e spoke with Valve’s Doug Lombardi to get the latest on upcoming Half-Life 2 episodic content, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the games, and Team Fortress 2 and Portal. Read on for the breaking details.
Game Informer: The trailers for Episode Two make it seem like you’re taking the story in a darker direction. Would you classify this as the "Empire Strikes Back" of the Half-Life 2 episodes?
Lombardi: Yeah, definitely. This is sort of our "Empire Strikes Back" or our "Two Towers" or what have you. The trilogy is underway now. And in a lot of ways, just as those movies may be people’s favorites of those trilogies, I think folks who enjoy some of the darker stuff and the tension in the middle may find Episode Two to be their favorite of the three as well.
GI: What was the reaction to the single player co-op in Episode One?
Lombardi: The single player co-op in Episode One was the big chuck we were trying to bite off. In Episode Two we’re trying to bite off this idea of more expansive or larger scale battle, if you will. It’s sort of the finale of the gameplay loop where you’re driving and there are combines and there are stiders and hunters and you’re cruising around the forest and you have to zoom around. That’s the main thrust that we’re trying to accomplish in this one – diversifying the gameplay from other Half-Life games.
We are going to improve on that single player co-op AI in this one as well. One thing that we didn’t show here because it’s not quite ready to show to everybody yet, is extending that single player co-op stuff to vehicles so that you’re able to grab someone as an NPC and the vehicle will have a gun in the back and you’ll be driving and they’ll be shooting. At other parts it will be vice versa. You’ll go for a ride while they drive you. We’re going to keep moving that AI forward, but we’re going to take a step back from somebody constantly at your side this time.
In terms of reactions to it, I think most people felt that Episode One was cool. Obviously, it was different because it was an episode. Some people have some reactions to it being shorter than a regular game. Because we had to resolve a fair amount of the detail that was going on in City 17 before we left the city, I think some folks felt like it was too akin to Half-Life 2 and I think that, hopefully, with Episode Two now that we’re out of 17 and onto new locations, new weapons, and new monsters that we’ll be responding to some of that feedback that we got from Episode One.
GI: What were some of the things that you learned with the single player co-op in Episode One that you’ve implemented in Episode Two?
Lombardi: It was just a lot of hard work to get it to work. I mean, we probably mentioned this to you before when you were out in Seattle, is that so many times we’ve all played the single player co-ops or the sidekick games where you wanted to turn and shoot that co-op player because they were more of a burden than a help. I think that we overcame that in Episode One, and that’s one of the things that we feel most proud about. So in terms of learning about it, it was just that whole process of going through it and implementing it and now we have it in our bag of tricks to pull out at different places and expand upon into things like the vehicle and stuff like that. I think that overall the feedback from that portion of Episode One was really positive.
GI: Is Gordon going to learn a lot more about that person he fights alongside in Episode Two?
Lombardi: Yeah, we sort of foreshadowed it in the beginning of the story trailer. You’re going to find out a little bit more about the G-man, and you’re going to learn about his relationship to Alyx. And that’s going to reveal a fair amount more to Gordon than has been about those characters prior to now.
GI: We noticed that the buggy is back – all raggedy and torn up. Are we going to see any other vehicles? Possibly the boat?
Lombardi: Perhaps. I mean, you’re in the forest throughout this one so a boat might not be appropriate, but other vehicles are still a possibility.
GI: Is Episode Two still on track for a holiday release?
Lombardi: No, it’s Q1 .
GI: Episode One only have one kind of new enemy type, and it looks like Two has a few new enemies. Are we talking one or two or multiple?
Lombardi: I’d say more than two. I don’t know if it’s a whole palette of them. As we’re migrating out of City 17, the combine are sending in new forces to cut you off and stop you on your quest. And as we continue through the episodes we’re going to get further away from City 17 and more and more creatures are going to be introduced. One way to look at it would be that if you put these three things together you’re going to go on a ramp from very close to Half-Life 2 to very far away. And since this is the midpoint you’re going to be in that halfway point to the very far away all-new stuff.
