After spectacularly 'raising the bar' (with a gravity gun) of the FPS genre in 2004, Valve last week turned its attention to extending the Half-Life 2 universe episodically with the release of the first in a trilogy of episodes that finally reveals what happened to Gordon and Alyx after the destruction of the Citadel.
Just prior to our playtest, the Bellevue-based developer opened its doors to Eurogamer for the first time last week, and gave us a fascinating account of how the first episode came into being, the potential for future Half-Life 2 'expansions' as well as giving us their thoughts on how much Hollywood's treatment of Half-Life 'sucks'.
Be sure to check our in-depth review for more on this excellent game, and come back later this week for more exclusive thoughts from one of the world's most respected development studios.
Eurogamer: It must be a novelty to get a game out this quickly after the torturous development of Half-Life 2...
Gabe Newell: It's great... sure beats waiting six years.
Eurogamer: Even so, didn't you expect Episode One to be released sooner than it's ended up? The original first preview that went out in April last year said it was coming 'late summer' and yet here we are almost a year on...
Gabe Newell: Lost Coast pushed Episode One, and Day of Defeat [Source] took some cycles as well. Part of the reason to do things in smaller chunks is that it makes things more retractable, rather than slipping by huge gobs, you're sort of exponentially smaller if you're breaking things up.
Eurogamer: Did more people pre-load Episode One than Half-Life 2?
Gabe Newell: Uptake across the board is pretty high. People are starting to like [Steam] as a method of getting things through regular orders and through pre-ordering as well.
Eurogamer: So why did you go for this episodic system?
Gabe Newell: The original Half-Life took us two years to develop. With a considerably larger team Half-Life 2 took us six years to develop, so we thought if we were going to continue our trend with Half-Life 3 we would basically ship after we had all retired.
We're trying to come up with a better way of getting more timely updates to our customers and also come up with something that didn't have the complexities. Projects increased logarithmically with how much we tried to do, so if you tried to put twice as much content or technology into a box it ends up taking you four times the amount of work, right, and so we're trying to figure out a better solution.
We left Half-Life 2 on a cliffhanger with the Citadel blowing up, Alyx is a couple of feet away from the explosion, so what's going to happen? People were pretty clear that they didn't want to have to wait as long as they had previously to find out what happened.
Eurogamer: So far you've announced three episodes - is that all? Any more planned beyond that?
Gabe Newell: There are three that are in this arc. There are three that are worked out, and those are the ones that we've been talking about so far.
Eurogamer: Why did you change the name from Aftermath? We liked the name.
Gabe Newell: Errr... I... I think that Aftermath was almost a temporary name. I always thought of it as Episodes One through Three because that's how we planned the products out. I think people thought we'd need a name for them, and Aftermath ended up being more confusing than helpful.
Probably a better name for it would have been Half Life 3: Episode One, but these three are what we're doing as our way of taking the next step forward, but Half-Life 2 was the name we used.
Erik Johnson: But we can't change the name 24 hours before release [smiles].
Gabe Newell: No, but what I'm saying is this is what we're trying instead of the large monolithic release. Let's take what we would ordinarily do and break it up into three pieces and see.
Eurogamer: Clearly Episode One is very much about Alyx - why such a big focus on her, and where does the G-Man fit into all of this?
Gabe Newell: A big focus is Alyx, both from a storytelling perspective and from a gameplay perspective. We really liked her as a character, and the fans did too, so we wanted you to be spending a long time with her, and seeing how far we could push this notion of single player co-op. Being in this world with someone who's operating pretty intelligently and acting more as an ally, rather than this dumb collection of polygons that sort of troops around and gets in your way.
The arc of the trio of episodes is also about the G-Man. He appears briefly in Episode One, and we'll get more info on him later. If you think of Half-Life 1 as the G-Man trying to turn you into something that was useful to him - the transformation of the player into hero. And then Half-Life 2 was about how he was using you. Half-Life 3 [a.k.a. Episodes One to Three] is about the relationship with the G-Man and what happens when he loses control of you, when you're not available to him as a tool and how he responds to that, and what are the consequences of that.
Alyx and the relationship with her is a big focus in Episode One and the larger story about your evolving relationship with the G-Man. That's the text of the trio of episodes.
Eurogamer: Last time out with Half-Life 1 you evolved the story very differently by having a set of expansion packs told with the same timeline but from different characters' perspectives. This time you've gone for a linear approach. Why?
Gabe Newell: Well, [Episodes One to Three] aren't expansion packs, right? [In Half-Life] we liked to continue to illuminate these events through different sets of eyes. With Decay we were pretty amused to see these two sets of women carrying the crystal to the test chamber or whether you're Adrian Shepherd [in Opposing Force] or Barney [in Blue Shift], so we liked that aspect to it.
