GDC '08: Opening the Portal

Developers of Valve's breakout Orange Box hit discuss how to turn an intended tech demo into the talk of the gaming world.

by

SAN FRANCISCO--On Wednesday night, Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw were basking in the adulation of their peers, taking home top honors for innovation, game design, and game of the year in the 2007 Game Developers Choice Awards. On Friday afternoon, however, the two were forced to critically assess their contribution to the Orange Box compilation, detailing all the things that went right--and wrong--in a postmortem session.

"Don't hurt me! I love you!"

As one would expect given the game's success, the presentation was jam-packed with attendees, who filled every seat and every bit of standing room in the hopes of gleaning some nugget of insight into Portal's development. Swift and Wolpaw provided nuggets aplenty in a half-hour lecture and a roughly 40-minute audience Q&A session. To start with, Wolpaw and Swift described their "delta theory" of integrating story and gameplay.

"By itself, our story wouldn't make a great novel," Swift said. "And the gameplay is all right, but a little on the dry side. Honestly, it would be a race to see which one would fail the fastest on its own. But because we had a really tight integration between the story and the gameplay, it really seemed to resonate with people."

The key then is to keep the difference between the "story story" and the "gameplay story" as small as possible, because wide disparities stick out to gamers. Wolpaw gave the 2001 shooter Clive Barker's Undying as an example of a game with big disparities. The gameplay consisted of a World War I hero frantically gunning his way through a haunted castle, with occasional pauses while he calmly interrogated levelheaded butlers, maids, and other servants about the horrors unleashed around them. According to Wolpaw, the team was ruthless about not allowing the "story story" to ever intrude on the "gameplay story" as it did in Undying.

Wolpaw also mentioned how the constraints the team was put under actually fostered their creativity. For most of the game, the computerized antagonist GLaDOS is present only as a guiding, encouraging, menacing, or taunting disembodied voice. While that built tension to the game's final boss battle unveiling of GLaDOS "in the flesh," Wolpaw said that presentation--and several other design elements--had more to do with the team's constraints than anything else. With only a handful of people working on Portal and a limited budget, the time and money demanded to implement other human characters (what with their animation and voice work) was unrealistic.

However, there was another purpose to having the player navigate the world of Portal utterly alone. Wolpaw had read some US Secret Service documents on interrogation techniques, and he discovered that when people are isolated for extended periods of time, they tend to develop affinities for inanimate objects. That was one reason the Weighted Companion Cube worked as a "character" in Portal, but not the only reason.

The cube, and its fiery end at the hands of the player, served as a perfect training sequence before the player headed into the final boss battle with GLaDOS, where various parts of the supercomputer needed to be tossed in an incinerator. The demise of the Cube made for a more satisfying level ending than simply making it through an obstacle course while carrying a random box, or leaving the box behind to get to the next obstacle course. Swift also said that players learn better when they're not stressed by incoming fire or a strict time limit, making the whenever-you're-ready forced murder of the Cube stick in players' minds better. Finally, the Cube's demise offers a pleasant symmetry of revenge to the final boss battle, which sees the player burn GLaDOS the way GLaDOS made the player burn the Cube.

Above all, the advice Wolpaw and Swift wanted the audience to carry away from the session was that developers need to embrace their restraints and treat them as fuel for creativity. They also need to have faith in themselves, their writing, and their team. Finally, play-test, play-test, play-test, and then play-test some more.

From the first week the development team had something to show, Portal was being play-tested regularly. It not only helped them find out what players wanted from the gameplay (and adjust accordingly), but it also helped them discover what players were feeling from the story part of the game, and work on better reinforcing those parts.