GI: We noticed that the often referenced strider buster finally makes it in this game as well.
Lombardi: Yeah, it’s still close but semi-rough draft of the art on it, but you got to see the game mechanic here.
GI: I noticed immediately that the map that was shown in the trailer was 2Fort. And during the presentation it was explained that five maps will be coming back from Team Fortress Classic.
Lombardi: Five of the classic ones, yes, plus there will be a couple new ones as well. And we’ll do more after the initial release like we do with Counter-Strike and everything else.
GI: So you said Dustbowl?
Lombardi: Did I say Dustbowl? (laughs)
GI: Can you let us know any of the other maps that might be in there?
Lombardi: Not yet. You can probably take some guesses. They’re the most popular and historical favorites. Our favorites are the same as everybody else’s favorites so we start there. We also want to get some new ones out there and introduce some new gameplay types.
GI: You’ve said you’re bringing back the original nine classes. What about new classes?
Lombardi: Yeah, what we’re doing is we’re bringing back the original nine and we’re updating all of them and augmenting a couple of them. The most radical change will be to the medic, in terms of his capabilities and his offensive and defensive behavior. Some, like the heavy, will remain very faithful to the originals. Then there are some in between that have varying degrees of tweaks.
We looked at and talked about the commander class when we originally talked about TF2, and there was a good idea there about having somebody who was off the battlefield who could assist or give orders or that type of thing and we’re still struggling to come up with the right place for the things that we want to do there. There won’t be a commander class, per se, in that that’s the boss and they’re giving you orders. But we do still think it would be cool to have somebody who’s the eyes and ears of the team and was a different role there. So we’re experimenting with that and some other classes. Whether or not those make version one or release subsequently is still to be determined.
GI: Are most of the classes going to retain the same feature set they had in Team Fortress Classic?
Lombardi: Again, the medic is completely overhauled, and some of them are very faithful. That’s true both in terms of offensive and defensive arsenal as well. In some cases we really saw some opportunities to really leverage the Source engine and to change stuff up. You saw a little bit of that there in the demo with some of his new capabilities, some of the ways he’s able to better interact using that technology. The medic was something that Robin Walker, who’s the co-creator of Team Fortress as you know, was always a class that he frustrated with and felt like the way it had been executed on wasn’t what he and John really had in their brains. So they’ve taken a lot of time on that to change that up, and as you’ve probably noticed that’s one surprised that we’re keeping for later to reveal what that’s going to be about.
GI: When TF2 was revealed at the EA event I think everyone was shocked with the comic style. The game was shown originally…
Lombardi: ’99 Atlanta. (laughs)
GI: You guys were going for more of an army game. Was the switch made mainly because the marketplace is so flooded right now?
Lombardi: No, It’s funny that we kind of inspired a whole flooding of the market with that demo, didn’t we? (laughs) It really was more to do with the idea of the character classes having a true persona. Once you put everyone in fatigues you sort of gentrify the classes, and you reduce them to all being army people. Then it’s really just down into the gameplay thing.
One of the things we learned from Counter-Strike was that people have an affinity to their character class – even though in Counter-Strike it really makes no difference from a gameplay standpoint. But people identify with that visual look. So when we decided to move to the Source engine we were also frustrated with the fact that we were sort of screwing up that bit of the game – the persona and character class affinity. Then we tried a couple interim steps of different approaches. We tried a sci-fi approach and a couple of other things. And then somebody had some sketches of character classes that were inspired by some artist from the 50s and 60s that basically was wrapped into this thing that is also sort of similar to the old Saturday morning cartoons from when we were little.
Instantly, people said it was really cool to exaggerate the character classes and take that persona to a wild fashion. And then one other thing that we always wanted to do was to really give a great silhouette of the characters in TF, and that was something in the interim steps that we were defining was this idea of if you spot somebody from far away you can tell it’s a heavy just from their silhouette or even before they come out and you see the color and everything else. You immediately know that’s a heavy. If you’re not a good class to go up against the heavy, if you’re the scout or whatever, you can bail and go find help before you dive into the action. So it accomplished a couple of those things.