Eurogamer: Did you not think of adopting that same approach with Half-Life 2?
Gabe Newell: We don't think of these as expansions. If we were to do expansion properties we'd go back and work out those various events. We see [Episode One] more as moving the story forward rather than what we do with expansion packs. I like the idea of expansion packs giving you a different perspective on things you've already lived through, but I think gamers are expecting more core products to move the technology forward, to move the story forward and move the gameplay forward.
Eurogamer: So are you saying you'd like to revisit the HL2 timeline again?
Gabe Newell: Well, we might do with expansion products because there's a lot of fun stuff there to explore.
Eurogamer: Presumably you'll play as Gordon Freeman for all the upcoming episodes?
Gabe Newell: Yes, you'll be Gordon Freeman for all three of them. In sense, the core stuff, like Half-Life 2 and the Episodes you play as Gordon, and expansion products you tend to revisit issues and play as different people and see those events through their eyes. It's relatively unlikely that you'd play as one of these other characters as the main story is going forward. We'll save that for Gordon.
Eurogamer: Any thoughts on doing a 360 version?
Doug Lombardi: We've announced that we're doing development work on the engine for the 360, but key titles and whatnot are all speculation. I saw a cover for an official PlayStation magazine that said we'd announced a PlayStation 3 version - that was interesting! We see a lot of that stuff...
Eurogamer: What's the general focus for the Episodes and where are you taking the story in a general sense?
Gabe Newell: There are a couple of other things we're trying to do. The world's started to change, right? There was the world of Half-Life 1 which was the familiar turned strange. You were a scientist and you turned into a hero. With Half-Life 2 we spent a lot of time thinking about this post-Combine world, what happens to it, and looking at the Eastern European art direction; the sensibility of it was really adding to that.
With this [Episodic] trilogy we're trying to show it as more dangerous than it was before. This thing's sort of falling apart; there are more factions, more forces at work and we're going to get the player out of City 17. That's a great setting for what we're trying to do with Half-Life 2, especially with Episode 2 where we're getting you further and further away from that into more of the possibilities of the future, and away from the Eastern European, City 17 sensibilities.
Eurogamer: Can you reveal the names of the places you visit in Episode 2?
Gabe Newell: Not yet! You'll see a teaser at the end that gives you a sense of what the environments will be like. Later this summer we'll give more details about Episode 2 - it's out by the end of this year, and three is by next year. Episode Two actually started simultaneously with Episode One. Robin Walker's heading up Episode One development, and David Spiros is heading up another team doing Episode Two.
Eurogamer: Presumably splitting the teams allowed you to get various episodes up and running at the same time?
Gabe Newell: Exactly. The reason to do that, in a sense is all about risk management, so you have these projects where somebody says "ok, we're going to do a $15m PS3 project" and right there you've just set fire to all of the risk you can possibly assume on the project. It's a huge financial risk, you've got a new platform with all sorts of scary architecture changes, so people aren't going to be particularly innovative on new technical purchases. They're not going to be innovative on gameplay, they'll go an license a movie IP, and then they're going to insist to the development team that they remove anything that makes it unlikely that they won't ship day and date with the marketing campaign for the movie, and that seems to be sort of the wrong direction to go in terms of moving games forward.
What we've been trying to do is think about what sort of strategy to follow, so if you look back at Half-Life 1, the things that we thought were important was this notion of immersive world and storytelling in the FPS genre and when you look at the aggressive support for mods and supporting the multiplayer community in Team Fortress and Counter-Strike we thought that there was a lot of value in having a direct relationship with our customer. So we worked on Steam, and that lets us do a lot of things, it lets us sell to our customers, communicate with them. Anytime one of our customers gets a crash anywhere in the world I get a report on my desk. We know exactly what hardware they're using.
So if we look at this risk issue and we say, "ok, if we keep building these bigger and bigger projects, the game designs, the technology, the willingness to explore new properties and so on is going to get more and more scrubbed out of the system. We did Lost Coast, and one of the things we did was say here's a project with a known setting, we can go and work on just getting High Dynamic Range rendering and we can try this commentary system. So if we can get it out there and get it debugged with all the driver issues worked through - and we're not trying to develop 15 things at the same time - we're just focusing on the one thing.
And the commentary system we can get it out to our customers and ask them 'what do you think?' and they tell us 'it's cool, we like it a bunch', so we go from 14 or 15 pieces of commentary to well over 100 in Episode One. It's this approach of trying to come up with a solution to how we can keep moving things forward, and we can incorporate a lot of feedback.
