Valve Software Q&APosted on February 21st, 2009 No comments
Disclaimer: This e-mail exchange was originally posted on my first personal website, Mod HQ, long before the announced release date of “Aftermath”, the first public name of what later became known as “Half-Life 2: Episode One”.
I recently had the great opportunity to interview Erik Johnson, Valve Software’s Project Manager. Many things are discussed in it and while not all of my questions were answered (which is, of course, more than understandable, but also the reason some of the questions may appear a little disjointed), there are more than enough juicy details here to sink your teeth into whether you are a player or developer. Read on!
Greetings, and thank you for taking the time to do this interview. This opportunity is a great honor for me and Mod HQ. I hope the questions I’m presenting will also be questions many of your other fans would like to have answered.
Q: I’m sure many of the aspiring game designers out there would like to know what it’s like to work for Valve. Would you share a few hints on how to get noticed?
A: Nothing will get you noticed better than going off and making a MOD. We’re always keeping an eye out for talented people by keeping a close eye on the MOD community. We tend to follow MODs that have shipped the most closely.
Q: Looking back after all this time, would you wish to change anything about the “Half-Life 2″ release, or do you consider it a success that couldn’t have gone better, considering some of the things that happened prior to that.
A: We’re all happy with the way that “Half-Life 2″ was received, and except for about 6 hours of trouble with Steam shortly after the release, the launch went very smoothly.
Q: The Steam platform received mixed reactions at first but it’s certainly been a success. Other companies such as EA are now working on similar distribution systems. How did the idea for Steam first come up?
A: The idea for Steam was in many ways a result of us taking a look at some of the inefficiencies in the way we were doing update releases to “Counter-Strike”, “Team Fortress Classic”, and other games in the years before we switched to using Steam. Back then, updates were an enormous event where it would take close to a week for the community to get updated. Even with all of the pain associated with this method of getting content to our customers, the community continued to grow. This was one of the lessons that started to make us think that having a more direct connection with our customers would be a good thing.
Q: Most people would think that after the completion of a huge project like “Half-Life 2″, the developers would finally get to relax somewhat. Valve however, has been working on several projects seemingly non stop since its release. “Half-Life 2 Deathmatch”, “Counter-Strike: Source”, “Day of Defeat: Source”, “The Lost Coast”, and the expansion “Aftermath” to name a few. How has this affected the crew, if at all?
A: Internally, we looked at the release of “Half-Life 2″ as the beginning of a new way that we could develop games. The approach we’re taking is to opportunistically add new technology to the Source engine (like HDR), while having most of the team iterate on building fun game play in the same way they did during the last part of the “Half-Life 2″ development. Given Steam, we have a distribution method to get this content out out to our customers, and a shorter development cycle makes a lot more sense. We also spent a fair amount of the last year working on “Day of Defeat: Source”, and “Half-Life 2″ for the XBOX. Splitting people off onto smaller teams would not have been possible during Half-Life 2′s development, and we’ve produced more in the last year than we ever have.
Q: The last Steam weekly news update stated once again that “The Lost Coast” will be released soon. Still, many would like to know more about the “Counter-Strike: Source” and “Day of Defeat: Source” content mentioned in the same announcement.
A: While we haven’t done a significant release for “Counter-Strike: Source” in a little while, we’ve been continuously building content for it. There are two new maps on the horizon for “Counter-Strike: Source”, de_nuke, and cs_militia, which will bring the total number of maps we’ve released to 18. The team has also been busy working on getting the rest of the player models built, which we’ll also be releasing soon. November should be a fun month for “Counter-Strike: Source” fans.
On the “Day of Defeat: Source” front, we have a few maps currently in development. There will be a mix of new maps and a Source adaptation of an original “Day of Defeat” map coming before the calendar year is over.
Q: With “Day of Defeat: Source” we saw for the first time the anticipated HDR and most people fell in love at first sight with it. We also know that all future Valve products will include this technology. Are there plans to add HDR in already released products such as “Counter-Strike: Source” and “Half-Life 2″ itself?
A: “Counter-Strike: Source”, definitely. We’ll be rolling out HDR versions of the maps over time starting very soon. As for “Half-Life 2″, not in the short term, but possible at some point.
