.
Jonathan Sutton: Yes. When we came to Valve a bunch of Valve artists really liked the game and wanted to do a pass over all of the content, polish it up and make it look really pretty.
PC Gamer: Because we’ve got the source code, I can mod this into anything I like, and because all Steam users have it, essentially anyone can make their own Source engine game and it’ll be a standalone free product, right?
Doug Lombardi: The engine stuff isn’t in there, it would still have to be a mod.
Jonathan Sutton: It would be a mod of Alien Swarm. They’d have to download Alien Swarm, and then install their mod.
Doug Lombardi: If somebody decided to take it and sell it, first of all they’d be violating the EULA, so there’d be actionable recourse there, second of all they’d have to be packaging up our game and shipping it with their game in order for folks to play it which I think is another violation that would be actionable.
PC Gamer: I’m saying for free. Like, I know from a technical standpoint…
Doug Lombardi: If somebody says, “Hey we made this cool thing and if you download Alien Swarm for free you can play all this for free,” then you are correct. But to commercially exploit it, no, because you still have to get Alien Swarm and selling it without our permission is illegal.
PC Gamer: Since it is free, making a mod of Alien Swarm is like making a free standalone thing.
Doug Lombardi: Correct. You have to do that one extra step. There’s two that are required, you have to say what you made, you’d have to say, “My thing is free”, and then you’d have to point people to Alien Swarm as a base piece to get the engine. But you could say, “I created this really cool thing and there’s this free path to all of it,” yes.
PC Gamer: Was that a side effect of the way you did this or is that what you wanted to happen?
Jonathan Sutton: We wanted that to happen.
Doug Lombardi: Absolutely, a big point of this release for us was to really re-energise that community with some stuff, and a lot of the work they did we think will help people get there more easily, hopefully, or people who are already there do more creative things, giving away code and base stuff for free is a way to get that going.
PC Gamer: Have you seen any community created stuff coming out already?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, there’s a great thread in our forum, the work in progress thread. If you look through that, there’s tons of screen shots of maps people are just starting to build, some of them are looking really good, I’m really looking forward to that. I remember with the old version of Alien Swarm, there was a custom mission I played that took seven hours. So I’m hoping someone steps up and makes a mission [like that].
PC Gamer: You must have been a wreck at the end of that.
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, it was really stressful!
PC Gamer: For me, I was a fan of the mod back in the day, even though I was terrible at it – I don’t think I ever completed a single mission. It’s just really cool that everyone has it now, and I can play Alien Swarm with my friends.
Jonathan Sutton: That’s one of the things with making a mod, you have to really choose your platform very carefully. When we built Alien Swarm with UT, that community was so much smaller than Half-Life, that if we had just built it on Half-Life originally we would have had one hundred times the number of players, just because of the platform we chose. Now, because you don’t even require to pay for a base game, the potential audience is huge.
PC Gamer: Jonathan, thanks very much.
10/9: Valve on their insane Portal 2 ideasI was at Valve last month to interview pretty much everyone I could find, and play one of the most exciting PC games on the horizon: Portal 2. The preview I wrote, and the profile on Valve themselves, is in the new issue of PC Gamer in the UK. But we’re also putting up the interviews here on the site, one a day for a week. Today’s is my conversation with Gabe Newell, Erik Johnson and Doug Lombardi about their plans to expand their games into other mediums, and why they think it’s important to do it themselves.
PC Gamer: Team Fortress 2 seems like the one game of yours that’s branching out into all kinds of forms: you’ve got the Meet The Team videos, and the comics are now like the backstory for it. Is that something that you want to bring to your other games?
Gabe Newell: Yeah. We have been very happy with what we’ve learned on the production side, and on the customer side of what we’re doing with that. I think most of those experiments have been really successful. So yeah, I think we’re at the start of that and that TF2 has been very useful at helping us think about how that’ll impact our future products.
Doug Lombardi: You’ll see some of that in the Left 4 Dead 2 DLC that Chet’s going to talk to you about (he did, see link). There’s a 150 page comic that’s coming as a backstory for that DLC, so it’s starting to branch out slowly into the other properties beyond TF2.
Erik Johnson: TF2’s validated this theory we had, which is you have all these different kinds of media like films or movies or shorts or a game or a comic and they aren’t that separate in terms of what gets built. There’s things that customers have reacted to in comics, or in the shorts, that has changed what happened in the game, and that’s super powerful. You should ask Robin which was the first one, but the first weapon that we teased in a movie – it was awesome watching people look at that and then that feedback going into the game got released right afterwards.
Doug Lombardi: The Sandvich!
Erik Johnson: The Sandvich!
Gabe Newell: The Sandvich was interesting because, we had to do a service to the community, right? We had to do an update. And so somebody started giggling and we were like, “Shut up, we’re in trouble. We haven’t figured out how we’re going to do a movie yet.” And they keep giggling, and we said, “What the hell?” And they go, “It’s a sandwich… in a refrigerator!”
Erik Johnson: TF2 has gotten so close to their customers. The number of offhand jokes that end up getting produced because they understand what their customers want so well. It’s a function of so many updates and all these different things coming together.
[With] Half-Life 2, we went several years without having any communication with our customers at all. We hope we get it right – maybe they’ll like Alyx? I don’t know, she doesn’t look like any other video game character. Do they really care about Eli? You know, we go years and years without being able to get the feedback. Whereas- what’s the fastest input to design change? It’s like a couple of days now, right?
Doug Lombardi: Or less than that now, because people can submit weapon ideas into the site and those can go straight into the game, more or less. A couple of days realistically with all the update stuff, but…
PC Gamer: The video leak button on the Meet The Spy (between this video getting leaked online and being officially released, Valve added a reference to the leak in the video itself).
Erik Johnson: Yup! Exactly.
Doug Lombardi: I mean the Golden Wrench thing, that was real-time content.
Erik Johnson: Yeah, well – there’s a little story around that.
PC Gamer: Can you tell that story?
Erik Johnson: So there was this random thought, “What if someone deletes a wrench?” Because we do get support tickets and people mail Robin, “Hey I destroyed my thing and I screwed up.” Or, “Oh it destroyed my thing because it hates me,” or whatever.
Gabe Newell: Younger brothers, apparently, do it all the time.
Erik Johnson: They log into people’s machines all the time and start cheating and destroying items…
So we were creating this thing and there was this incredibly limited number of them. What if someone deletes it? Instead of saying they can’t delete it, we thought, “Well since we’re putting out a message when someone gets one, let’s put out a message when someone destroys one.”
Gabe Newell: The anguish reverberated through the internet.
Erik Johnson: The TF2 team are Willy Wonka while this is going on. They all have the page open, they all wait to see when wrenches drop and it’s this big event. And a bunch of them were playing and it says such and such deleted a Golden Wrench. They’re all like, “Oh my God! Someone deleted!” Then that person posts on the SomethingAwful forums and says, “Hey guys, somebody stole my Steam account…”
(There’s more on this story in our Robin Walker interview.)
Gabe Newell: What we should have done, there should have been an in-fiction way of restoring the wrench, right?
PC Gamer: The broken halves could be scattered across the servers.