Discussion

112 comments
briank555
briank555

This Was A Triumph I'm Making A Note Here: HUGE SUCCESS It's hard to overstate my satisfaction. Aperture Science We do what we must because we can. For the good of all of us. Except the ones who are dead. But there's no sense crying over every mistake. You just keep on trying till you run out of cake. And the Science gets done. And you make a neat gun. For the people who are Still Alive I'm not even angry. I'm being so sincere right now. Even though you broke my heart. And killed me. And tore me to pieces. And threw every piece into a fire. As they burned it hurt because I was so happy for you! Now these points of data make a beautiful line. And we're out of beta. We're releasing on time. So I'm GLAD. I got burned. Think of all the things we learned for the people who are still alive. Go ahead and leave me. I think I prefer to stay inside. Maybe you'll find someone else to help you. Maybe Black Mesa. . . THAT WAS A JOKE. HAHA FAT CHANCE. Anyway. this cake is great. It's so delicious and moist. Look at me still talking When Theres Science to do. When I look out there, it makes me GLAD I'm not you. I've experiments to run. There is research to be done. On the people who are still alive. And believe me I am still alive. I'm doing Science and I'm still alive. T feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive. While you're dying I'll be still. And when you're dead I will be still alive. STILL ALIVE

Titanicles
Titanicles

Azuki, the whole point of the cube was that you had no friends or family and were forced to gain a bond with anything that came close, even if it was just an inanimate cube, although I personally feel it was a genius character creation that was so simple, but effective. I actually didn't want to burn it, as I had grown quite attached to it.

Tebbit
Tebbit

Sure, I finished it in an hour the second time through, but when I first played it (which was through to the wee hours of the morning when I got the orange box..... after it had finished updating) Portal was freakin awesome. The perfect synthesis of gameplay and storytelling.

stevechur
stevechur

I'm not a puzzle person, but I did enjoy the humor in portal. I enjoyed the whole collection of HL2 games, even with the puzzles. I would like to see the portal gun in a more open environment. Portal was something totally different than anything I've ever played, really a great concept.

H1dd3n-5h4d0w
H1dd3n-5h4d0w

"Azuki I really don't get the whole cube thing..." Its got a heart on it, duh.

Azuki
Azuki

I really don't get the whole cube thing, Gabe Newell mentions in one of the commentary's the only reason they gave it a heart and added the glados dialogue in relation to it was because so many dumb players were forgetting to bring it with them in that part of the game. I thought it was humorous and nothing more. Now if you had to actually escort a character you had some empathy for and you were forced to kill them, that kind of thing would have warranted emotional attachment. I find the cube fad somewhat silly but everything else about the game is pure gold and I only want more! If the portal gun is wielded by freeman in ep3 that would kick some serious ass, especially in outdoor enviroments.

4skins4life
4skins4life

The next step for Portal is merged into later Half Life 2 episodes. Hopefully Episode 3. Looks Like Gorden gets to add a portal gun to his arsenal and a new character enters the story. Valve was saying that before the Orange Box was even released.

ShipwreckX
ShipwreckX

Maby Portal 2 give you combine people to throw around.

Ra-Devil
Ra-Devil

How could they really do a Portal 2 without setting it in a new... setting? I mean, it's not like you'd have fun playing through a factory again, but perhaps *SPOILERS* At the end of Portal, you're out in the open world... above the facility /*SPOILERS* That could be the setting. A wide open environment to use the Portal Gun in, rather than tightly wover coridors... but then all the puzzles would have to be built into the environment... but you would have really cool chances to see what the Portal Gun does at longer ranges and in wide open environments, like warping from a rock to the side of a cliff, or putting one on a cliff, then the other under, hell, maybe a soldier. I'm just trying to think of how they could do another Portal game without rehashing what was the original Portal.

garethcoker
garethcoker

This Frames-per-second argument is such nonsense. Films are shot at either 24 FPS, 24.97 FPS, 25 FPS, or sometimes 30 FPS. I can understand why something faster would be necessary in a big action game, but in a game like Portal, it's a non-issue. Incidentally, Portal is talked about not just because it is a good game, but it opened up a new world of possibilities with its innovative concept.

VagrantChild24
VagrantChild24

It'd be tough to make a Portal 2. Granted it is obviously really wanted and they could do some cool things gameplay wise, but recapturing the atmosphere and everything again will be no small task.

sidneyisaac
sidneyisaac

I hope they don't make a sequel because Portal was truly the perfect game. It was immersive. It was interesting. It was unique. The story just wraps everything up quite nicely, and I don't see a reason to make another. Make some downloadable content for it, like bonus levels, but don't make another.

