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Mike Harrington

    Mike Harrington Interview

jaspur - Mike, thanks very much for taking the time out to answer some questions. For the few people out there who don't know who you are, could you tell us about yourself, what you do, what your working on, and whatever else you would like all these crazy folks to know about you?

Mike - I founded Valve with Gabe Newell in August of '96. Prior to that I had worked at Microsoft for about nine years, and Dynamix before that. I live in the country near Seattle with my wife, Emma (our dog) and Max (our cat) Since Valve is a startup, I have done just about everything. In the early days, I did everything from getting the offices together to working on code. I've spent a ton of time on recruiting. Putting together a team like this took a lot of time and effort. It's been a lot of fun to see it all come together.

jaspur - From reading your bio, you started at Dynamix doing games, then went to Microsoft to work on operating systems, and now your back to games. Is being a game developer what you always dreamed of doing?

Mike - Cutting edge programming has always interested me and games programming is a great place to find it. But cutting edge hardware is a big part of the fun too. Working on a game is a great excuse to play with the latest graphics hardware. It's not unusual to have some major hardware vendor calling up to ask us to support their new secret blow-your-socks-off hardware. It's been a lot of fun to get Half-Life up on the latest video cards that enable us to produce very nice real time graphics that only a few years ago would have had to have been prerendered and played back as a movie.

Believe it or not, good games programming has a lot in common with operating systems programming. When I was working on NT, 3 of the 6 people in the group I was in were former games programmers. One of the biggest differences is the size of the overall group. At Valve, we have between 15-25 people working on a game at any given time, on a Microsoft operating system there were several hundred.

jaspur - It seems that Valve has put together some tremendous talent, once Half-Life is released, what is in store for Valve in the long haul?

Mike - We've got a lot of of irons in the fire, so to speak. But nothing we're prepared to talk about yet.

jaspur - Can you give us some details into the seamless map format, and how it is carried over into Half-Life?

Mike - The levels are separate BSPs that cooperate with each other. There are a two key technology elements that make our transitions work. First, there are named, global entities. That allows us to have a door (or any entity) that saves it state under a specific name. When we load up the next map, a matching door in that level will have the same name and retrieve the same state. The other key part is the engine code that transfers visible entities from one map to the next.

All a map maker has to do is create the geometry, set up a landmark and use global entities and the rest is automatically handled.

jaspur -What kind of compiling times are we looking at when it comes Half-Life levels?

Mike - Varies widely. We build on dual Pentium 333s and a quad Pentium Pro 200. Some of the things that affect the build most are how much detail you ask from for the radiosity program and how much detailed geometry you have in your map.

jaspur - It's been said that the player will be able to take control of the vehicles in H-L, will this apply to the helicopters too?

Mike - Our helicopters are not vehicles, but monsters. We do have vehicles that you can (and must) control to get around certain parts of the game.

jaspur - With the release of Half-Life and Worldcraft 2.0, it's been mentioned that WC won't be just a level editor, but a complete game design tool. Can you give us some more details on this?

Mike - Worldcraft 2.0 takes advantage of a lot of the new engine technology that exists in Half-Life. For example, you'll be able to match sound effects to the specific surface attribute of your levels, you'll have some control over the monster AI, and you'll be able to include scripted sequences if you wish. All of these features (and others) give designers a chance to build a much more "alive"environment, and have more control over the gameplay experience.

I think one of the most exciting areas in gaming these days is content created by the gaming public. It's been fascinating to see how much time people will pour into their own content, whether it is a new weapon, full blown TC, or a real-time strategy map. The tools that people currently use to create this are still in their infancy, there is a lot of room to grow. Future tools from us will provide an even higher level of integration of all game elements into a single tool.

jaspur - Will Worldcraft have 3ds max cut-scene integration?

Mike - This is not a version 2 feature, but like I said above, we're looking at getting much better integration in future versions of our tools.

jaspur - How does Half-Life use atmospheric effects? fogging? distance? Will these be plug-ins accessible within WC?

Mike - We use Worldcraft v2.0 to create all of the levels in Half-Life. The version that we will release with Half-Life will be exactly what we've used ourselves. Half-Life does have underwater fog.

jaspur - We all know that Half-Life will support 3dfx, but what about Rendition support? What cards will be supported? (this is one I get e-mail on all the time :)

Mike - We're still working out the details on what we support.

jaspur - What about sound effects plug-ins, and how are DSP capibilities carried out within WC?

Mike - All of our sound effects (DSP and otherwise) are exposed in WC. You can set the room type, change door noises, control ambient sounds among other things.

jaspur - What are your favorite games?

Mike - All sorts. I go through phases. I was in the military flight sim phase for several years, but I've fallen of that wagon. Longbow II was almost enough to get me back. Like the rest of the world, I went on a real-time strategy binge for a few years. Now I mostly play first person games, with few oddballs. Right now I'm playing Worms 2 (especially multiplayer) and I have StarCraft and Mysteries of the Sith sitting on my desk waiting for attention.

jaspur - What has been your favorite part of working on Half-Life?

Mike - By far the best thing has been working with the others at Valve. We have such a great bunch of people that each day I really look forward to working with them. We have a pretty diverse group of folks so it makes for pretty interesting conversation, game related and otherwise. I'm still trying to glean some kind of life lesson from Wedge's stories about his time as a Waffle House manager.

jaspur - Is this the game you have always dreamed of playing?

Mike - If only it came with a virtual realty body suit, then we could all live in the game. : )

jaspur - Do you feel Half-Life will change the way we presently see action gaming?

Mike - I really hope so. I think once people have the chance to play with monsters that have an interesting AI and worlds that you can play with that people won't ever want to go back to the old run and gun type games.

jaspur - Any thoughts on what you expect to see in the future of gaming? Do you think first-person shooters will remain the standard for immersive gameplay? What could be next?

Mike - That's a huge question. I don't have a crystal ball, but there are several areas that I think will be more prominent in the very near future. I'm really looking forward to better physics simulations. There is a lot of room for improvement in this area. When objects in the game world start acting like objects in your world, a entire new set of possibilities get opened up. There are a couple of games working on this right now, I'm pretty interested to see how they turn out.

jaspur - And finally, has coffee played an important role in the develpment of H-L?

Mike - Coffee has an important, on-going role. I'm not sure who the biggest coffee hound is, but I suspect it's either Chuck or Harry. We have a Starbucks next door, so the next fix is only a few minutes away.

Special Thanks to Mike for taking the time out for this interview!

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