And last but not least, it’s different. We see so many people in fatigues in multiplayer games right now. There are so many games trying to do the terrorism thing post-Counter-Strike. It’s like, “Okay, we’re not going to do the real world, gritty, terrorism/counterterrorism thing.” You know, the World War II thing is overdone now and also doesn’t work with this character affinity stuff. We had this other prototyping going on so we just kept coming back to that. The Source engine had some modifications made to it to incorporate the Phong Shading technique, which is basically a fancy word to say a new type of shader. It’s a technique that has been written about by graphics white papers and stuff like that, and has been used by other non-interactive media to achieve this sort of look. But I think this is the first time somebody’s using it in an interactive mode. That’s how we achieve that cel shading in a polygon world.
GI: What do you think this is going to be like playing it on a console?
Lombardi: I think it’ll be cool. I think that that audience will really identify with it. We look forward to bringing that out. One of the big things we’re trying to do in the background that’s not as sexy to talk about from a marketing standpoint, but from a business and design standpoint is to create Source and our toolset and our pipeline such that we’re able to hit the 360 and the PS3 in a very close proximity to the PC. And if I were to ding Valve for one of the things we haven’t done a good job on aside from targeting ship dates (laughs) is we’ve always lagged on hitting the consoles.
And we really learned a lesson last year with Half-Life 2 coming out for Xbox so late. It was literally the week before the 360 was launched, and that hurt our sales. It was a pity because the guys produced a really good game. It was a solid project. Had the 360 not shown up, it probably would have been one of the best sellers of Christmas. So we’ve taken that to heart and said, “Okay, we need to attack the consoles in a more timely fashion, and that really is only going to happen if we build our toolset and engine to be more friendly to those other platforms.” What we’re really doing is moving content through the pipeline.
GI: Since both the 360 and PS3 have hard drives, are you going to allow people to download Episode Three on consoles or will it be a separate disc that you have to purchase?
Lombardi: Right now it’s still a little hazy whether the platform holders are going to allow full games to come down through the pipes. So I’d say it’s more up to them than us. Given our history, we’re open to giving customers as many choices for how they want to buy it and “do they want the collection pack or the stand alone” or what have you. We just think that’s good because as consumers we don’t always like to be forced into one option ourselves. We’d love to make it available at retail and online on all platforms just as we’ve done with the PC through Steam.
GI: Are the console versions being developed neck and neck with the PC game or is the PC version much farther along?
Lombardi: I wouldn’t say it’s much farther along. Again, we’re trying to build the tools and technology set so that as soon as something comes up on the PC we’re able to get it over to the consoles. For example, if we were in Seattle right now we could go over to the side of the office where the 360 version’s being built and you could play all of the way through Portal in the exact same state that it is on the PC. We haven’t gotten our toolset as mature on the PS3 yet. We’re still figuring that out and getting over the ramp, but we’ve gotten to a good place on the 360 where the PC and the 360 are almost completely in tandem right now.
GI: How does the 360 hardware compare to PC? In the regular Xbox version of Half-Life 2 there was such an abundance of loading compared to the original.
Lombardi: The memory on the Xbox 1 was a pretty small pipe to jump through and we really weren’t designing Half-Life 2 with that as top of mind. We did the best we could to implement streaming technology to make those level loads as short as we could. Right now though we’re in a totally different world where the 360 is pretty close to on par with our target platform for the PC. It’s a totally different world now that we’ve landed in the next generation and I think specifically for Episode Two we’re at a sweet point where there is parity between the different platforms. As time goes on we may find ourselves in that same situation when we’re targeting DirectX 12 or whatever is going to come three years from now and the 360 hasn’t moved forward. So we may have to revisit that problem that we just got away from, but for the next year or two I think our releases are going to be very comparable on the different platforms.
GI: Is there anything that you haven’t been able to do on the 360?
Lombardi: Mmm mmm [no].
GI: PlayStation 3, same thing?
Lombardi: PlayStation 3 we’re a little bit behind. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. We don’t anticipate that yet. But I can say matter-of-factly on the 360 – the games are no different.