Phazevariance
Phazevariance

Fun game, i'd love to see portal 2 even if it was the same style of gameplay only LONGER.... more levels. They were fun and intuitive. Then again, perhaps it would be fun to play half life with the portal guns as a regular game also.

pythxvii
pythxvii

There's too many of these 'The Making of Portal' articles. Come on, the commentaries in Portal alone cover most of the points in these articles which keep repeating the same points mentioned in other articles of this topic. How about they stop talking about Portal and start talking about Portal 2? Well if you don't have Portal that isn't exactly an option...

Axe_336
Axe_336

What? Playtest a game? That makes too much sense! Feedback? Criticism while still in production? Psh, that makes fixing problems too easy, better to just stick with what the publishers think players want. They have the money, so they must know best right?

DaRkNeSs2393
DaRkNeSs2393

Yeah, I had no remorse about killing the Companion Cube. Everyone has said "OMG Best moment in Orange Box!" but I simply tossed it in the fire without a trace of guilt. It's just a little cube with a heart on it after all...

agg4000
agg4000

Is it wrong that I didn't become the slightest bit attached to the Companion Cube? I just burned it no questions asked, if it was with me for longer maybe but it only lasted a level =/

4skins4life
4skins4life

Hey, Somebody89, Go to you tube and search Portal + cake and you will find it.

Mercenary-X
Mercenary-X

As for the 60 fps vs 30 fps (or any other numbers), play BioShock. Play it for a few minutes, just looking around and whatnot, and then turn off the frame lock. You'll notice that all the animations are smoother, and maybe even faster. I'm not sure if it's just me, but the animations and gameplay seemed faster with the lock off...and I actually preferred it locked at 30 fps.

4skins4life
4skins4life

I have the PC version so I don't have a locked FPS problem but it seems these days, most people don't have a computer fit to run CS:S. Also using the drop down console menu, there are numerous bugs and exploits you can only find on the PC version but the console version is still the next best thing.

Tsunami_pt
Tsunami_pt

HissingNewt, I can assure it's easy to tell the differece. Just compare, for example, CoD 4 and Halo 3. Go play both games, and you know what I mean about Portal, and most of The Orange Box, really. That's one thing I love about CoD4. The way that it is so "smooth"... Like Forza (60 fps) vs Dirt (30 fps), for example. And I DO love portal, don't get me wrong...

druglord6
druglord6

@ hissing newt Thats BS i can easily tell the difference between 30 fps and 60fps

iuns
iuns

Companion cube was my only friend......

kalkhaja
kalkhaja

its true, i love that cube....

HissingNewt
HissingNewt

Tsunami, the 60 FPS doesn't matter. As long as it's above 30 (or maybe 27, I've heard both numbers), then the human eye won't tell the difference.

Timbydude
Timbydude

And wow, I didn't know they did that much research about people befriending inanimate object before making Companion Cube.

BigDaddy973
BigDaddy973

I loved portal!!! And the song at the end was incredible, as well as the companion cube!!! :)

Killer2401
Killer2401

As innovative as portal was, for some reason when I play it it feels boring....

Kojo62
Kojo62

No matter how good COD4 is, it's still a clone of any number of other wartime shooter games. Portal is definitely the most original game of the year, and probably of this generation. That counts for a lot, especially when you're being considered for an award from your peers in an industry where originality is as rare as a 3 dollar bill. Portal deserved to be the GDC Game of the Year. There's no higher honor than an award from your peers, and I think the opinion of those at the GDC who gave them this award counts for a hell of a lot more than any of ours.

Tsunami_pt
Tsunami_pt

I played almost every candidate for game of the year that passed on the Xbox 360. I cant talk for other consoles, but for what I've played, Portal is not my choice for game of the year, though it is a very good and original game. Imo, Call of Duty 4 is probably the game of the year, followed by Bioshock and Mass Effect (And WoW: TBC). Portal is very good and original, but it is not as perfect as CoD4, which is normal, considering it's origins. Like most ppl, I bought The Orange Box mostly for Portal. I hope to see a second Portal on a stand alone box, with a higher lifespan, 60 fps and even more original stuff. I trust Valve can do that.