Gabe Newell: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.
Erik Johnson: That would have been awesome, if the whole TF2 community had the chance to find the broken pieces of the golden wrench and restore them. That whole event is going to carry forward in some way.
Gabe Newell: The thing where we can give the community a mission as a whole would be good. You know, the Soldier vs Demoman.
Erik Johnson: The war? (Before updating the Soldier and Demoman classes in TF2, Valve told players one unlockable item would go to whichever of the two had more kills by launch).
Gabe Newell: Yeah, the war was the start of the kinds of things that we want to do. Mac versus PC.
Erik Johnson: What we saw in that case, because the scores ended up shockingly close, was that there were less Demomen with more kills at the end of it.
PC Gamer: Because the Demoman’s overpowered!
Gabe Newell: We were shocked by that, actually, about how close the numbers were.
Erik Johnson: Yeah, it was weird.
PC Gamer: Because they weren’t close throughout, were they? One raced ahead.
Erik Johnson: Yeah I believe the Soldier raced way ahead and the Demoman caught way up.
PC Gamer: I wonder if there was a psychological factor there, people who really believed in Demomen started going out there to even the score.
Erik Johnson: That was what we hoped would happen.
Gabe Newell: I would have thought it would have been the other way. If you had asked me to predict in advance, I would have said people would ally with the dominant side, that they would have joined the winner when they decided there already was a winner.
Erik Johnson: I think in this case the Demoman has this implied skill level that is higher than the Soldier, so it was an affront to that group of people that the Demoman could lose this thing.
Gabe Newell: I think how it plays out is automatically generating interesting stuff for the community to follow, so there’s this notion that we’re in partnership with the community to create entertainment, which is super important.
PC Gamer: Talking of expanding your games to other mediums, what other mediums could Half-Life expand to?
Gabe Newell: Oh, all the same things that TF2 has.
PC Gamer: To comics?
Gabe Newell: Yeah. To comics, or movies, or whatever the fans would like. I mean in a lot of where we got in this direction was, after Half-Life 1 had shipped, there was a whole bunch of meetings with people from Hollywood. Directors down there wanted to make a Half-Life movie. So they’d bring in a writer, or some talent agency would bring in writers, and they would pitch us on their story. And their stories were just so bad. I mean, brutally, the worst. Not understanding what made the game a good game, or what made the property an interesting thing for people to be a fan or enthusiast of.
That’s when we started saying, “Wow, the best thing we could ever do is to just not do this as a movie, or we’d have to make it ourselves.” And I was like, “Make it ourselves? Well that’s impossible.” But the TF2 thing, the Meet The Team shorts, is us trying to explore that.
And that’s what we think in general needs to happen, is that the content creators who understand what’s unique, and compelling, and worth people’s time and money about a particular property are the people who are likely to be successful in creating it in all its different forms. Tolkien is dead, so Peter Jackson should figure out how he can make [a game]. He has a much greater likelihood of success if he can develop the skills to make games rather than handing it off to some third party.
As a fan of the Resident Evil game series, it’s sort of horrifying to see what’s happened on the movie side. Those early conversations about Half-Life movies, and trying to think of how to deal with that, eventually results in the Meet The Team shorts.
PC Gamer: So if there’s going to be a Half-Life movie, you guys would have to write it?
Gabe Newell: Yeah, or we’d build it the way we’re building the TF2 shorts.
PC Gamer: So it would have to be a CGI thing, rather than a live action thing?
Gabe Newell: Yeah, if we thought that’s what customers would like. If they don’t want that then we wouldn’t waste our time with that, or their time. That’s what we’re in the middle of understanding, right?
So we’ve learned a lot by what we’ve done with TF2, and I’m a huge fan of the Left 4 Dead comic. I was a huge comic head, you know, Judge Dredd, what was Frank Miller’s samurai robot dude? (It was Ronin.) Yeah, all through the early 80’s I was really super heavily into comics, so I think the comic we’re doing is great.
It’s way darker than the stuff we’ve been doing on the TF2 side, and it’ll be super interesting to see how the community responds. If they love it, that’s great, if they hate it then it’s interesting. Even if it’s a failure, it’ll be an interesting failure. We’re taking risks on the art direction of the book, but first and foremost, it has to be able to work on its own, as a comic.
Most of the time, when you see these things, they’re like the Bear that Dances, you know: “Ooh, it doesn’t dance very well, but it’s a bear!” And you really need to have the thing be a good comic, or a good short, or whatever. It has to meet that as a minimum, and I think the Left 4 Dead comic is a really strong comic. If you handed it to someone who never played games but was really into comics I think they’d say, “Wow, that’s a really good comic. Wow, that’s tied to a larger experience? Well that’s even better”
If we’d have tried to find someone externally to do it, I don’t think we would have had somebody who understood Left 4 Dead or understood what the customers are interested in seeing. I think the customers will be really… it’ll answer a lot of questions.
So I’ll take a step back. If you’re trying to build something, and you try to put everything into a single thing, sometimes you’re trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Movies are really good at certain kinds of things, and comics or graphic novels are actually better than movies at doing certain kinds of things, and games are better at doing certain kinds of things.
So we’re broadening the palate of ways you can create entertainment, and you just have to use the tools in the right way, right? If you do a movie to give people choice, like the Clue movie, or you try to do a branching narrative like all the weird hyper media things that people were doing around 1994.
Erik Johnson: In Half-Life 2, we couldn’t tell story when people were under duress, really. That’s kind of how it breaks.
Gabe Newell: But in terms of environmental storytelling, which is a new kind of storytelling, games turn out to be really really great. And then if you’re trying to do a huge amount of plot exposition, like, “This happened and then this happened,” comics are actually much better than movies. The amount of exposition you can actually jam into a 120 minute movie is fairly small. The amount of forward progress that you can get is much stronger. Movies are way better at nuance than comic books.
I think that’s going to be really interesting to see who in the industry figures out how to use those things most effectively. Hopefully it’s not going to turn out that we’re all a bunch of one trick ponies that can only work in a single medium, because we think that customers are demanding more. It’s like this weird situation in the late 90s, where the average internet gamer knew more about how the internet was going to change gaming than your average executive at a studio.
We think that customers are like, “Okay, we’re kind of sick and tired of the way you guys are slicing and dicing the experience of being a fan of Harry Potter, or Half-Life, or The Incredibles, and you need to fix it. And the people that fix it will be rewarded, and the people that don’t will- well, they’ll be on the rubbish heap of history, or whatever the phrase is.
PC Gamer: I know a lot of the reason you guys came up with Steam was out of frustration at the publisher/retail model of PC gaming. Is there anything like that that still frustrates you about PC gaming today?
Gabe Newell: Well, the thing that we’ve been talking about is that we want – both on the production side and on the consumption side – to make it easier for people to be fans. The experience of being a fan right now is a treasure hunt, where a lot of times you get a toothbrush instead of a piece of candy. What’s some candy that you hate? I’m going to use this as my new metaphor.
Right, so I’m a huge fan, and I go out to Barnes & Noble to get my book, and I go to Netflix to get my movie, and I go to GameStop… And it’s really hard for me to gather this all together. I’ve got my little pile of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and half of it is awesome sugary tastiness, and some of it is nasty liquorice. People are going to send me liquorice now.
