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.