Q: The Steam platform has also evolved a lot since it was first released. We know that the next step for what you called Steam 3 is to overhaul and activate the Friends system. What other plans do you have in store to help improve the consumer’s experience?
A: We’d like to take a look at storing persistent data along with statistical information. It would be cool to know what is the most common class people choose in “Day of Defeat” for instance.
Q: We know that the “Aftermath” expansion will let us learn more about Alyx and possibly her relationship with Gordon. Something that hasn’t been talked about much is the subject of enemies. Since many people were disappointed with the enemy variety found in “Half-Life 2″, can we expect to fight more types of Combine and possibly the return of more “Half-Life” alien species, as well as new aliens?
A: “Aftermath Episode 1″ does contain a new enemy type, and we plan to continue adding to the variety of enemies (and other challenges) that players must deal with.
Q: The Source Engine seems to be the most popular engine to develop a modification for. This results in a rather large number of very promising projects, possibly already surpassing the original game. Do you think that this will affect their success within the community, as it seems to be very similar to how the industry works where often excellent games go unnoticed or are ignored by the audience.
A: Fundamentally, I think the people who play MODs are an efficient group for measuring quality. It is impossible, or unlikely at best, for a MOD team to fail based on exposure alone. While distribution for MODs is still something that could be improved upon, word of mouth within the community is still a very powerful method for getting people to play a given game.
I think the real mistakes are happening on the individual MOD teams themselves. They are becoming far too hesitant and conservative in their approach to how they design, develop, and release their games. If you go back and look at the first versions of “Counter-Strike”, “Team Fortress”, or “Day of Defeat”, you’ll see rough games that focus around a single game play idea. The first version of “Team Fortress” for “Quake” only had 5 classes, and wasn’t even a Team game. In the first version of “Counter-Strike”, it was virtually impossible to tell the CTs and the Ts apart. The goal of all MOD teams should be to go out and learn from the community as to whether or not your game idea is a good one or not, and plan on releasing as often as possible. Right now it appears that too many MOD teams believe they have to build the next huge hit with their first release, which is a plan that is pretty likely to fail.
The thing that the successful MODs all had in common was that they all had a single idea that they were going to use to drive their game design forward, and it was a good one. No amount of execution, art quality, PR, fancy websites, or time is going to overcome a bad idea for a game. Second, and just as important, they shipped as fast as they could and then continued to ship and ship and ship. Successful MODs measure their success after each release and use what they learned to form the ideas for the next one. If an idea fails, they remove it from the next version, if an idea succeeds, they continue to iterate around that specific element.
Sometimes it feels like the MOD community is becoming more and more like the “professional” game community, where products are being approached as something that should take a long time, ship once, and then everyone moves on to the next big project. MOD teams that are approaching building games from this perspective are throwing all of the advantages they have out the window, and are just competing with every other game developer in the world.
The one MOD that seems to have taken a more iterative approach has been “Garry’s MOD”, who I think has shipped close to 9 versions of his MOD in less than a year. “Garry’s MOD” proves not only that people will find out about a MOD no matter how unusual a product it is, but also that the quality of a MOD can become extremely high as a result of frequent releases.
Q: We know from previous announcements that Valve will be increasing its support for modifications. A first step was taken with the redesigned Browse Games section of the Steam client. Could you tell us in what other ways Valve is considering to help promote modifications?
A: We try to mention any MOD that has shipped in a Steam news item, and we’re always ready to provide feedback to any MOD that is released.
Q: An SDK update is also expected in the near future. Will this be what developers need to add HDR to their projects? What other possibilities will it enable or make easier?
A: There will be plenty of information over at the Valve Developer Community (http://developer.valvesoftware.com) for the SDK when it is released.
This is where it all ends, for now. I would like to once again thank Erik Johnson for his time and, of course, Valve for the many hours of great gaming they have graced us with. I can’t find any other words to express my gratitude so I will leave it simple and genuine. I hope everyone enjoyed reading this interview and that at least some of you will stick around to see what Steam Lab will be offering next. Stay tuned.