The point is, I think that this is the reality for customers. And as an industry it’s very convenient for us to ignore how hard we make it for our fans. The reality is that for a lot of fans, the social meta narrative around the game is about as exciting as the game itself. The fact that I can see what my friends think, and I can argue with people.
And yet games don’t do a good job of integrating that into the experience. If you’re a fan, you sort of cobble together, “I happen to know the magic websites to go to,” you know? We’re not doing a good job, either on the production side or the consumption side. That’s what we think is a set of problems that have to be solving right now.
PC Gamer: It seems almost institutionalised. As a gamer I assume that a movie based on a game is going to be shit.
Gabe Newell: Well, we’ve taught you as a gamer that it is going to suck, right? No matter how much you’d rather it didn’t, it does. As a WoW player, I would much rather that the WoW team made the movie, right? Than anybody else. I like Sam Raimi, I’ve been a fan ever since Evil Dead came out, but I would rather see Blizzard making the movie.
PC Gamer: The fans say that, too. They see these amazing CG trailers and they say, “Make that as a movie!”
Gabe Newell: More to the point, it’s not going to go wandering into the weeds and be some distraction, right? Like I have trouble in my head being a fan or Resident Evil, because I can’t remember, “Is that character dead in the movie?” It’s an odd, weird, screwed up experience to try to track it. I’d rather they just had the team that understands and built the thing that I love extend it, not have it be licensed to the lowest cost provider who’s going to make the cheapest possible version.
Erik Johnson: And gets to walk away from it, too.
Gabe Newell: And gets to walk away from it at the end of the day.
Erik Johnson: We can’t walk away from Half-Life, right?
Gabe Newell: If the Mario Brothers movie was a train wreck, nobody at the movie company lost their job, as much as they deserved to. I think that’s a big issue at the moment that we need to think about. We’re thinking about what we do in terms of making our lives simpler and not in terms of what customers and consumers really want, and that’s what we have to fix.
Tomorrow we’ll be asking Valve why they released Alien Swarm for free, and talking to its creator about how it changed when Valve hired them. Here’s the rest of our Valve interviews.
PC GAMER was at Valve last month to interview pretty much everyone I could find, and play one of the most exciting PC games on the horizon: Portal 2. The preview I wrote, and the profile on Valve themselves, is in the new issue of PC Gamer in the UK. But we’re also putting up the interviews here on the site, one a day for a week.
Yesterday Gabe and co told us about Valve’s failures, and Wednesday’s interview was about Valve’s big surprises. For today’s, I had the brain taxing pleasure of playing Portal 2 in co-op with its project lead Josh Weier, while interviewing both him and writer Erik Wolpaw. I’ll explain what’s going on in the game any time it’s relevant to what they tell me, and I have of course cut out a lot of, “Put one there. No there. No, don’t jump in the slime. WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”
PC Gamer: It must be interesting going from a programmer to a project lead, to have an instinctive sense of what’s possible and what isn’t, whereas if you’re just from a design background I guess you have to learn that stuff as you go.
Josh Weier: I think for better or worse I have an engineer’s mindset going about things, where I’m breaking down things in the process, and that’s actually a really Valve thing to do, anyway. Even our lead designers and artists think that way, it’s really a culture thing, which is cool.
As you can see, both you and I are robots. We made that choice because when we started to think about Portal 2 co-op, one of the things that became obvious is that players just want to have fun. There are a lot of ways to drop your buddy in the slime, and do things that would accidentally kill your friend and it was really funny and everybody really enjoyed it. We wanted to play that up, but we didn’t want to make that grotesque, because if it were Chell it would be gory, and not that funny.
And there’s another aspect to that that we really wanted to hit on that we’ll show you in a different map, which was making those deaths more comedic. But also when a player dies, we simply respawn them and the map continues, we didn’t want to put in a big penalty for death. We wanted people to be able to make mistakes and have that be a funny thing that you both talk about. Not something where you’re like, “Argh, I hate my buddy!” and then punch him. So that was a driving goal for us. I don’t have a great way to show you this but-
PC Gamer: What do I look like?
Josh Weier: Ah yes, let’s show you that. You can see you look more like a turret, and I look more like one of the little personality spheres. Do you want to talk, Erik, and I can drive?
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. So, it’s Portal, but each of you has a portal gun so each of you can fire a pair of portals. Your two portals are always linked to each other, and your partner’s two portals are always linked to each other, but either one of you can go through either of your portals. The portals never get interlinked, so one of my portals will never get linked to one of your portals or vice versa.
(I wave stiffly)
I think you just hit a gesture. There’s a whole bunch of context sensitive gestures as well, there’ll be more as well go towards shipping. There’s some laughing, there’s probably some dancing in there.
PC Gamer: I’m so, like, awkward.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, one of the things the animators are going for with the gestures is that they’re robots trying to imitate human motions. Some of these aren’t finished, but the gestures play into the co-op story. The co-op is a completely different track from the single player. It fits into the single player fiction but it’s its own little side story.
It’s about length. The single player’s about six hours, and the co-op is about six hours currently, give or take a little by the time we ship. But these characters appear in the single player game. Once you play the single player game it becomes obvious where this sort of happens, in terms of the single player fiction.
(At the end of the puzzle, Josh and I are ripped apart and sucked into tubes.)
Erik Wolpaw: Oh yeah, that’s the… basically at the end of the levels, instead of riding elevators you get disassembled and reassembled. It was one of the reasons we made them robots. In single player death has some consequence. In fiction you die and that’s the end of the game. Here, because you have a partner, we need you to be able to come back over and over again, so the robots can be built.
This is an example of a slightly more complicated puzzle here.
(We’re in a large room full of slime, lasers and spiky crusher machines.)
Now what Josh is going to do is de-power the crusher, which will bring it down. The lift is going to go down and the one that’s over here is going to come up. So what you’ll need to do is-
PC Gamer: Jump to the lift without crossing through the beam?
Erik Wolpaw: Ah! But, you can’t actually jump that far so you’re going to have to think about-
PC Gamer: Portal to the lift!
Erik Wolpaw: Yes, portal it.
Josh Weier: Okay, tell me when you’re ready.
PC Gamer: Apparently I’m ready!
Josh Weier: Okay.
PC Gamer: Wait. I’m facing the wrong way.
Erik Wolpaw: Woah. Oh god! No! Wait, no you’re okay, just jump, jump, jump!
(I make it, and Josh manipulates the level for me to get to the exit. Once there, I have to manipulate it in turn to clear the way for him to join me.)
GLaDOS: As an impartial facilitator, it would be unfair of me to name my favourite member of your team. However it’s perfectly fair to mention it in a way that my least favourite member probably isn’t smart enough to understand. Participant Orange, you are doing veeery well.
Erik Wolpaw: She’s trying to break you two apart. We have a whole series of puzzles that are asymmetric in that way, where one person has a specific job to do and helps guide the other person through the puzzle, and the other person has more of an execution role. This is another new element. These are laser bridges. What happens is, if you put a portal at one end of the laser bridge, and put another somewhere else, the bridge will extend.
