By now you'll have read our extensive hands-on report on Half-Life 2: Episode Two. Well, hopefully. Having spent an hour working through each of the six sections Valve prepared for us to play, we sat down with programmer David Speyrer, designer Gautam Babbar and Valve's ever-present marketing director Doug Lombardi and talked about the development of Episode Two, the release date issue, and where things might be going in Episode Three.
Eurogamer: Episode One seemed to be about the bond between Alyx and Gordon. What's the central theme in Episode Two?
David Spreyer: I think it's the settings and the freeform gameplay. The Hunters, too. Episode Two has less of a singular focus than Episode One. It's more of a mini epic, like Half-Life 2 on a smaller scale.
Eurogamer: Gabe Newell said "primary characters" die. Does anyone die in Episode Two?
Doug Lombardi: Yes.
Eurogamer: What lessons did you learn from Episode One?
David Spreyer: Gosh - there's so many!
Gautam Babbar: A lot of the stuff we learned in Episode One was about Alyx - about how to make an interesting companion - so all that folded into Episode Two, and just expanded on that, and adding Vortigaunts and expanding on that. We've got a lot of feedback on Alyx so we've tried to incorporate that.
Doug Lombardi: Commentary was obviously well-received, so we'll be paying attention to that not only in EpTwo but Portal and Team Fortress 2 as well.
David Spreyer: One thing we learned was... The development overlapped a bit, and it was interesting and tricky. Some of the things you see in Episode Two were foreshadowed in Episode One, and that's always a delicate act when you have a product that's in development and you need to relate that to a product that's coming out much sooner. So we learned a lot about storytelling and making sure the two episodes really agree with each other.
Gautam Babbar: The new environments also sprung from feedback on Episode One, where we restrained you to mostly City 17 and in Episode Two we felt like we wanted to open that up a lot more to contrast with Episode One.
Eurogamer: How much had you decided about what was outside City 17 when you were making Half-Life 2?
David Spreyer: We had... I guess we'll call it a sketch of how the topography would change because we do have an ultimate goal in mind and that's been somewhat fixed from the very beginning. So a lot of it was about creating a natural progression of topography and climate towards that ultimate goal.
Eurogamer: Why has it taken longer than expected to get done?
Doug Lombardi: Valve's always good at making quality games but is pretty crap about making time estimates for release dates. I think episodic or whatever we're going to end up calling this ten years from now was a really new thing. We saw a desperate need to change the formula after Half-Life 2 took us six years and 40 million dollars to create. That was the biggest project I've worked on in my life and I think pretty much everybody who worked on it would say that. It was great, we're really proud of it, but it was a long road to haul.
So I think we saw an opportunity to change, and fortunately we're in a luxury position of being able to take a shot at something new. And we learned some stuff from it. When we first set out to do it we thought it would happen more quickly than it has, but still, we released Episode One sixteen or seventeen months after Half-Life 2 and Episode Two's going to come in roughly the same amount of time as Episode One, and hopefully Episode Three continues that.
For us, once we're all said and done we're going to be able to say we've released them more frequently. Overall Half-Life 3 or Half-Life 2 The Episodes or whatever you want to call this ended up coming about more quickly than six years, so I think that some of the things we projected at the first - the name, the time-length of releases - we were pretty off on, but the idea was that this development would produce better games faster and we'd be happier and gamers would be happier. I think that we're proving that. I mean, the packaging has changed too, right? Episode One was 20 bucks by itself, and this one's going to be in The Orange Box with Portal and Team Fortress 2. We're learning, and we're reacting too. That goes to design of the environments that you play in as well as the way it's packaged up and so on.
Eurogamer: Why did you choose to release all three at once? It seems to me that all three would do very well on their own.
Doug Lombardi: Yeah, you could have said the same thing about Counter-Strike: Source and Half-Life 2 when those came out. Way back in the day when Team Fortress came out it was going to be an add-on pack for Half-Life 1 and there was a decision that Gabe and myself and a bunch of other people made that we might try do a Game Of The Year Edition instead and release Half-Life and Team Fortress Classic together, but make TFC available to everyone for free.