Neo9898_98
Neo9898_98

@ buffdaddy69: Yes. The Orange Box is one disc, but that doesn't mean it's one game. It's a compilation of games, and that's how it's marketed. It's not one game... I find it absolutely stupid that people actually concidered a compilation for Game Of The Year.

pwilletts
pwilletts

To syafiqjabar, I completely agree with you on that. The driving sequences are freaking awesome especially the water boat part.

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

Orange Box is $39.99 at Target this week for PS3 and 360... just a heads up in case anyone out there hasn't already bought this game.

sampleking
sampleking

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

zeus_gb
zeus_gb

Portal is a great game and the story helped to create a believable world. Hats off to the developers for making a different and interesting game instead of a "safe game" that sells.

_iMMuNiTy_
_iMMuNiTy_

There's too many of these 'The Making of Portal' articles. Come on, the commentaries in Portal alone cover most of the points in these articles which keep repeating the same points mentioned in other articles of this topic. How about they stop talking about Portal and start talking about Portal 2?

Erebus
Erebus

Being IN the story definitely helped Portal phenomenally. Something about the game really did make me feel like I was inside it. I always jumped a bit in my seat when those bouncing electricity balls got a little too close.... and out-right flinched if one killed me. The whole "you are part of an experiment" angle really created believability. By the time everything falls apart, the game has established so much credibility that you continue to believe everything it tells you. For instance, I genuinely believed that my character's life was hanging on by a thread from 4000 degrees kelvin and on. At this point you're "messing with the system," something you just didn't do prior. Portal 2 has quite an immense task ahead of it. The game has to open assuming you're prepared for all its tricks..... psychologically speaking.

smfes
smfes

Look, Portal is perfect. It’s a perfect game. In part, it’s the perfect game because it’s short, but it’s also too short to truly be the perfect game. Y’know? I played it a few times, and loved it, and I would not change it or make it longer, but, bottom line, it’s given me maybe 10 hours of gaming, as opposed to TF2, for example, which has given me over a hundred. So, Portal is perfect. It’s short, hilarious, amazingly clever, and just a perfect, brilliant, inspired gaming experience. It made me want to print out the code onto reams and reams of paper, wad the paper up, shape it into the crude form of a woman, and make love to it. It’s a game that I think everyone should play, and I think anyone would enjoy. That said, it’s short. Which is good! But, also, it’s short, and you’ll be done with it pretty quickly.

syafiqjabar
syafiqjabar

I actually loved the vehicle sequences in HL2. I just wished you don't have to stop so often to remove obstacles.

pythxvii
pythxvii

With the huge success of the original game, hopefully they will have the money to make a longer game, and add plenty of great new stuff. One thing i'd LOVE to see is a Coop campaign that makes it so you have to cooperate or something. And maybe have the ending pit the two players against each other or something. And some destructible environments would be cool, imagine dropping your box and watching it smash the painted glass that your standing on, or being thrown through a wooden wall. Some Cloth simulation, like in that one game on XBLA. Probably a bit much and most of that, if any, won't be in the game, but it would be cool, would it not? Cannot wait for more of Valves SUPERB work, and I hope they continue to make their games with that incredible developer commentary =)

Bowser05
Bowser05

"I like how Valve don't half-ass their games as other companies do *cough* EA *cough*" I think that sums it up.

Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest

I like how Valve don't half-ass their games as other companies do *cough* EA *cough*

Tylendal
Tylendal

It sounds pretty cool when they talk about how they tried to make the Story and Gameplay one and the same.

BlueBirdTS
BlueBirdTS

Portal is a great game, although I wish they hadn't devoted so many of the games levels as simple tutorials. Hopefully, Portal 2 will ramp up in difficulty early on.

phantommizzi
phantommizzi

I had heard Portal was short, so I got it on steam and now I play tons of Mod levels. My second time beating it only took 3 and a half hours.

drayven666
drayven666

Touche :p Either way, it's certainly the deal of the year!