PC Gamer: Oh nice.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, so you can navigate through there. We’re kind of cherry picking levels in this demo from all over the place. There’s no real progression in terms of what you might have been trained on.
One of the things is, in the single player campaign and in Portal 1, there’s buttons, and boxes you place on the buttons. In the multiplayer game there’s also these balls that go on a different type of button. The big thing about these balls is that they bounce, so it means that you need to get under it or else it’s going to bounce off of this thing.
(In the ensuing puzzle, I have to use my portals to extend a light bridge over Josh’s head in mid-air, so that a jump pad doesn’t knock him into a vapourisation field. After he hits his head on my bridge, I have to quickly move it beneath him so that he also lands on it. In return, he extends the bridge to me with his own portals, I walk over and he passes me the ball he’s carrying.)
GLaDOS: The two of you have forged an excellent partnership, with one of you handling the cerebral challenges, and the other ready to ponderously wander into action.
Josh Weier: One of the fun things about co-op is sometimes making mistakes is more fun than getting it right straight away, because you’re trying to figure out how to come back.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah the animators are going crazy with death animations to try and, you know, all the different situations you can die, the goal is for them all to be entertaining.
Right, so this puzzle. In single player, in Portal 1, and in Portal 2 as well, we try not to do a lot of timed puzzles, where there was time pressure. But in the co-op we actually found that it was a lot more fun to do the time stuff with a partner, where you kind of come up with a plan and then execute it, and this is an example of one of those.
Josh Weier: It’s funny with co-op, because one thing we discovered really early on is that we could throw really hard problems at players in single player that stump them, and they’d get tired and they’d go off and look online for a solution.
In co-op, there’s this really interesting thing where because you’re talking to someone, you’re talking about your process:
“How do we get to the button?”
“Oh, I don’t know. What if we did this and this?”
And just like in real life, communicating that way, you suddenly go, “Oh, it’s this!”
So there’s a lot of cool moments in co-op where your buddy goes, “Oh I know how to do it, I know how to do it!” And then he gets it wrong. And you’re like “Oh I know how to do it I’m gonna do it!”
And so there’s this really neat back and forth that occurs with doing that. It gives you those “Aha!” moments in Portal, but it’s all the more cool because you’ve got your buddy there doing it too, and that’s really neat.
PC Gamer: There aren’t really that many co-op puzzle games, are there?
Josh Weier: Not a bunch.
PC Gamer: It’s funny because if I’m in the office and I’m playing a shooter, if someone’s looking over my shoulder, they’re not saying “hey, throw a grenade there” or “try shooting that”. But whenever there’s a puzzle game there’ll be a crowd that gathers, and everyone’s suggesting stuff.
Erik Wolpaw: That was the thing. Anecdotally, as soon as we shipped Portal, just from people who work here, we kept hearing the same story over and over again, which was “I played it with my son, or my daughter, I played it with my wife or girlfriend and we played it co-operatively.” I mean, right from before any other decision was made about the sequel we knew that was something we wanted to put in, to formalise the co-operative nature of it. Having said that once you bite it off there’s all sort of unforseen things like some easy to solve, like, put a portal here, we quickly realised you needed another way to do that. But just other things, wrapping your head around what the puzzle design for four portals is. One of the things is that each puzzle must require four portals to solve. So in other words, if one person can figure out how to solve it with just one set of portals then it’s back to the drawing board, so it’s a whole different set of design problems with the co-op stuff, which also meant that, whether we wanted to make it a separate track or not, it had to be a separate track because it doesn’t work in a single player track, the puzzles are just different.
Josh Weier: I think one of the things that was interesting about that, too, is the fact that if you remember in the original Portal, like, just learning what portals were was really exciting, and suddenly adding four portals to the mix gave us all these things where that was happening again, so it kind of took you back to that place of like “yeah I know how portals work” and then you add another pair and it’s like, oh man there’s all these things that suddenly come up, and that was really fun to explore again.
Erik Wolpaw: It was interesting for the team, because it reinvigorated the portal concept, you know, after a few years of thinking about them and all of a sudden they seem fresh again. Having said that all the new puzzle elements, single player and multiplayer share. Everything that’s new in the single player also appears in the co-op, and vice versa. I don’t know if the balls appear as a puzzle element in the single player, but that’s about it.
Actually the other thing that seemed obvious at first was “Oh, we’ve got to do portals in some way that’s competitive.” And, I don’t know, we did four or five iterations of that. In theory it all sounds kind of fun but it quickly devolves into just, a not particularly fun chaos, because they’re not really puzzle oriented.
One of the things we did was a football thing where you had to grab a ball and you had to put it somewhere, and you could drop people into portals and you could use portals to get further down the field with it. It was kind of okay, but it wasn’t especially fun.
Josh Weier: Yeah I feel like the co-operative puzzle solving is somewhere where the game really shone and, like you said, there’s so many competitive co-ops that it’s kind of a weird place to put it.
Erik Wolpaw: All of a sudden you’re competing with both sports games and shooting games when in fact it’s not like the co-op puzzle space is so oversaturated with titles that it just felt like a way better avenue to pursue.
PC Gamer: Was it just frustrating to be shoved through someone else’s portal by them firing it at your feet?
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah it’s not as satisfying for either party as you thought it would be in your head when you imagined it because all of a sudden you’re just falling. It can be disorienting going through the portals when you’ve placed them yourself and when you didn’t it’s just really disorienting.
Josh Weier: It ended up devolving down into, I think at one point, we had eight people in a room all trying to do that and everybody bunny hopping to try to keep away from it. It was interesting internally but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that people are going to have a lot of fun with. And we had a laser in there, and people were zapping each other. That was exciting.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, that was alright. Anyway, it took a while to hook that up, and then about five minutes to realise that we made a terrible, terrible mistake.
PC Gamer: Do you have any bits in the co-op campaign where you have to split up and you have to solve puzzles using two portals?
Erik Wolpaw: There are some parts where you do separate briefly, there aren’t a lot of puzzles that require you to be completely out of each other’s sight too much. I can’t remember what the thinking was, part of it was, we wanted to keep you together as much as possible. The thing that is more along those lines are the asymmetric puzzles where one guy is hanging back, kind of controlling. There’s one, I think it’s in the teaser we’re doing, which is like, it looks like a big ant farm where there’s things moving around and there’s one guy controlling that while the other guy’s trying to navigate through it. Basically, the asymmetrical puzzles kind of fulfil that role where you’re separate. There are a few places where you’re separate. The one thing that we discovered is that because you may be sitting front of a TV, hopefully a lot of people will play it split screen on Xbox, having GLaDOS talk to you asynchronously is difficult, because if you’re sitting right next to each other then it quickly just becomes noise.
PC Gamer: So does GLaDOS say the same things to both of you?
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah. We actually toyed, at one point, with having GLaDOS saying one thing to one player but she’s whispering another thing to the other player. But that wasn’t working for various reasons, plus it would have required twice as much content – because we also needed a complete story that didn’t have that, for when you were playing split screen. It was kind of fun for a little bit but for the effort it would take to replicate a completely different story without that… the joke wasn’t so good that it was worth doing that.