That worked out really, really well for us. We saw that there was power in combining those things. The sum of them together was greater than the parts themselves, and we were in a lucky position where TF2, EpTwo and Portal were all going to end up stepping right on top of each other, so we asked ourselves, 'do we want to release each one every three weeks over the course of the holiday or whenever they come out, or just put them in one box and sort of follow that tradition of the Game Of The Year Edition for Half-Life 2?' We talked about it and after a while everyone was behind this idea of putting all three together. And there's the fact we're going to multi-platform. Multi-genre, multi-platform, there's a certain cool thing about it.
Eurogamer: You're always giving yourself these huge hurdles to jump.
Doug Lombardi: It's only interesting if the next challenge is more vicious than the previous, right? If we just churned out Half-Life 2 a year and a half after Half-Life 1 and used the same engine and you were still whatever, people wouldn't care any more.
Eurogamer: Since you've got DirectX 10 stuff in there, will you be supporting Microsoft's unhelpfully named "Games for Windows - LIVE"?
Doug Lombardi: It's Vista-compatible, it's not DX10, although there are features of DX10 cards we're taking such as the Team Fortress facial animations. As for Live, I don't know that we're really going to do any of the Achievement stuff on the PC. Steam is going to be compatible for folks who want to do Games for Windows stuff, but for the Orange Box stuff I don't think we'll be doing that.
Eurogamer: What do you make of the Achievement system?
Doug Lombardi: We haven't done it before, so we're going to support it on the Xbox 360 where it seems to have a great home. People are real enthusiastic about it, and we have some interesting ideas for what's going to go in there. I don't know that we've announced any final... You've seen a lot of what we're experimenting with.
Eurogamer: I read that you were splitting 1000 points across all the titles in The Orange Box.
Doug Lombardi: That's one idea we have.
David Spreyer: We have to use just one set of 1000 because it's just one SKU, so we have to figure out how to creatively apply that.
Doug Lombardi: You can imagine there's lots of internal debate between the teams about whether to do 333 points per game or something like that.
Eurogamer: Has Episode Three development begun?
Doug Lombardi: Pre-production is definitely going, and it'll be ramping up rather quickly now that they're ramping down on Episode Two. Some people are shared and there are separate groups that do R&D, like Dave was mostly R&D on EpTwo the whole time EpOne was in development. At the very end he got pulled over to help ship EpOne and then got sent back to continue. There's an EpThree team skeleton crew doing production, and I'm sure Dave's tapped half of them if not all of them at some point or will in the next couple of weeks.
Eurogamer: Anything else to add about Episode Two?
Doug Lombardi: This one's a bit longer, and very different. When you're doing a trilogy, the first one has to resolve what was up, so City 17 at the end of Half-Life 2, and this one really kicked off and we're well on the new adventure now.
Eurogamer: So will Episode Three change setting drastically?
Doug Lombardi: I don't think you'll head back to City 17, for sure. Not in Episode Three anyway.
Eurogamer: Are we going to see Judith Mossman in Episode Two?
David Spreyer: She's part of the plot.
Doug Lombardi: No comment [laughs].
Eurogamer: Episode Two seems to want to answer a lot of questions, whereas Episode One obviously didn't. Is that a reaction to criticism?
David Spreyer: It's a deliberate choice. We wanted to really get people into a meaty story, and it's just part of the story we're trying to tell.
Doug Lombardi: I think any trilogy you look at, the second one is always the one that's got all the big reveals that get things charged up a bit.
David Spreyer: They always kind of bridge.
Doug Lombardi: Certainly Lord of the Rings, the original three Star Wars are like that.
Eurogamer: So Gordon's Breen's son? Is he getting his hand chopped off?
Doug Lombardi: That would be too obvious.