Opening The Valve: The Gabe Newell Interview


Posted June 10, 2009 - By Billy Berghammer

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While the Valve faithful were probably expecting an update on what was happening with the third Episode of Half-Life 2 episodic content, or something about a Portal sequel, E3 2009 would prove not to be the place for that. A few days before E3 dropped, the world discovered what Valve was hiding. Coming off a successful Left 4 Dead release on the PC and Xbox 360, the Seattle based company decided to go back to the drawing board and blow out Left 4 Dead 2, a fully-fledged sequel that will drop later this year.

Known for consistently adding content for free, the publisher caused tantrums among its fans.  Among the many questions: “Why a sequel so soon?” “Where the hell is Episode 3?” I swung by E3 for my annual interview with Valve’s Gabe Newell and Doug “Don’t Tell Billy” Lombardi to get the latest on everything Valve.

G4: So, I guess the big surprise or not so surprising - because it got leaked - is Left 4 Dead 2. Why did you guys decide to go back and fire off a sequel right away?

Gabe Newell: Well, there are a couple reasons for that. One was when we were shipping the game, a bunch of the people who were working on it had all the stuff that they wanted to do right away. It really grew out of the fact that we all played Left 4 Dead pretty religiously and so people said, “You know, we don’t really want to stop. There’s too much fun stuff to go and do here.”

And then there was this other issue was from a project management perspective, we were looking at different ways of thinking about scheduling. So Robin’s [ed: Robin Walker, Software Developer/Designer] been working on Team Fortress 2, and he’s become really good at turning two month long projects, and having everybody have a lot of fun and being able to do really good work. So, like the Spy update that just came out was on schedule and everybody knew exactly what they were going to get done and felt very productive.

Opening The Valve: The Gabe Newell Interview

Tom Leonard [ed: Software Developer] has been really interested in how to manage longer scale projects that have similar characteristics to what we’ve been doing with the Team Fortress 2 updates. So, that combination of having a group of people who really wanted to do more Left 4 Dead work with Tom wanting to bring some new methodologies to bare on the questions of year-length projects were two of the things that really drove us to think that it was an interesting project to go do.

From a customer’s perspective, we think that given the sort of insane popularity of Left 4 Dead, that people are going to be super excited about getting a sequel to that. We’re going to continue to do Left 4 Dead updates and release more content for Left 4 Dead, and then also have Left 4 Dead 2 coming out as well. So, those two things were what made us say, “Okay let’s go ahead and ship something relatively quickly.” A bunch of people wanted to work on it, and Tom wanted to take a stab at proving on a larger scale one-year length project that it would have more manageable and predictable characteristics that we’ve gotten sort of used to out of Valve time and some of our larger-scale projects.

G4: You guys are known for episodic content and a lot DLC and things like that. Why not just put some of these things in DLC instead?

Newell: Well we’re going to continue to do DLC for Left 4 Dead. That hasn’t stopped at all. We’re continuing to do updates for Left 4 Dead even after Left 4 Dead 2 ships. So, that hasn’t changed. We’re just doing Left 4 Dead 2 - different settings, different characters, and continuing to push the technology forward. If the AI director 2.0 and stuff like that makes more sense to do where you’ve got new geometries and can take advantage of that rather than trying to take advantage of that in pre-existing maps and build new monsters and take advantage of it as well. So, we’re going to continue to do DLC for Left 4 Dead and continue to support that product. And then, also do Left 4 Dead 2.

G4: So do you think you might try to test some of the new weaponry in Left 4 Dead 1? Such as bring in chainsaws and some other things like that?

Newell: We’re always going look at what makes sense to do and how to manage that transition. You have these complicated situations and on PC it’s not so bad. On the Xbox it’s a lot more complicated because you can’t guarantee that people have all of the right content given their DLC model, where some people might have some content and others not, which makes it end of up with this weird, complicated thing where this person has this, and this person has this. Where as on the PC we can assume that people have everything. So, we’re trying to get that fixed because they’re sort of cramping our ability to push more free content into customer’s hands when we aren’t sure which free content they have right? And the stuff that you’re allowed to require customer’s to have on the Xbox, it’s only 8MB. That’s the maximum size you can ever change. So, we do that with the first minor update that we do. We’re trying to figure out how to manage that.