The other idea was supposed to be, in this one section, that GLaDOS is trying to drive a wedge between you. And because she’s GLaDOS, we figured people would be on board with that, clearly knowing that you were actually supposed to bind together. But people didn’t actually really like being– anything that smacked of competition, we got negative feedback about.
She was doing this thing where she would start randomly assigning points for doing nothing, basically. But people would try to figure that out and they would be like “I want these points!” And they were meaningless. She was just arbitrarily assigning points. Sometimes they weren’t even points, she’d give you, like, four pineapples or something. It didn’t make any difference they were just some code of her own.
For most people it just wasn’t working. It sounded great in theory, it’s still a good joke when you say it, but in the actual playing of it it was falling a little bit flat. It was a) confusing people, and then b) making them angry.
Josh Weier: And there was this weird social thing that people would do that was kind of cool, where one person would go through the door and get some points, and the next time around, before they went through the door they’d say “No no, you go first”. So they were actually trying to game that and help each other out. So that was kinda cool, but, yeah, drove people the wrong way.
PC Gamer: Yeah, points are never meaningless.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, that’s what we found out! Points are never meaningless.
Josh Weier: We did some mean things, too, where you would do the same things and she would award one player more points than the other, and that drove people nuts.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, exactly the same action would result in differing amounts of points.
PC Gamer: But you’ve still got some references to that in there, right? I mean we heard it.
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, and we may actually end up shipping with a little taste of that. I was like, “I’m going to extend this [joke] out for six hours, and it’s going to kill for six straight hours!” and it didn’t. But maybe for six minutes it’ll kill. For one chamber, we’ll probably get the gist of that out there.
Josh Weier: The great thing is that we always go through tons of play testing so we tweak it, so we put it in there and see if it works. If it doesn’t fly we don’t need to do it.
PC Gamer: I’ve heard something to the effect that Portal pretty much done a year before shipping, and that year was spent play testing. Are you going to be able to give it that much testing this time round?
Josh Weier: Yeah, I think kind of from the core of it we’ve started with that approach. We would work on the tractor beam or whatever it was, the excursion funnels as we call them online, and it was just a matter of sitting down, seeing how people played it, making puzzles, figuring out the next puzzle. And they just go through, I mean, it must be hundreds of tests by the time they’re done with it.
So clearly, we need to definitely put that same love through all of it. Weekly we’ll run it through and have the whole game played by people, we’ll bring in total Portal newbies, we’ll bring in Portal pros and we’ll bring in everyone in between, just trying to make sure that everybody can have fun and get through.
Erik Wolpaw: We had one our accountants or somebody on Friday who’d never played Portal and who doesn’t really play games, and she floundered a little bit. But they actually were able to take some concrete changes to the levels that’ll hopefully help anybody else, so yeah, the play test goes on.
It was mostly done, but some stuff in Portal 1, the final boss battle was in flux right up until near the end. We kind of had our fingers crossed in Portal 1, because the final puzzle in Portal isn’t really even a puzzle, it’s not very difficult, the GLaDOS boss battle. It’s not an especially difficult puzzle, and before we had all of the bells and whistles in there, the final audio, it was sort of failing and failing and failing. And people said “well that was anticlimactic.” But we just knew – well we didn’t know – we were hoping that if we layered enough crap on it, it would all of a sudden be more of a spectacle and people would enjoy it. But we would have been in trouble if the layering of different things hadn’t turned out to be entertaining.
PC Gamer: So your approach is like, “Ah, this boss is fundamentally uninteresting so we’ll just layer some crap on it and it’ll be okay!”
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah! Well, it wasn’t completely random, we were going from the mindset that nobody’s going to want to solve a difficult puzzle while they’re also being bombarded with a lot of visual stimulus and stuff to listen to. But a difficult puzzle without all this adornment isn’t going to feel climactic, which we had proven that earlier by having a bunch of difficult puzzles, and people were reacting negatively to those.
And so the idea was “Here’s a puzzle, we know it more or less works but people aren’t finding it to be a worthy conclusion, but we know – again, hope/know – that if we put enough funny stuff in it, when there’s some spectacle there that will cause it to succeed. And it did.”
PC Gamer: I felt like the whole thing was building up to her breaking down. I held off putting the modules in the furnace until GLaDOS had said everything she was going to say for each one.
Erik Wolpaw: That was the one point where we kind of put some time pressure on you, in the most ham fisted way possible, we just literally had a timer counting down because that helped it be climactic. The time pressure I liked in Portal 1 was when you were riding the elevator thing into the fire, because it was time pressure but it was easily understandable time pressure. All of those lessons are folded into here. It’s a little bit easier along at least some axis in Portal 2, because the team understands portals more, you can take a body of knowledge of what worked and what didn’t in Portal 1 and move it forward for Portal 2.
PC Gamer: When you were starting Portal 2, were you playing around with anything fundamentally completely different?
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, we did go down a couple of paths with some mechanics that we actually won’t talk about because we might use them at some point. But one of the ideas was: what if the Portal franchise is, instead of always being about Portals – which’d be tough because it’s called Portal – but what if it was always about introducing a new puzzle element that you’re going through? it’s about Aperture Science, and now you’re going through this new testing track with this new element.
We pretty quickly found that, even though we had a couple of pretty interesting mechanics, that people would always, to a person, every play tester we had would say, “Yeah this is alright, but where’s my portal gun?”
So then we went down the path of, “Well okay, what are all the things we thought of during Portal 1, and what are new things, what are new puzzle elements that combinatorially will create this much larger puzzle space?” As much as we may have been sick of portals, we found that play testers were not. They wanted more portals, and all the new puzzle elements did make it more interesting all of a sudden, between the paint stuff…
Also paint was one of the things we had played with as being “Okay this is the central mechanic: the goo.” That was one of the ones that we tried that we were actually able to fold into, and they actually played pretty well with, portals. We also went down a couple of branches where we’d take the central mechanics that we thought we were going to use as the fundamental component and try and mix it with portals. And for a lot of reasons, different mechanics – either they’re just redundant, or they just ruin each other. There was all sorts of other stuff. We also didn’t want it to be a game where I have a portal gun for half the game, and then this other thing for half the game.
Josh Weier: Plus I think Portal had this real elegance, where it was just: “I have my portal gun, and everything is dripping from that,” And we didn’t want to lose that, right? We felt that was important, players understood it and we wanted to find ways to make you and your portals more powerful, but in ways that were really obvious to people.
PC Gamer: So at one point you had the paint as being the central thing?
Erik Wolpaw: I think briefly we tried it. We tried everything. I think we had the Gravity Gun as the central thing at one point.
PC Gamer: The paint thing came from Tag: The Power of Paint, right? (A prototype by DigiPen students, just as Portal’s precursor Narbacular Drop once was.)
Erik Wolpaw: Yeah, Tag, those guys, we hired them, they’re all sitting in the room now. They had been off doing their own thing, working on some stuff, and then they worked on how to combine portals, and they came back to us with some maps and- “Wow, this really works.”