GI: Can you explain how Portal came together with the DigiPen students who created Narbacular Drop?
Lombardi: There was a group of seven kids, two women and five guys…
GI: You said kids. How old are they?
Lombardi: They’re all barely drinking age.
GI: Oh god. (laughs)
Lombardi: They’re in their senior year at DigiPen, and part of their class project was to make a game. So they made Narbacular Drop, and we’ve hired a couple people out of DigiPen over the years. They’re right close to us over in Redmond so we’re friendly with those guys. They invited a couple of people over to see the senior class showcase, which is what the school does to market the students to people in the games industry. So they invite people over from MGS and Nintendo and whatnot – all of the usual suspects in the Seattle area.
Robin and a couple other people went over to visit the senior class showcase and just check out what was going on and they saw Narbacular Drop and thought “Wow, this is really cool.” So they invited the seven of them over to Valve to show it to more of us. We were all in the conference room and they started presenting it and about ten minutes in Gabe [Newell] just stopped the presentation and said, “You all should come work at Valve and build something like this on the Source engine.” And they all were just sitting there like, “Did he just say what I thought he said?” A year later we introduced Portal on the Source engine.
For us, that’s one of the greatest things about our job. People say “Shipping Half-Life 2 must have been one of the most exciting times working at Valve.” And actually for me it was calling up Matt Boone from the Day of Defeat team and saying, “Hey, do you want to bring your team to Valve and work here?” And just hearing the pause on the other end of the phone, and I was laughing in my head like, “This kid must just be crapping his pants right now.” It’s great to be able to give those guys their break, and introduce those guys into the game industry, and bring in that talent. The Portal team, just like the DoD team, they’re incredibly talented folks. And they’re kids of a generation that have been playing games all of their lives. That’s where we look to for how we’re going to innovate is through people and through great minds.
GI: You mentioned in the original presentation that Portal will take place in the Half-Life universe. Will that connection be made in Portal or Episode Two?
Lombardi: It happens while you’re playing through Portal. And you will play as a new character that we haven’t introduced yet that will have a role in Half-Life games in the future.
GI: That’s interesting how you said that. Will this be a character that we might see in Episode Three?
GI: But if Episode Three is ending the trilogy…
Lombardi: But not ending Half-Life. Just the trilogy.
GI: The narrator of Portal seems to have some sort of funny/weird delivery. What kind of tone are you going for with the game?
Lombardi: When you have that style of game it could just be very stale and very dry. It’s just puzzle solving and you could put in a little techno music in the background and leave it at that. But we thought it would be much more interesting if we introduced this idea of the narrator. The original idea came from the training room in Half-Life 1 where you had that voice that was talking to you and whatnot. She was a little bit cynical, but not nearly as so as the voice in Portal. The writing for that is being done by Chet [Faliszek] and Erik [Wolpaw] who used to be Old Man Murray. They’re at Valve now and one of their first projects they’ve been tasked with is to do the writing for Portal. So if you were a fan of Old Man Murray you’re going to be a fan of that voice in Portal because it’s the same wry cynicism.
GI: With Portal and TF2 going towards the more light-hearted side is it just because you’ve been making these serious, dark games for so long you’re letting your inner humor out?
Lombardi: Yeah. Half-Life has that dark, oppressive environment and the heavy Orwellian style science fiction mode to it and it’s fun to step out of that, both in the gameplay realm with something like Portal and in the tone and manner of TF2. Games should be fun. In general I think all games have been getting more and more serious. It’s entertainment. Lighten up. We’re taking a little breath of air with these two projects and allowing humor to have its place in the game.
GI: When do you think we’ll see for the first time the console versions of these projects?
Lombardi: X06 in Barcelona.
GI: You’ll be debuting the 360 version?
GI: What about PS3?
Lombardi: Undecided. TBD.
GI: Tokyo Game Show?
Lombardi: No, because X06 is right on top of Tokyo Game Show. That’s sort of like a logistical, “How many people do we have to send overseas at one time?” thing. But certainly this fall.