Half-Life 2 Q&A

We corner Valve's Gabe Newell in an Alcatraz prison cell for the latest news on the game.

For months, September 30, the day when Half-Life 2 was scheduled to ship, stood as a key date in gamers' minds. But last week, Valve confirmed that the highly anticipated action game had been delayed and will ship later this year. Yesterday, Gabe Newell, Valve's founder and managing director, attended ATI's graphics card launch event at the former prison on Alcatraz Island, in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, to endorse ATI's cards and talk about why DirectX 9 is such an important standard for PC game developers.

While there was no new footage of Half-Life 2 at the event--which was also originally timed with the game's release date--we got an exclusive chance to talk to Newell on camera about Half-Life 2. Read on for more on the game's setting, Valve's position as a self-funded developer, the status of the multiplayer, and the latest news on the game's release schedule, and check out the video interview linked below.

GameSpot: How do you set the stage for Half-Life 2's world for those who have played Half-Life and those who haven't?

Gabe Newell: For us it's really important for the character of Gordon to be transparent, that how the player feels about what's going on and what the character is supposed to be feeling are relatively in sync.

At the beginning of the game, you're confused. The character is confused, and the player is confused. What's going on? What's happened to the passage of time? The last thing I remember is this other event, and now there's a fair amount of distance from that--spatially and temporally. I'm not in Black Mesa anymore--what happened?

So even if you walk into the situation never having played Half-Life, you're going to be OK because you're going to be surprised by things whether you played Half-Life or not. That was one of the choices we made early on, to keep the player in sync with the game character as well as to accommodate people who hadn't played the original game--it sort of works on both levels.

GS: How would you compare the development process for the original Half-Life and what you've been through with Half-Life 2?

GN: With Half-Life we were trying to build the company at the same time as we were building the game. It was not a whole lot of fun to try to do both of those things at the same time. With Half-Life 2, we have a much better team and a much stronger team. Everybody from Half-Life has been through it before. People had at lot more confidence in terms of taking risks that those risks would pay off.

In a lot of ways--except for the fact that it's taken an unbelievably long time to do--Half-Life 2 has been a lot more fun for us than Half-Life.

GS: What are the specific challenges you're facing in wrapping the game up?

GN: Right now, the most important thing we're doing is watching people play. We learn a huge amount by sitting and watching people play, seeing what works and seeing what doesn't work, varying it. There's this notion of local task completion. This means that they're getting stuff done, that they're getting too frustrated, and that they're seeing enough interesting stuff on a regular schedule.

Then we interview them afterwards. Why do they think they were doing what they were doing? Did they have a sense of what was going on in the broader story? Were they paying attention to the story? What did they like or dislike? We just do that over and over, going through the game again and again.

That tuning of the game and getting those reactions is the best tool we know of getting this final level of refinement on the design.

GS: Valve seems to have a uniquely independent position among developers. How would you describe your relationship with your publisher and how this affects the decisions you make leading up to shipping the game?

GN: I think that important things any developer needs to think about is: What do I need to do to be successful building the games, and what do I need to be successful delivering an experience to my customers? And over and over in the industry there are examples of projects where everyone knew what the right thing to do was, but it didn't happen for some reason. Two-thirds of the projects in the game industry go out too soon, if you ask me. They're not done. They're right at that elbow where a little extra work would have made the game dramatically better.

This is an obvious issue, so early on we tried to make sure that we could make decisions that weren't optimized for quarterly schedules or what somebody's budgetary forecasts were. One of the things we have to do is that we fund our own game development. This has meant that we took all the money we made from Half-Life, and other money we had, and said, "OK rather than going and buying Ferraris, we're going to buy our next game." Everybody at the company had to buy into that.

That means that we have the opportunity to do things that we'd never be able to do if we were looking to somebody else to take that risk. And that's the kind of thing that I hope that more game developers try to do, because the end result will be much better games and much better off game developers.

GS: Looking back at the project, what's most new in Half-Life 2?

GN: There are a lot more levels for you to be thinking about what you're doing. There's a physical dimension--there are objects in the world. You can use those. You can pick things up and drop them on people's heads, to give a really simple example. But there are much more complicated things you can do around that, which the AI and creatures can do as well.

There are people. You're never alone in the game---or almost never alone. You have to think about how are they going to react and what are they going to do. A lot of times, they have goals and you don't, and you have to make up your mind about what you're going to do around them trying to achieve something.

There's a richer experience that's a lot more reactive. There are a lot more things that are going to be responding to the actions you take, whether it's the physical simulations of weapon behaviors or tools you're using, whether it's how people are reacting to what's happening, whether it's how opponents are reacting to how the tactical situation is changing. More and more of the world responds to what you're doing, which to us is the underlying key to a great gameplay experience.

GS: Valve hasn't said anything about Half-Life 2's multiplayer. Is it fully developed and blossoming behind the scenes?

GN: Half-Life 2's multiplayer is something we're not talking about because we want to keep it as a surprise for our customers as we roll into our launch cycle. I play it every day. I think it's going to be very popular with the community.

GS: Everybody wants to know when Half-Life 2 will be in stores. What can you say about the release date?

GN: I hate release dates because no matter how hard we try, we screw them up. We held back talking about our release date going into September 30 because I wanted to have a much clearer idea of what day we were going to ship on.

Right now all we can say is holidays of this year, which to me feels really unfortunate. Our customers really want to know. They say, "Tell us what the date is going to be," and that's what they want to hear. They're fine with what the date is; they just want to know so they can plan accordingly.

Right now it's for the holidays. I wish we had a clearer date to give people at this time.

GS: Thanks for your time, Gabe.

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