It's hardly normal for fans to become enraged by the announcement that a best-selling game is getting a sequel sooner than expected, but Valve has never been a normal videogame developer. When Left 4 Dead 2 was announced at this year's E3, the community was divided between those who were more than happy to fight the horde afresh in sunny New Orleans, and those concerned that a company synonymous with free DLC was about to cut its recent multiplayer crowd-pleaser loose less than a year after its release. (At least everybody agreed that smacking the undead around with a frying pan was probably a positive development.) We sat down with Doug Lombardi, Valve's vice president of marketing, to talk about the past and future of the Left 4 Dead franchise, the perils and perks of procedural pacing, and how the company makes all of its games "inside-out".
Eurogamer: Left 4 Dead 2 seems to have progressed at a distinctly un-Valveish pace. Why is that?
Doug Lombardi: It really depends on the kind of game you're trying to build. When you're making a Half-Life 2 sort of game, you're hand-stitching every moment of the gameplay: the scripted sequences, the dialogue, the close-ups. With a multiplayer game, there's different criteria: weapons, sounds, levels and things like that, but you don't have a lot of this really arduous hand-stitching that you have to go through on single-player. The other thing is that on Left 4 Dead, we have the AI director, which allows us to get stuff up and running really quickly. Then there's just the amount of people you have working on it, and the number of good ideas that are just slam-dunks. The Left 4 Dead 2 team is 30 to 50 percent bigger than the first team was at its largest point, and they had a lot of ideas coming off the first game that were just slam-dunks. There wasn't a lot of testing involved in, "Shall we put a frying pan in?" Yes! We don't need to test that.
Eurogamer: What happens from a development perspective between realising you have more Left 4 Dead ideas to deciding to put out a full sequel?
Doug Lombardi: It's completely inside-out. We're privately held, we've been very fortunate in the sales of our games, so we have absolute flexibility on what we want to do and when we want to ship it. Everything starts off with a whiteboard exercise, where we get all of our ideas up on the wall, and then we try to figure out how to get that into customers' hands. In Left 4 Dead's case, there was a bunch of stuff we wanted to do: get the other versus campaign modes out - some people were tinkering with survivor mode, that kind of stuff, and that just made a load of sense for DLC. But then there was other stuff: we want to change the way finales work, we want melee weapons, we want to do more with the story. Okay, that side of the whiteboard is feeling like a different game. That's really the process it went through, and then timing is just looking at all the things you want to do, and then you make your best guess on scheduling.
Eurogamer: So at the moment, you have separate teams working on Left 4 Dead 2 and supporting the original game?
Doug Lombardi: There's a couple of different teams, actually. There's guys working on Left 4 Dead 2, guys working on Left 4 Dead 1 stuff, and then guys working on the authoring tools for Left 4 Dead - the mod-making stuff. Regarding the Left 4 Dead 1 content, we'll be announcing stuff in the coming weeks, but there's nothing I can say about it today.
Eurogamer: Did you expect the negative reaction from some fans following the announcement of Left 4 Dead 2?
Doug Lombardi: We obviously listen to the community a lot. That's one of our staples. Did we anticipate it? No, we didn't, but I think that one of the key things is: announcing Left 4 Dead 2 doesn't mean we're abandoning Left 4 Dead 1. Another thing is it's important to remember that E3 is where you go to announce new titles, specifically titles that are coming to retail. We do press there, but it's not really a venue for announcing DLC or mod tools. So I think there was a little bit of confusion that we created unintentionally, by announcing a sequel and not having the complete story ready: announcing it and not saying, there's still a lot of stuff being worked on for Left 4 Dead 1, and the mod tools will work with both games. I think that, over time, folks will see what we're up to, and there's more of this story to be told in terms of what's to come for both games.
Eurogamer: Left 4 Dead 2 is going to have an increased focus on story, an element that was trimmed in the first game following play-testing. Is there a danger with a game like Left 4 Dead, where so much of the fun comes from players' own anecdotes of escape and last-minute disaster at the hands of the AI director, that the story you're trying to tell gets in the way of the players' personal stories?
Doug Lombardi: Yeah, and we have to be careful not to go too far with this property. We saw a number of reasons to pull back with the first game, primarily because the replayability suffers with a scripted sequence: if you come back and you have this procedurally-generated campaign in terms of the enemies and weapons, and then every time you go through it there's a long bit of scripted story at the beginning of the third level, that screws up the suspension of disbelief that it's different each time you play it. It's gotta come out. Then, more specifically, we had much more dialogue amongst the characters originally, and that was really getting in the way of people understanding the co-op nature. We saw something similar when we were playtesting Portal: in the first iteration it was much more lush in terms of graphics, and there was just a bunch more crap in the levels, whether it was furniture or whatever, and people were having trouble identifying the pathways they had to go through to solve the levels. We had to make it this sparse environment to get to the gameplay.
Now, with Left 4 Dead 2, we've learnt that the big scripted sequence in the middle of the campaign really breaks stuff, so we're not going to do that. We're definitely by no means trying to make this a Half-Life 2-style game with heavy dialogue and story stuff. But what we do think we can do is, out of the game and the movies, bring more story to the game in terms of the players' dialogue. Then there's little tricks we did in Half-Life and Portal: televisions and radios and writing on the wall is a great way for people who want that story to get it, but for people who just want replayable co-op, they can just blow through.