We looked at the technology we're trying to ship. When you're a game developer we think - and I'm sure you've seen this - there's a huge difference between technology which you demo and technology that you ship. If those two things counted we'd all have telepathy and levitation boots nowadays.
Eurogamer: You mean you haven't got those here?!
Doug Lombardi: We've got a demo of it!
Gabe Newell: There's this big difference between a technology you can show in really limited circumstances and say "look how fancy this graphics effect is," or "look how fancy this physics thing is" - and two years later you still haven't shipped it. Thus, coming up with a mechanism to get this stuff all the way through QA, all the way through all the driver problems, you've got some high field representation, but how does that interact with your physics? When you're doing your demoing, you don't have to worry about it, but it turns out that 70 per cent of the work is getting all of these things to work together and not just getting them to work in isolation.
Eurogamer: Technically, what's changed since Half-Life 2 in the last 18 months?
Gabe Newell: So, with Episode One, we're doing a bunch of stuff on the tech side, but people will be pretty familiar with it. One of the things we've always tried to do is be really scalable so that people on the low end can play at acceptable frame rates and people at the high end feel like we're fully taking advantage of all the hardware that they bought. When we did the Xbox version of HL2 that gave us an opportunity to focus a bunch on performance optimisations, and with Episode One we're going to be shipping with performance optimisations back on the PC, so lots of things have gotten a lot faster.
Eurogamer: In what sense will gamers see optimisations and improvements?
Gabe Newell: In some cases it's given us the opportunity to expand the content budget, so we still want to render the low-end hardware, but now animation's three times faster, so that means we can put a lot more animation in there or increase the frame rate.
Eurogamer: What about at the high end of the scale?
Gabe Newell: On the high end we've added this new Ultra mode which takes advantage of the latest greatest hardware - our pixel shaders are about twice as long in Episode One, you get per pixel specularity, there's some volume shading on the lighting, you'll see Alyx looks a lot better than in Half-Life 2. We've continued to move the rendering technology forward as we go along. It'll be interesting to see how people respond to this because one of the things we're trying out in Episode One - and one of the advantages of going with episodic content is that, the kind of approach we use with characters and lighting in Half-Life 2 is to let the lighting in the world do all of the work.
It's sort of like picking up a camcorder and filming the world as opposed to like in an action movie where all this very dramatic lighting is not possible. It's like you can't be in the real world and have this kind of lighting you see in movies like Mission Impossible III. That only happens when you've got a whole bunch of people standing behind the camera to make the scene look as cool as possible - so we're trying that out using the extra horsepower we have on the pixel shader side. You'll see that a lot - we think it looks better, it makes Alyx look a lot nicer.
Eurogamer: Talking of Hollywood, has anyone from the movie world come up with a decent Half-Life movie script yet?
Gabe Newell: They all sucked!
Eurogamer: In what way did they suck?
Gabe Newell: They're just bad movies - movies that shouldn't get made. I'm a huge fan of movies, I love going to movies and we have absolutely no reason to do it. It's not like they've offered us these giant buckets of cash and said "let us go and ruin your game" [laughs]. They offer you little tiny amounts of cash, so it's like they've not even tried to bribe us to go and make a bad movie. So it's the one thing we're going to hold on to. Unless it's a great movie, unless it's as exciting a movie as the game was a game then it will never get made.
Eurogamer: Could you not just go and handpick a script writer and director and approach it that way?
Gabe Newell: We've tried that, but we've ended up with really uninspired scripts. It's just not going to happen until we think that there's a director and a cast and a script and can say this is a movie we'd like to go and see, and not just some vanity piece. We've seen what happens to those sorts of movies and the world would be a better place if nine tenths of those projects had never happened.
Robin Walker: You've got a few hours of your life back.
Eurogamer: Is it just that they're not really in tune with what Half-Life's about and don't get it?
Gabe Newell: No, I just think that there's an attitude right now that they're trying to exploit the built-in audience of gamers right now and they don't really care whether the movies are any good. I think there's also this element of financing in Germany where they don't really care how profitable the movies are either, so you have this collision of people who are not long-term stakeholders who just think 'what are the next five movies I can crank out before the German government closes this tax loophole?' and 95 per cent of the gaming movies are being made specifically for those reasons.
Eurogamer: Do you make a point of watching them just to see how bad they can be?
Gabe Newell: Yes [longest sigh ever]. I have to put on my professional 'I'm doing this for the company' hat, not the 'I'm a movie go-er whose soul is going to be crushed by another unbelievably crappy game adaptation' one.
Eurogamer: Apparently Silent Hill's not bad...
Gabe Newell: I haven't seen that one, I'm looking forward to seeing that.
Eurogamer: Okay, back on topic, what else have you ramped up and improved in Episode One?