So, those are the things we’re sort of struggling with. These constraints on the Xbox. We can release new content on the PC and know that 100% of the customers have it so we don’t have to worry about splitting up our user base into those people who have this weapon and those people who don’t. On the Xbox you don’t have that luxury, where some people could have half the weapons, but not the other weapons. And you don’t know. Every person can be unique. So what we’d really like to do on the Xbox is work with Microsoft so that we can do exactly the same thing that we do with PC users and say hey, everything’s free and everybody always has that. The one problem would be the people who don’t have hard drives and what we would do with them is just orphan them to the first initial release and they can play against all those other people who don’t have hard drives. Everybody who has a hard drive will be up-to-date all the time, the same way they are on the PC side, and that, I think, would help us enormously to have that consistent model across the PC and Xbox.

Opening The Valve: The Gabe Newell Interview

G4: So, last time we talked at Leipzig, I had asked you why there would be no Left 4 Dead on PS3 and you said because Valve, itself, wasn’t big enough to yet support PS3 development in-house. Is that still the case why Left 4 Dead 2 is not announced for the PS3?

Newell: Yes. We haven’t done a good job of taking care of our PS3 customers at all for the existing Orange Box customers, and that is very frustrating to me personally. Until we can do a better job than we have, I’m sort of hesitant to go back and screw them again. So, I want to make sure when we have customers on the PS3 they don’t end up in the sort of second class citizen that I feel that they’ve been by what we did originally with the Orange Box.

G4: With the Spy update, we have heard complaints that with that update, it kind of broke the system because of the way random drops happen. Say for example you had been working toward a certain drop initially and then now you might get duplicate drops. How do you guys respond to the complaints of hardcore Team Fortress players are having, because it’s a pretty major change that you guys made?

Newell: Right, and we’re in the middle of a fairly major set of changes. So, I think it’ll make more sense to people once they can start trading items, and the things that they’re accumulating then have value. They’re not duplicates, they’re stuff that you can trade with someone else for stuff that you don’t have, so we’re in the process of iterating towards a more robust economy in the Team Fortress 2 universe.

I thought that we had been fairly clear that that’s where we’re going and that people should hang on to that stuff; it’s going to be worth more over time. So one thing is that we pay incredibly close attention to it and hopefully as we get further down this road, people will go “Ooohh, okay, I get it now, That makes a lot more sense.” But we want to get the stuff out there so that we can start associating unique items with an individual customer. That’s a pretty big piece of infrastructure to add. So, once we have that ability, then we can start giving you the ability to trade those items and then maybe craft those items or whatever and take it in that direction. We’re very much at the beginning of deploying these pieces. The nice thing is that clearly people are super excited about what’s happening and the fact that 18 months out, the number of people playing have doubled the all-time high is an indication of how much people value that sort of on-going investment and commitment to those products. The same thing can happen with Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 and our other products. It’s a much better way to grow and continue to develop an audience. And there’d also be drama along the way as things go in and people go, “Dragons?! What?!” or whatever and then I think over time, as these pieces get flushed out they go, “Okay, that makes a lot more sense” or “That’s incredibly stupid and now I really am going to use a lot of four-letter words in my next email to Gabe.” (laughs) So, we pay attention, but we also hope people have enough confidence and have been with us long enough to know that we’re usually going in a place that they’re going to be pretty happy with over time.

G4: Because the console infrastructure, especially on the Microsoft side, is so tight, are you going to be able bring those sort of things with weapons, trading and things like that?

