2nd May 2008 | 16:05
FPS master Valve has a lot going on at the moment. As well as the stunning-looking Left 4 Dead, it's working on a Portal sequel, and then there's that little project known as Half Life 2: Episode Three.
We got the chance to sit down with Valve's Doug Lombardi last week at EA's flashy Games Showcase event in London for a hearty chat about all these things, and how it's all coming along.
What else? Valve's "desire internally" to work on Wii, the big boss' passion for MMORPGs and the company's will to step outside of its PC FPS comfort zone in future projects. Read on...
You said that Left 4 Dead does for co-op what Counter-Strike did for multiplayer. Can you expand on that?
Doug Lombardi: At the time, Counter-Strike really brought people together to do team-play. It was one of the first times that people did more than things like Team Deathmatch. The bomb and hostage-rescue scenarios seem sort of prehistoric now, but at the time they were revolutionary.
Counter-Strike wasn't afraid to take chances and be completely unapologetic about it. For example, if you were killed in the first thirty seconds of play in a five minute match, you were out until the end of the round with nothing to do.
Luckily that came out of the mod scene, because if it was officially pitched to a publisher in 1999 there's no way it would have ever been green-lit. Yet it turned out to be the recipe for the number one online action game in the world for nine years.
In a similar way, L4D is trying to innovate in the co-op space, which really does need something new now. L4D is multiplayer gaming that is tailored to playing alongside a friend. What we're really doing here is trying to create something like a Half Life-style experience for you to have with your friends.
And you have this interesting new mechanic called the 'AI Director'...
Lombardi: We want L4D to be something that you want to play every night and it be a little bit different every time, so that's where the AI director comes in. It decides if a location will be really full of zombies or empty.
You can play the same area one day and there might be a boss in there, and the next there's nobody in there at all. So it keeps things fresh and serves up a more dramatic experience that's more than the usual 'team reaches here, team wins' scenario.
How will Valve, and L4D, evolve the online action gaming scene going forward?
Lombardi: With L4D, we want to give you something that's not just totally mindless to play because you and your buddies have to work together. We call it co-op for lack of a better term, but I think you're going to see a lot of multiplayer games go in this direction.
We've already seen games like World of Warcraft and the MMO scene doing this - you have parties, you stick together, you work together, and obviously it's really popular, so why shouldn't action games be going in that direction as well?
PS3 is being left out of the loop, though. Any chance it'll follow Orange Box to Sony's platform at some point?
Lombardi: We're not PS3 developers - we're doing PC and 360 like with Orange Box. EA came to us and said "Wow, Orange box was an incredible project, can we do a PS3 version?"
Left 4 Dead doesn't have that guaranteed appeal yet - it's a new IP. If you mention a new Half-Life, people want to make as many versions of it as possible. If Left 4 Dead is big, then we may see a PS3 version later, or if and when we do a sequel, people may be more interested in that. We're only 150 people, so there's only so many things we can do.
But it's one of those things with partners, wanting to take on that investment and risk. I think until L4D is proven, you'll probably just see what we make in that franchise.
How much has the Source engine been updated for L4D since Half-Life 2?
Lombardi: I would say that almost half the code has been developed since Half-Life 2 was released. We introduced new lighting effects, we did a lot of character animation work for HL2: Episode 2, added support for multi-core PCs, we worked on the physics for Portal and new AI added for L4D.
We look at Source as a set of tools, not necessarily as an engine that we've built that we'll use until it expires and throw away. We see it as this organic thing that we're constantly tweaking and building. It's more of a toolkit than a set engine.
It's great, particularly for older PCs, but some say its starting to show its age. Do you have an intended life span for it - a time when you think you'll need a complete refresh?
Lombardi: It's really a conscious decision, on our behalf, to make sure that our games work across a wide range of systems. And I think that we're investing more in the gameplay, AI and design than were are in textures and rendering.
If we wanted to we could beef up Source so that it'd not run on an older PC anymore, but that really wouldn't be a good decision.
That may work within the industry, and it may impress some people at trade shows, but I think when you get that out to Joe-Average, who has a two-year old PC and doesn't have £2000 to buy the latest hardware to run a game, it's not so good. We don't want that disconnection.
Portal was named Game of the Year by over 30 publications. It wasn't the prettiest game that came out last year, but a lot of people thought it was the best. And we feel far more gratified by that than winning the Prettiest Game of the Year award.
