15th Oct 2006 | 11:01
When Half-Life 2: Episode Two launches early next year, it'll come packaged with two tasty extras - Team Fortress 2 and, what we're concerned with here, Portal. Portal, for those recently emerging from under a rock, is a puzzle style game where players use a 'portal gun' to open entry and exit portals to solve, well, puzzles. It sounds weird and indeed is a real head-screw to watch in action, but with Valve Software at the development helm you can be sure it'll be as entertaining as it is odd. Not too many moons ago we caught up with Kim Swift, one of the members of the Portal dev team, and Valve's Doug Lombardi to find out more...
What's the background of the Portal development team?
Kim Swift: Basically, all seven of us originally came from Digipen Institute of Technology, which is located over in Redmond - just down the road from here. For our senior project we created a game called Narbacular Drop. It was sort of an early test of our ideas on how to create a game using portals.
Every year Digipen holds an expo for graduating seniors that brings in various games developers to basically help get students jobs - and a couple of people from Valve came by and invited us to come up to the offices to show the game to Gabe Newell. After about fifteen minutes into our demo, Gabe offered us a job to make what's now called Portal. We were just completely blown away, we stood in the parking lot just drooling a little bit and looking confused. It was an amazing shock.
In what ways is Portal an improvement over Narbacular Drop, what has being at Valve brought to the development process table?
Kim Swift: A lot of what makes Portal better than NB is just adopting some of the Valve design processes they have here. Number one: playtesting. When we first got here we started our first playtest maybe two weeks after working here. We had one room and it was sort of a similar idea to the first room you saw - two fixed portals and you went in one and out the other.
We started playtesting that right away, and got lots of information from just playing that one level. Basically, every week we bring someone in to playtest the game from beginning to end and we get a good idea of what mistakes we've made, what are better ways to fix the game, whether or not we're teaching players the right things. It's been really helpful, it's something I wish we'd known at school - we never really playtested our games very much.
How did it feel taking on the Half-Life universe? Intimidating?
Kim Swift: It is a little nerve-racking, because it's obviously this amazing fiction - and we're of course students right out of Digipen - and we get the privilege to get ourselves into the Half-Life world. It's a great privilege and I'm excited about it.
Portal looks sick-inducing at times. How does your thought process work coming up with puzzles. Ever have to rethink? To watch it's very confusing...
Kim Swift: The way we design our puzzles is that we all sit down together as a team - the artists, programmers, level designers. We all sit down and pretty much decide goals for each level; we want the player to use these particular gameplay objects say a box to open a door, or to use a 'fling' - which is when you put one portal on the wall and one on the floor and you use your momentum from standing high up on a ledge to gain acceleration to toss yourself out of the other portal. So we say 'Okay we want to use one of those' and we figure out the layout of a level - we draw it out on the whiteboard and then one of us goes and designs it. Then we playtest it and see if it works or not.
Everyone's been very impressed. Were other teams in the company eager to nick your ideas? For Episode Two?
Kim Swift: I don't really know if that's the case! We definitely got a lot of help from people trying to fit our technology into the Source engine!
How does the Portal story fit into the Half-Life universe? How much work has gone into it?
Kim Swift: Uh, no comment? We've definitely thought about how the storyline's going to fit back-ends with the main characters in the Half-Life universe - Gordon's Half-Life world. But there's nothing we can really disclose at this point...
Doug Lombardi: You're not Gordon in a Portal. You're someone who hasn't been introduced before. You play a new character in the Half-Life universe. And you're basically a rat in a maze in this test facility - a test subject for Aperture Science laboratories.
Getting a bit more nerdy, is it Half-Life 2 or Half-Life 1 era?
Kim Swift: No comment! I really do want to talk about it, but I can't!
What can you tell us about art direction, the lab environment and the female computer voice speaking?
Kim Swift: We had a very abstract game concept and we wanted an abstract environment to go with it. We initially tried to fit our gameplay into more of a Half-Life 2 space with a lot of clutter and a lot of objects everywhere, but we found that it detracted from the gameplay. People would get confused and weren't sure what to do - they wanted to play with this object as opposed to the object we wanted them to play with. And so we stripped it down to bare bones. We wanted them to focus on the gameplay objects that we have in each chamber, and it came that having this sci-fi, abstract test chamber arena was perfect for our game.
What inspirations did you use in making Portal? Were you annoyed when Prey came around?
Kim Swift: Honestly, we didn't even find out about Prey until maybe three months into our project, and we kind of said 'Oh, wow - this game has portals. Okay!' and got back to work y'know? I think that when Prey was first announced we were like, thirteen? Fourteen? All of us are in our early twenties now so... As far as inspiration goes - I don't know. Everybody on the team plays different types of games. I'm a big RPG fan and so we all brought our own ideas about what makes a good game into the pot. It helped a lot that we all had our own opinions.
Would you like to expand the game past the Episode Two release? Add in multiplayer, perhaps?
Kim Swift: Multiplayer is something we definitely want to do. We've got a lot of crazy ideas and fun things to try out - but we haven't settled on a particular game design yet. As far as what we want to do with Portal and the rest of the single-player game, we're just waiting until Portal comes out to see what kind of feedback we get from the community and take it from there.
So you'll be actively supporting the game post-release?
Kim Swift: Once again it goes back to how the community feels about Portal, if we get people wanting a whole lot of new levels well of course!"
Doug Lombardi: Also, we're going to update the SDK with Portal stuff. We've actually had people saying they've designed maps for Portal for when it launches and they're like 'When are you launching your SDK?'.
One final silly question - if you had a portal gun here, how would it make your life better?
Kim Swift: Oh man! Putting a portal here at work, and one at home would be nice. Actually, I think that was a Simpsons episode where Homer had a portal and it went straight into the refrigerator from the couch or something like that. That would be nice. But I think that having instantaneous travel would be handy in anyone's life.