Develop Magazine recently visited Valve studios, and spoke with Newell about development at the popular studio.
In the interview, a lot of interesting things came out about Valve and the way it functions as a studio, which has always been somewhat secretive. The successful, heavily contributive studio apparently has a lot more freedom for the designers and developers that one even thinks would be possible.
As it’s described it seems more like an art co-op than a video game company. In most video game studios, you have a strictly hierarchic structure, in which orders flow downhill, and in which the developers and designers who actually make the games are usually just ‘following orders’ from above, and have little input on the creative process. If you belonged to a painters studio, however, you would each work on your own things, sometimes teaming up, sometimes not, and going to leadership of the studio only for occasional advice and approval of projects to take on the studio’s banner.
Valve works much more like that painting co-op than it does a typical game studio.
For example, according to Newell, the reason there was no Source engine on Playstation 3 before now was that no one at the company had been interested in building one. Sure, it would have been profitable, it would have been good for the company, but Newell would never tell his employees what to work on. If no one ever decides to make a PS3 engine, then Valve won’t be releasing one. It seems like it couldn’t possibly be that simple, but unless it’s an elaborate ruse, this is how Valve works.
Portal 2 was created by a small team which chose to make Portal 2, starting with the ARG stuff a year or so ago, and picking up steam (pun intended) as others at Valve saw what they were doing and joined the project.
This means that we finally have a hint as to why there has been no new content in the Half-life franchise: No one at Valve is excited enough by the project to work on it.
Of course, part of it has to do with the overriding philosophy of design that the company is pushing, something that Newell does have some say in, though he insists it is only a suggestion. For a time, he was encouraging episodic content as a means to shorter development cycles, which is good for fans and for developers and their families, but they saw after doing two episodes of Half-life that it wasn’t really working for them, and the idea of episodes fell away in favor of another development style: Platform development.
In this style, each game becomes its own entertainment platform, and the designers and developers at Valve can choose to add content to the ‘platform’ as time goes by, according to popular demand, and to their own whims. This is best reflected in the development of Team Fortress 2, which has received over 200 content updates since it was released four years ago, none of which have cost the customers any money beyond what they paid for the game at release. TF2 will continue to develop this way as long as there is interest at the company. The ‘management’ such as it is, isn’t telling anyone to do this stuff, they choose what to update and how all on their own.
It’s all very socialist.
The development of Valve’s Zombie survival game Left 4 Dead (now Left 4 Dead 2) is starting to approach the same sort of constant development, building the game up while the audience watches and responds. It will happen with Portal 2 as well, if the demand is there, and the interest stays high at the company.
This might be bad news for people who have been patiently waiting for new Half-Life content; it means that we likely won’t ever see Half-Life 2: Episode 3. If we get anything Half-Life in the future, it will likely jump directly to Half-Life 3, which will become the new ‘platform’ for Half-Life and would enter this constant development cycle along with Valve’s other projects.
Valve is one of the most successful game studios in the world right now, and they don’t even tell their employees what to do. Is this a strategy that might work for the industry as a whole? Is Valve just the first of a new breed of game design houses? Ones which, while perhaps less predictable (fewer instances of sequel creep, for example) might be better relied upon for quality.
It’s almost enough to make me wish I had continued on with my dream of becoming a game designer. A dream I gave up when I saw how dreary the life of the commercial developer can be. It’s too late for me now, of course, but perhaps some young game designers with dreams have a place to aspire to work, and a reason to stay in the field.
You can read Develop’s feature, with lots of direct quotes from Newell.