Josh Weier: And it was a funny thing, too, because those guys were inspired by the first DigiPen students who made Portal, so they were inspired by Portal and were able to inspire us.
PC Gamer: I bet some people are working really hard at DigiPen right now.
Erik Wolpaw: It’s tough to think up a new central puzzle mechanic.
PC Gamer: You guys have shown off the bouncy paint and the speed paint. In Tag, for me, the really interesting bit was when you got the sticky paint. (It allowed you to walk on painted walls and ceilings). Is that going to be in Portal 2?
Erik Wolpaw: It’s up in the air at this point. Can we talk about that?
Josh Weier: We’ll leave some surprises for down the road. Like everything, we test it all, we see what works and what doesn’t. We’re still in the process of poking a couple of things to see what we can do with paint, and some other stuff that people haven’t seen in Tag that makes it all the more fun.
PC Gamer: But there are more kinds of paint than we’ve seen, right?
Erik Wolpaw: Yes. Sticky paint’s a… we’re working on it. We’re working on sticky paint.
PC Gamer: This is something my friend Tom said, but we think it’s a huge missed opportunity that they’re called Propulsion Gel and Repulsion Gel, when they could be called Propulsion Emulsion and Repulsion Emulsion.
Erik Wolpaw: They may still be, by the time it ships, because of that. Propulsion Gel… Emulsion. Emulsion is a good word. Right. Maybe we’ll take that. It’s not set in stone yet.
PC Gamer: And the sticky one could be Compulsion Emulsion.
Erik Wolpaw: Oh yeah! The unknown paint may be harder to fit into that naming structure.
PC Gamer: Something a bunch of people have commented on, from seeing the videos, is that they’re scared it’ll be too hard for them.
Erik Wolpaw: So, it won’t be. This may be more the fault of the trailer. It’s hard to get someone pumped up by someone slowly and deliberately solving a puzzle. There’s a panic that sets in that we’re going to have to show this in an auditorium full of people, and they’re not going to want to watch somebody solve a puzzle.
So the way we thought about it when we were putting it together: in the very original Portal trailer there was this sort of 2D graphic that showed it going crazy, and we thought, “Let’s just show it going crazy in the game, but in-game.” And it was a hard thing to split the difference.
But rest assured, absolutely, the number one goal is to have a gradual training arc, and also to ensure that things aren’t too execution heavy. The person we had doing it was doing it in the flashiest way humanly possible.
PC Gamer: Was it Jeep [Barnett, Portal 1 designer and portal ninja] by any chance?
Josh Weier: I think Jeep helped us in a couple of them. We’ve got some other portal ninjas, too.
Erik Wolpaw: It took a lot of takes, everybody was just sitting around that night, just, you know, “Who can do the one that looks really good?” It was a long night of recording.
Josh Weier: But again, our play test process is what helped us to get through that stuff, right? Like, we put all sorts of people through just to make sure that we’re not excluding anybody who could have fun with the game, because it is such a broad reaching game. It’s not the typical sort of game where, you know, your girlfriend or wife or kids might look at it and go, “Ah, I don’t know.” We really want to appeal to those people too, and it’s the kind of game where you can do that.
My play time with Portal 2’s co-op mode has convinced me it’s the way a Portal game should be played. Solving the puzzles feels like planning a heist: assigning duties, calculating timing, then blundering into action and restrategising as you go. When it goes wrong, it’s hilarious. And when it goes right, it’s sublime.
Tomorrow I’ll be talking to Gabe Newell and co about their plans to expand their games into other mediums, and handle it all themselves: including the Half-Life movie, if people want it. The trailer above is the first time we’ve really seen their burgeoning movie-making talents applied to Portal, and it probably won’t be the last.
9/9: Valve on 13 things they’ve failed at
8/9: Gabe (and Erik/Doug) on Valve’s big surprisesLast month I was at Valve HQ in Bellevue to play Portal 2 and interview seven of their key staff. You can read the resulting preview and feature in the current issue of PC Gamer in the UK, and we’re also putting an interview up every day for a week here on the blog. Yesterday MD Gabe Newell, project manager Erik Johnson and marketing director Doug Lombardi explained their history of surprising decisions, and teased three more major surprises in the next year. Today, I innocently ask them if there’s anything in their history they see as a failure, and get thirteen different responses.
PC Gamer: You said you have to fail to learn something – are there things you think you have failed at?
Gabe Newell: Moss, in the original Half-Life 1 (They once said moss would grow in real-time in Half-Life). Ricochet, PowerPlay…
Erik Johnson: The first few months of Steam weren’t exactly…
Doug Lombardi: It’s hard to say now, but the first two days of Half-Life 2. That was a failure.
Gabe Newell: What else… Prospero, the game that we never shipped.
PC Gamer: That was the game you were developing around the same time as Half-Life, right?
Gabe Newell: Yeah. I mean we still think about it, right?
Erik Johnson: Absolutely. Those products and features that have never seen the light of day, but it’s really hard to count those as ‘failure’ as they all end up somewhere.
Gabe Newell: Well, they’re still interesting failures. That’s the whole point of failure, right?
Doug Lombardi: The TF2 that was built up until 2000…
Gabe Newell: Our first stab at Blobulator was a failure (I didn’t get a chance to follow up on this, but it may be a tool relating to the .blob files Steam uses). Oh, Invasion was a failure.
Erik Johnson: (Explaining:) The second TF2.
Gabe Newell: Right. The first TF2 was a failure and it was sort of an uninteresting failure.
Erik Johnson: Although that one was interesting, because it was the thing we showed at E3. And at that point, voice communication when the person’s mouth moving that was…
Gabe Newell: Rocket science!
Erik Johnson: People were amazed by that, and we shipped that…
Gabe Newell: …in Counter-Strike.
Erik Johnson: The animation system we shipped…
Gabe Newell: …in Counter-Strike.
Erik Johnson: Friends and Foes, the original Friends tracker was in it…
Gabe Newell: …Counter-Strike!
Erik Johnson: But that was totally a failure. And then in the second TF2 was a failure, but there’s been a lot of things from that TF2 that are in this TF2.
Gabe Newell: Yeah, you’d like to absorb your failures before they torture your customers.
The Riot Shield, but that was small on a failure scale. That was an interesting failure because that makes us think hard… It’s the first time we put a feature in and more people played the game – which is our most basic way of measuring whether or not we’re making people happy – and then we took it out and more people played. And we’re like, “OK, what does this mean?” Is it just this sort of meta…
Doug Lombardi: Counter-Strike continues to mystify. (Laughs)
Gabe Newell: Well no, in general it taught us a lot about the value of constantly touching your customers.
Erik Johnson: Right, so our customers are responding to this more like a service than a product! (All laugh) We should build them something to get them software more quickly!
Gabe Newell: Right!
Doug Lombardi: There’s a few failed starts to build Left 4 Dead, too. That took a while before it took shape.
Gabe Newell: Well, there was the flying fairy game. Is that the one you were referring to?
Doug Lombardi: (Laughs) Yeah, there were a few iterations, yes.
Erik Johnson: That was just a different game that, when we stabbed it…
Doug Lombardi: … It turned into Left 4 Dead!