On the topic of Portal, what's going on with the sequel? We're hungry for more.
Lombardi: You're not the only ones, luckily. We thought we were on to something cool, but we just didn't know for sure because it was radical. It could have been one of those things that 20,000 people thought was really cool and everybody else just scratched their heads and thought 'What the hell is this, I don't get it'.
So we consciously made it really tight and didn't spend five years developing it with 100 people - we just built a really cool test bed, just to see if people would dig it as much as we did.
It came out on the second week of October, and the day after Halloween we got hundreds of emails from people dressed as the Companion Cube at their Halloween party.
Now we've got this challenge of living up to what we did with that. People gave it a lot of kudos for being so innovative so, in Valve's tradition, when we hit something, we're not just going to pump out more and cash in on the success of the first one.
We see it as a challenge to really innovate. If Portal was so innovative that it won all these GotY awards, then Portal 2 has to be even more so.
If you look at Half-Life and Half-Life 2 - we could have quickly put out Half-Life 2 in 18 months. It would have been on the same engine and been a reverse run through Black Mesa - we've all played those types of sequel. But that's not our style. Instead we went insane and spent six years and upwards of 40 million dollars to make the sequel.
As insane as that seems, it paid off in the end. So I don't think it'll be six years until you see the next Portal, but it will definitely not just be seeing Portal with different coloured textures.
We want to see it in 2009...
Lombardi: Perhaps. Right now, we're doing a lot of R&D to find out what's going to live up to that promise. When you think Portal you think about really innovative gameplay, clever writing and really dark humour. So how do we take that and follow up upon that idea, rather than just cashing in on it?
You guys are taking your time with the Half-Life episodes, too. How's Episode Three coming along?
Lombardi: Well, the gap between Half-Life and Half Life 2 was six years. It's not quite four years since then and we've already released two follow-ups that we're really proud of. We didn't milk the cow, so to speak, and pump out more of the same content.
While the word 'Episodic' conjures up this idea of TV where episodes are aired every week, maybe that's not the best term to use for this. I do think that we've hit upon something that allows us to have a more enjoyable development experience - to spend six years on the same game is kind of a death march.
We've hit with episodes around every 14-16 months. It won't be another six years until you see Freeman, but it won't be next week. I think we're improving our ability to produce interesting new content in a more timely fashion.
Maybe it won't be as long as Half-Life 2, but hopefully it'll be just as good and just as innovative.
Valve is known for specialising in FPS games, but can we expect any diversification from you in the future?
Lombardi: I think Portal was sort of a baby step outside of our comfort zone. There weren't any weapons, so to speak. No real combat. The success of that has encouraged us to keep trying new things outside of that comfort zone.
There's a lot of people at Valve who are parents and would love to make a game for kids. We all play the Wii a lot and we think that the proper way for Valve to approach the Wii would be to make something cool designed specifically for Wii.
I mean, I'm not making any announcements but there's a lot of desire internally to do something for kids, do something on the Wii.
Gabe's [Valve co-founder, Gabe Newell] a huge fan of MMORPGs and he's always wanted to make one, but that's a big risk to venture out on. I think at some point you'll see us move a little further out of our comfort zone than Portal was, but it's not going to be this year or next.
But definitely, before we're done, years from now we'll diversify a little more and move outside of PC FPS.
How does Steam support Valve's vision for the future? There's always talk of download sales taking over in the future.
Lombardi: That's the fun story for people to write - "Valve's trying to kill retail". It's really not the case. For us, Steam was a way to fix the updating process.
Counter-Strike had 80,000 players back in year 2000; we release a patch and that dropped to zero. Then, over the next few days we watched the number creep back up (as people manually installed the patch). It was like scheduling a panic attack for everyone in the building.
We needed to fix that problem - we needed an auto-updater. That was the genesis for Steam. Then, once we started building in that direction, we realised we could do more effective anti-piracy, anti-cheat systems, we could sell the games through it and that was cool.
We had no idea that, just over four years later, we'd have over 300 games from third-party developers including Epic and id.
Steam is not only an alternative place to sell a product, and a great back-end for new anti-piracy measures and auto-updating, but it's also a platform for games that otherwise probably wouldn't make it.
It's gone way beyond what we thought it would be when we decided that we needed a simple auto-updater.