Newell: That’s why we really want to talk to Microsoft because to the degree to which we’re sort of leading that, it’s going to be the same issue for Electronic Arts, Guitar Hero, or any games that are going through this transition between entertainment as a product, and this thing that’s defined by stuff you put in the box, and entertainment as a service. Where you’re saying, “How can I create as much on going value for customers as possible and I have to worry about things like movies? They seem to like those. And they like that the product gets better and has more capabilities and new content over time.”

The systems are going to have to evolve. The platforms are going to have to evolve to accommodate that. In fact, I think that’s the defining characteristics of the next generation of platforms in an area where the PC has traditionally shown leadership on these are the ways that they need to evolve. To me in some ways, the Xbox seems a little bit sort of half-way pregnant on this transition. The good news is you can connect to those customers, the bad news is there’s still a lot of friction on how developers are able to provide value to those customers. This isn’t about not paying Microsoft the money that they deserve for establishing a platform, it’s about them enhancing their platform in a way that allows us to create more value for customers over time. And that’s the conversation we’re having with them but I think it’s exactly the same conversation that other developers are going to have as they realize what the opportunities are and the happier that they’ll make customers as they do stuff. So, I don’t think that we’re an isolated instance of that. It’s just pretty darn obvious right now that if you’re a Team Fortress 2 customer on the PC, you’re getting one kind of experience, and if you’re on the Xbox, you’re like okay…when’s it coming? We really want to get it to you and we need to. We’d like to come up with a more permanent solution rather than an on-going series of band-aids that start to behave like tourniquets after a while, right? We want to make sure that Xbox customers are and try to figure out how PS3 customers can be, and Wii customers can be these first-class citizens of these new, as these properties become more and more daily entertainment services, rather than bi-annual or annual entertainment products.

Opening The Valve: The Gabe Newell Interview

G4: So, is it safe to say that you have like four different projects in development right now? So, you have Left 4 Dead 2, you have Team Fortress 2, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Portal 2 and then…Episode 3?

Newell: [laughs] Uh, I’m not going to talk about things that we…we’re talking about Left 4 Dead 2 and Episode 3. As far as I know, that’s all that we’re talking about publicly.

Doug Lombardi: We’re not talking about Episode 3 publicly. (smiles)

Newell: Oh well, I guess I’m not talking about Episode 3 publicly either. (laughs) So..what’s your question? Yes, we have a lot of stuff that’s going on. We have Steam. Steam’s a lot of work. We have these movie things that we make, they take a lot of work.

G4: Please keep them coming because they’re very entertaining.

Newell: Well, one of the things it grows out of – answering the question – it’s like copy protection. When you think about copy protection as the thing that harms the service value that you’re creating, then it’s not that surprising that it’s not a way to fight piracy because you have to fight piracy at the service level, right? Building a bunch of expensive and painful technology that makes customers worried about whether or not their entertainment products are going to work on their next PC or when they go over to a friend’s house, that’s exactly backwards from what you should do. You should be able to make a promise to a customer that’s like, if you can connect to a PC, you can connect to this entertainment experience that you’d paid for and hey, if you can figure out how to integrate an iPhone into that experience, that’s going to be that much better.

From a model perspective, we’d like to say, hey, if you can play it on the PC, you can play it on an Xbox. You don’t care, right? That’s the direction that we see as being super valuable and also being something that would be very hard for the pirates to duplicate because people sort of ignore the fact that the ways that pirates get traction are, like in Russia, the pirates in Russia were translating. They were localizing the product, like half a year ahead of the publishers and they were making it available day and date. That’s not piracy, that’s like really useful as far as the customer is concerned. And if you just catch up with the pirates in terms of the useful service that they’re offering, all of a sudden you get lots and lots of sales and you should get ahead of the pirates, not be impaling yourself on things like copy protection, which freak customers out in total justifiable way.