Gabe Newell: That was a useful failure to us because it was so clearly dumb that it made us say, “OK, what are we actually good at that we can do instead?” It was not optimising for the right thing.
PC Gamer: What was the flying fairy game?
Erik Johnson: That was in RAM! I’ve already deleted that.
Gabe Newell: It was a weird prototype game that had spells and was based on movement and mouse gestures. It was so bad, you wanted to ask yourself “How could we make a game that was this bad? And how should we make a game?” and we said, “We should focus on what we do really well, so why are we doing this game which was kind of a…” it wasn’t really an RPG, it was this weird…
Doug Lombardi: It was like this action, fantasy thing.
Gabe Newell: It was this action fantasy sort of role playing game that had no story. And then it was, “OK that’s so horribly wrong, what we should focus in on is AI and playing in co-op, and that’s the interesting opportunity. That was where Left 4 Dead came in. It was very much like, “This is so bad, so what would good look like if you’ve started on the wrong foot?”
Doug Lombardi: It was like, “How could we schedule a perfect CS match, if you were playing with your friends against AI?” And it sort of came out of that.
Gabe Newell: Speaking of screw-ups, banning people in Call of Duty. That was way, way bigger an issue for us than piracy (I’d asked about their piracy figures earlier), as a thing we needed to do something about. You know about that? We banned 12,000 people because there was a flaw in how we were – it was a series of events that could occur that occur far more likely in Modern Warfare 2.
Erik Johnson: Are we still on the pile of things we’ve done wrong?
Gabe Newell: Yes.
Erik Johnson: OK.
Erik Johnson: Favourite conversation of ours! PS3, so far. The way we’ve dealt with those customers so far, and the product that they have, and the lack of updates on the 360 for TF2 is also a total failure. Those are the ones that sting the worst because…
Doug Lombardi: There’s actual ramifications.
Erik Johnson: Because it got all the way through to customers. It’s like a bug. If you fix a bug before it ever ships, it’s pretty cheap. If you ship it and then fix it, it’s really expensive. Those ones are really bad.
Gabe Newell: That’s why we’re really happy with the current situation with the PS3… We’re solving it now in a way that is going to work for our customers, rather than assuming something is going to emerge later that will allow us to fix this.
PC Gamer: Was the mistake on the Xbox side to think that Microsoft would let you update it more often?
Gabe Newell: We thought that there would be something that would emerge, because we figured it was a sort of untenable… “Oh yeah, we understand that these are the rules now, but it’s such a train wreck that something will have to change.”
Erik Johnson: We did kind of blindly go off and build… you know what we’ve done in TF2 because you’ve played TF2, right? We built a lot of things. So there is this business issue of how do you keep delivering software, which we did kind of think we could resolve in some way. Market forces are dictating it should be resolved. But then memory’s a problem for us now – we’ve added all these things, so you have to consider those budgets at this point.
Erik Johnson: I mean it’s a trade-off. I don’t know how to evaluate that trade-off today. TF2 on the PC side has delivered a huge amount of value, but we’ve screwed up on the other side.
Doug Lombardi: OK, enough about our screw ups! Next question!
PC Gamer: Sorry, I didn’t realize that would be such a long answer.
Erik Johnson: Here’s “Valve tells us why they suck!” (Laughs)
Doug Lombardi: It’s not like any random group of Valve fans couldn’t generate a list of our public failures, right? It’s not like it’s a secret.
Gabe Newell: For our private failures, you just have to go to Robin’s Flickr page.
Tomorrow I’ll be talking to Portal writer Erik Wolpaw and Portal 2 project lead Josh Weier about the joys of mind-bending co-op, and the ridiculous aborted versions of the sequel that never saw the light of day.
(If this is already posted, sorry! Just saw the tweet pop up on my timeline!)Valve are surprising. Half-Life itself was surprising enough, but then they surprisingly scooped up Counter-Strike, sprung Steam on us surprisingly, turned Half-Life 2 surprisingly episodic, then took surprisingly long on the episodes. When I flew out to visit them last month, I half expected to find they’d moved to the moon and turned themselves into a yacht manufacturer. And since they hadn’t, I was, again, surprised.
I was there to play Portal 2 co-op for the preview feature you can read in the current issue of PC Gamer in the UK, and interview seven of their key staff for a profile on Valve themselves to go with it. But they told me so much cool stuff that we’re going to be putting up an interview a day for the next week. Today’s is from a marathon chat with MD Gabe Newell, project manager Erik Johnson, and marketing director Doug Lombardi, and I start by asking them the question I’ve wanted to ask them for about three years.
PC Gamer: From a player’s perspective, the two things that mark you out as a company is that a) all the games you do are very very good, and b) almost every major decision you make is really surprising. It’s hard to figure out what the overall strategy is.
There’s The Orange Box where you’re bundling everything together in one nice package – that took us all by surprise. So then with Left 4 Dead we were thinking “Ooh, what are you going to bundle with that?” and you didn’t bundle anything with that, so we were surprised again.
Then Team Fortress 2 starts to evolve into this whole new thing where it’s doubling the content you get, for free, which even the most optimistic of us didn’t expect. So everyone’s waiting for that with Left 4 Dead, and suddenly a sequel is announced, very soon after, and that seems more like a traditional publishing model.
Is there a common thread?
Gabe Newell: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean think about it from our perspective, where we’re very much at the infancy on design decisions, how to give customers value. We have way, way more questions than we have answers, and so a lot of what we do is designed to give us a good perspective on our range of choices. It’s not to assume that we already know, but to do things that are different enough that we can then compare them and see what the results are.
If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it’s much harder to work out where you should go. TF2 has been a great… I mean we’ve learned an incredible amount, and everything we’ve done on TF2 is going to have an impact on all of our games. Counter-Strike – we still are internalizing lessons from the original Half-Life 1 based Counter-Strike. We always think of our products as being part of an ongoing evolution and that each of those choices should give us useful data to make our future products better. Everything is a step towards the next product, and the next product.
Orange Box was a really interesting experiment around… I can guarantee you that people are going to be surprised at stuff we do. (Laughs) That isn’t going to stop anytime soon. I’m just laughing because people will be shocked again.
PC Gamer: By something you’re going to do soon?
Gabe Newell: Yes.
But to us I think it makes sense, because every single one of those things has resulted in us learning a lot. If you look at an optimum strategy, I think you have to fail. If you don’t have a large enough dynamic range to fail, then you’re not going to be able to figure out where you go next. And the idea that we’re anywhere close to the potential of games as a medium is… we’re so far from [that]. We as an industry, we’ve barely even taken our first steps.
At the same time we’re trying to build products, and have our customers think they’re getting great value, we also feel like we have to keep trying different things to inform our decisions of what to do next, right?
Things that we’re not doing enough experimentation on are mobile – I think all of the answers today in the mobile space are totally retarded. In spite of that, we don’t really get to have much of an opinion because we haven’t done anything. The GameBoy has been out forever; has Valve ever done a mobile game? No. So we only get to bitch so much about what other people do.
I think there’s some really interesting stuff coming in the free-to-play and the microtransaction stuff, and we haven’t really done anything interesting there to explore into understand it. (To Doug & Erik) What else are we not doing enough experimentation on?