Gabe Newell: Another thing players will see with Alyx is that we're using the second version of our facial animation system, so she will have a much more robust set of expressions. The lip-synching is even better, and there are more subtle emotions that she can communicate now. She's got three times as many animations this time around and three times the textures.
Eurogamer: But essentially it's the same Source Engine technology we're familiar with, but tweaked?
Robin Walker: There's new tech in there as well - she can handle a much more extreme range of emotions than she was able to before, and we're just making sure faces hold up on that, you know, massive stretching and stuff like that is a large part of the new rev of the technology.
Eurogamer: Obviously you're biased, but do you think your facial technology is the best around?
Gabe Newell: I would be hard pressed... I mean, we've got a pretty good idea of what other people are doing and I do think that Alyx is considerably more robust than any other character that's been created in a videogame.
Robin Walker: One of the things we've spent a lot of time on with our characters is making sure that the AI in the game and everything around it drives that system. It's one thing to make a character which has a facial structure that is capable of displaying an animation if your animator gets here and there and stretches all the sliders around. The next step beyond that is to getting to a point where Alyx is the character and the AI is making the decision that she should look like this under these circumstances or she should look unhappy, and so on. There are things in our system I don't think we've even seen anyone else try and tackle yet.
Alyx is with you 90 per cent of the game. It gets back to the point about tech demos versus actual technology in the game. The cool stuff happens when you connect that technology to all the other elements in the game, like you connect the facial animation system to the combat and to the puzzles and so on - and that's where 70 per cent of the work is. It's a valuable problem to solve.
Eurogamer: Any news on Team Fortress 2?
Gabe Newell: Not today! [laughs]
Eurogamer: You're very much into getting customer feedback at Valve - probably more than any other developer. How are you using Steam to tap right into your user base?
Gabe Newell: One of the tools that Steam is giving us right now is the ability to have a much clearer idea of what's really happening with customers, so with Episode One, one of the things we're doing is to gather information. One of our secret weapons so far has been playtesting. We started playtesting our game very early on. We bring in hundreds of people externally - you have to sit there and just watch them play, and every time they get frustrated, every time get stuck, you know, that's a defect and you have to go and figure out how to fix that, and we just keep doing that until people can play through successfully and can have fun.
Eurogamer: Was this feedback process more or less difficult than with Half-Life 2? Does listening to customers affect your creative thinking much?
Gabe Newell: I think we're better at it, in terms of learning how to anticipate. It's like after you've watched a couple of hundred playtests, you start to develop a much better sense of what are successful and unsuccessful design strategies. And so the thing we're going to do with Episode One is to extend that out to all of the people. Essentially playtests create a proxy for what will happen when the game is being played, but with Episode One we're saying let's stop using the proxy and watch how people play. Rather than having hundreds of playtesters, there are eight million Steam accounts right now, so we'll have eight million playtesters. It tells us which weapons they're using, so we can say "they're not using this weapon, why not?", here's where people are getting stuck "huh, ok, they're not supposed to be stuck here". Here's the stuff they like, here's the stuff they don't like.
Eurogamer: So Steam effectively creates a report every time you log in and play Episode One?
Gabe Newell: Yeah. We started this process with the hardware survey and that turned out to be incredibly valuable - it just helps you make really good decision. You're sitting there saying "should we optimise software skinning? - Yeah!" Here's another example: when you do performance optimisations you're pretending that you have an idea of what the target hardware is like. One of the things we got feedback on was level loads, so we wrote a bunch of tech to make level loads faster. We thought, why don't we actually just find out what's going on when levels are being loaded? And with our beta test group using the statistics gathering stuff it turned out that the real problem was, the real honest-to-god problem not the 'I'm an engineer and I want to go write code' problem was that everybody's game files were horribly fragmented, so the real solution wasn't to go off and write fancy background stuff. The real solution was to detect fragmentation and automatically defragment it, so one of the things that's gone out is an automatic defragmentation capability that just says 'oh, these things are fragmented, fix them'.
But the point isn't that, but to find out what's really going on. Rather than having internal guesses as to what's going on we're going to really see how customers play, and really see what's determining performance in customer's hands, and that's going to be big stuff for us.
Eurogamer: Lost Coast was clearly a successful way of demoing and testing HDR and the commentary system. Do you plan to roll out more tech demos soon?
Gabe Newell: Yeah, we have a couple...
Eurogamer: This year?
Gabe Newell: This year, yes.
Eurogamer: Are you planning to talk about those soon?
Gabe Newell: Yes, now that Episode One's done.
Check back later this week for more on this extensive exclusive interview from Valve, where the team detail more on the making of Half Life: Episode One.