And then once you have that sort of on-going relationship with customers, it turns out that doing these movies is a great piece of the equation. I mean, in the same way that customers were telling us, by their early, and really aggressive use of the internet, I mean it was this weird situation, where your average gamer had spent more time on the internet than your average marketing executive at a game publisher. They were like “Oh yea, I’ve downloaded something off of a BBS.” and “Yea, I’ve purchased a product on the internet” and they were ahead in terms of realizing the changes that the internet represented to gaming. I think they’re ahead of us again in terms of their notion of what an entertainment property should be. And one of those pieces, along with everything else, is that it’s a cross-media entertainment experience. And, the nice thing is that we can measure that, right? So, we put out a movie, and we see what happens with the community, they all start playing again. They all start gifting copies of the product to their friends. They play longer when they play. So they’re trying to tell us pretty clearly that when they’re fans of Team Fortress or Left 4 Dead or whatever that these story-telling pieces are an important part of what we need to do. And I don’t want us to go hire some third-party production studio who have no insight into the customers or into the world or into these characters, right?

It’s not like something they want us to shop out, they don’t want us to call up Steven Spielberg. They want the people who made Team Fortress exciting and cool, who can capture that, who are most likely to be able to capture that and translate it to do that. But this is really a case of us sort of, following where our customers are leading us, and they’re like pretty clearly sending us this signal that we don’t get to be just a games company anymore. That it’s harder, a harder thing that we need to do which is be more of an entertainment company.

Opening The Valve: The Gabe Newell Interview

G4: I only have one last question. Maybe a follow up, if you’ll allow it. The first time I interviewed you was about Episode 1. We’ve talked about Episode 2 and episodic content. It was very ambitious because you were saying you want to come out with the first episode in this amount of time, the second episode and blah blah blah, and granted it’s always when it’s done, and things always get pushed out. But now looking back when, even though you’re not talking about Episode 3 today, are you still happy you did it episodically or would you have, because it’s taken, kind of the same amount of time that Half-Life 2 took to get all three episodes out?

Newell: Oh, no no no, Half-life 2 took 5 years?

G4: Well we’re working on 3½ years now...

Newell: Yes, but we’ve shipped twice, right? And we’ve been able to take steps forward in the technology. Left 4 Dead couldn’t have shipped without Episode 1 and Episode 2, right? That put us in a position to be able to do Portal and Team Fortress 2, and all of these products were enabled by moving to these shorter development cycles. So, yea, I’m…

G4: So, you don’t regret it??

Newell: I want to make sure that I don’t sound like I’m dismissing user’s issues, right? I get a ton of email everyday saying why aren’t you talking about Episode 3? And there are very good reasons why we’re not talking about Episode 3, which I can’t talk about yet, but I will. So, I think there’s frustration there and I’m not somehow going to say that that’s not legitimate or length isn’t a concern or regularity. The speed with which these updates are coming out, people say, “Hey, gee, these episodes are supposed to be shorter and you take 25 years to ship each one.” So, I don’t wanna somehow dismiss those, or sort of throw them under - but I think we’re in much better shape than would have been, in terms of our ability to move stuff, technology, products, uh, forward faster by changing how, ya know, being different than, ya know, there was Half-Life 2 and then there was post-Half-Life 2 in terms of how we were approaching these things and yea, I think that we’re overall pretty happy without somehow dismissing the legitimate complaints that people should have towards us. But, we’re happy with that choice that we made.

G4: Do you think we’ll find out new details about Episode 3 by the end of the year?

Newell: Just so you know, the thing to me, that feels right, is the rhythm that Robin and his team are operating with. It’s like watching the reaction of that community, watching their ability to respond, looking at the quality of the work they’re getting with the length of those development cycles. They’re having a great time. And I think it shows on the other side, right? I mean, they were just giggling so hard when they were changing the buttons in the movies to say “leak video.” Do you remember the big screen with all the buttons? And they were like we have to put “leaks video” into that thing before we release it. They were just like cackling away. What should have been like, pretty demoralizing and stressful was for them, “Oh, this is no big deal.” So, yeah, people get the idea.

Opening The Valve: The Gabe Newell Interview


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