Doug Lombardi: Casual games.
Gabe Newell: Casual games, right.
Erik Johnson: Motion.
Doug Lombardi: Yeah, motion’s another one.
Gabe Newell: So when we’re figuring out what we’re doing next, we’ll put up a list and do different things.
One of the most important things for us is what people want to do, right? Left 4 Dead 2 was an example where a group of people voted really hard “we want to do this” internally. So what people want to do… the sort of technologies that we think need to be moved forward in a low risk sort of way. It’s not experimentation, it’s “we need to do this, and we need to do this” – and that’s a set of things.
We think a little bit of diversity, like wanting to have a wider range of game types than we do, that’s a plus. Experiments like “this is a safe product for us to try this” where the experiment can fail totally and the product will still be valuable to customers – we love those kinds of things.
Erik Johnson: We have to carry some risks, that’s important.
Gabe Newell: Yeah… TF2, for example, is a great field for us to explore different kinds of things. It absorbs a lot of, you know… hats.
PC Gamer: (Laughs) It absorbs hats?
Gabe Newell: If we said “Oh we’re announcing Half-Life 3: our war-themed hat simulator game!” people would go “What the hell are you talking about?” With TF2, we can do a bunch of things and learn about a bunch of stuff in a way where that audience is happy to go along for the ride. We can’t destroy TF2 by adding funny hats to it. Does that make sense? It’s a safe place to try this out and see what people like, what people don’t like. Make some changes to make sure people really understand what they like and don’t like.
PC Gamer: So it adds a large margin of error, in terms of thematic stuff? Like, hats aren’t going to make it feel too cartoonish, because it’s already a cartoon.
Gabe Newell: Right. That’s one of the advantages of stylized games. They tend to be able to absorb a lot of variation, whereas if you have a photorealistic game, the range of interesting choices is a lot harder. Counter-Strike would just be, from a visual design perspective, a lot harder to do this feature. And it might end up compromising the whole thing, just because you end up doing a bunch of military style helmets that are indistinguishable at a distance. When it’s the fact that somebody across the map can tell that you’re cooler than they are…
Erik Johnson: You definitely wouldn’t want to do it there first.
Gabe Newell: That’s what I’m saying, right? Each project sort of has natural and unnatural opportunities to try different things. So each time we look at it, “What are the things we evaluate? What are the things we want to learn from this? What are the things we want to try out? And what are the safe things that we can try out that won’t screw our customers?”
PC Gamer: I’m sure everything you do, you have a section of fans who bitch about it- (Doug laughs) That’s a fair comment, isn’t it?
Doug Lombardi: It wasn’t the comment! (Laughs) I was just giggling.
Erik Johnson: I mean, there weren’t a lot of fans that complained about Alien Swarm…
Gabe Newell: Oh yes there were!
Erik Johnson: Who? What’s the angle?
Gabe Newell: “Where’s the Mac version?”
Doug Lombardi: Yeah, “Where’s the Mac version?” “How come you’re not doing more content?”
Gabe Newell: That’s a fair complaint!
PC Gamer: Obviously you have to tune out sometimes, but there seemed to be a strong reaction to Left 4 Dead 2. Obviously it sold really well, so what did you take away from that? Did you think “Oh, it sold anyway, we can ignore all those guys,” or did you think “We need to…”
Gabe Newell: No, we actually did a bad job of talking about our products to that community beforehand, right? That was just us not thinking ahead, and if we had talked to them about it better…
So the thing that makes me happy is when you look at the customers who self-identified as boycott members, they actually bought Left 4 Dead 2 at a higher rate than any other group of Left 4 Dead 1 owners. Which to me means we delivered a good product, because they had every reason not to buy the product. But we also spent a lot of time talking to those people, and explaining to them why this was like all our other products: it was worth their money and worth their time.
We set ourselves up by not thinking ahead to the fact that this would occur, and that’s why we spent a fair amount of time addressing those concerns, because we thought they were legitimate issues for people in the community to raise. That’s why he (indicates Erik) and I got on a plane and flew down to Australia.
Erik Johnson: Flew halfway round the world. It’s pretty rare that there’s not…
Gabe Newell: There’s always some information.
Erik Johnson: There’s always some information, in all complaints.
Gabe Newell: It’s a signal to noise problem. If you decide to tune out signal just because there’s a lot of noise, then you’re missing a tremendous amount of opportunity to do well by your customers.
Erik Johnson: I think that some people in that group were saying they were fans of Valve, and they were saying: “Has Valve changed in some way that was unannounced?” And we were like, “No, but we didn’t explain anything very well.”
PC Gamer: But did you come away from that thinking a one year sequel can be a good thing?
Gabe Newell: Oh sure, there are certainly circumstances in which that’s a completely valid thing to do. I think that it never hurts to communicate better, and… the more information you give to customers, the happier they’re going to be.
Doug Lombardi: And it was a unique situation in Left 4 Dead’s case too, to be able to do a sequel that fast. I don’t know that the majority of our other titles we could even pull that off if we said we wanted to, right?
Gabe Newell: I’m sure at some point we’re going to do it again, the point is we learned something about that, which is… your point earlier was that we surprise our customers, and there’s a certain amount of entertainment value in that.
But then there’s also a certain amount of fear value in that, because the traditional surprise in the gaming industry is not “Oh, I’m surprised: something good happened!” The traditional surprise is “Oh, I’m surprised: X-Fire just got bought again and went away.” “Oh, I’m surprised because something horrible has happened to a franchise that I’ve been following since I was a little kid.”
PC Gamer: “Oh, I’m surprised: Assassin’s Creed II needs to be online all the time.”
Gabe Newell: Yeah. The average surprise is negative, not positive, and so if we’re going to surprise people we need to be conscious of that fact. Because we’re going to continue to surprise. We have three pretty big surprises in the next twelve months, at least.
PC Gamer: Are these related to specific games?
Gabe Newell: We have three surprises. I’m talking about surprises, not the surprises themselves. But we’re going to do three things that have the potential to… that will be novel. And if we don’t make sure that people understand what we’re doing, they could easily respond in a Left 4 Dead 2 kind of way. Like, “What the hell?” right? And we just need to be good about that.
We also have to be conscious of the fact that there are a lot of different people that we talk to. Like, there’s people who are really close to us and trust us, and there are other people who play our games and that are more sceptical. And you need to make sure you’re talking to both of those groups in clear enough fashion, to make sure that just because one group is happy and on board, it doesn’t mean the other groups are going to be.
PC Gamer: A good way to make sure you communicate well about your future surprises would be to tell me about them, so we can write about them in the mag.
Doug Lombardi: Noted!
Gabe Newell: I’m sure we will when we’re ready to.
Tomorrow, I ask Gabe and co if there’s anything they think they’ve failed at, and get a marathon answer. As Erik puts it:
Erik Johnson: Here’s “Valve tells us why they suck!” (Laughs)
Doug Lombardi: It’s not like any random group of Valve fans couldn’t generate a list of our public failures, right? It’s not like it’s a secret.
Gabe Newell: For our private failures you just have to go to Robin’s Flickr page.