Interview: Valve on why Alien Swarm is free
I was at Valve last month to interview pretty much everyone I could find, and play one of the most exciting PC games on the horizon: Portal 2. The preview I wrote, and the profile on Valve themselves, is in the new issue of PC Gamer in the UK. But we're also putting up the interviews here on the site, one a day for a week. Today's is my conversation with the creator of Alien Swarm, about how the game turned from mod to polished Valve product, and why it's free.
PC Gamer: So when you came on to Valve, what were you doing?
Jonathan Sutton: Well, the first thing we did was get Alien Swarm up and running on the latest version of the Source Engine. We'd been receiving source code from Valve and working on it privately, so we updated it and then started applying Valve's play testing process to it. So we would get people in every week to play the game and see, was it working? What were the problems?
PC Gamer: Did you find they found it hard?
Jonathan Sutton: Yes! A lot of people said it was too hard, although interestingly, the version that's out now, the most popular difficulty level is the hardest one by a factor of four times.
PC Gamer: Really? Wow. I was going to ask that. It seemed like the original mod was intentionally hard.
Jonathan Sutton: Absolutely, the game is set out like a puzzle where you have to figure out, “What do I use where to get through this mission?” And you're meant to replay it and try different things. You're meant to change your load-out, you're meant to change the position of your guys in each of the rooms, until you find this solution that you then have to execute perfectly. It's that last run when you just make it through and you've done all the right things, and all of you work together as a team, is the highest high in Alien Swarm.
PC Gamer: So obviously you decided to make it easier, what was the thinking there?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, it wasn't intentional, it was more that happened from the play testing. I suppose the original mod, when we tested it, was with a lot of hardcore gamers. With Valve there's a bigger spread of people, and we were able to make the game work for more people by having lower difficulty levels. They were still hard for them, like it's easy for us, but it's still hard for them. And the game will actually recommend a difficulty level that has you retrying a few times, because if you just blast through every mission in one go, you're not really doing the puzzle. So it'll monitor your performance and if you're blasting through it'll say, “Why not turn the difficulty up?”
PC Gamer: Before you joined Valve you were working on a Source version already, right?
Jonathan Sutton: Yes.
PC Gamer: And that was going to be retail, wasn't it?
Jonathan Sutton: Yes.
PC Gamer: So what happened exactly?
Jonathan Sutton: We built the Unreal version and that was great and fun, but obviously we couldn't make any money off it, we couldn't do it full time because you can't sell a mod. When Valve contacted us and asked us to move the game to the Source engine, one of the reasons we said yes was because we had this path with Source where we could actually release as a standalone game. This was our attempt to to what we were doing as a full time job, rather than as a hobby. Yeah, so we worked on that but when we showed the game to Valve they were so impressed that they said, “Come work for us.” And so that changed all of our plans.
Doug Lombardi (Valve marketing director): Where were you all when you were Black Cat?
Jonathan Sutton: We were all spread out. I was in the UK, Ivan was in Switzerland, Simon was in Australia, so we were just working on the internet at the time.
PC Gamer: So when they asked, was there a unanimous yes?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, pretty much.
PC Gamer: You were talking before about how it was an intentionally hard mod, it was kind of like a puzzle that you would keep trying again and again and again. Does that gel awkwardly with it being a co-op game, where you need three other people, and you need to be playing with the same people every time you play?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, Alien Swarm is definitely at its best when you're playing with friends or people you know. But over the course of a single mission, you can establish enough of a relationship even with random people to make it work. At least, whenever I play online randomly we see people form a random group, it only takes one or two people to start talking and recommending a strategy and it all forms together.
PC Gamer: I have had that, great groups that I've just stumbled into, but just lately I've had a string of terrible groups. The second you do one thing wrong it's like, “Get out fag.”
Jonathan Sutton: Oh yeah, that happens. We definitely saw with the Unreal version over time. As the community got more and more experienced, they were less tolerant of beginners and that's a real problem. I'm not sure of the best way to solve it.
PC Gamer: Why is it free?
Jonathan Sutton: This is an experiment for Valve to see what would happen if we released a free game, with all of the tools and the SDK, and we could see what results came out of it, how quickly people start using the tools and building things with it. Historically Valve have had great success with mods, from Counterstrike to TF, so this was really something they wanted to encourage, so that's why we did it for free.
PC Gamer: Is there any kind of plan to do any paid for content or extra campaigns or anything.
Jonathan Sutton: We haven't announced anything yet.
PC Gamer: Is the whole point of the experiment that it's free and free forever and that's it?
Jonathan Sutton: Everything we've released so far will definitely be free forever.
PC Gamer: The campaign that's in there at the moment is pretty huge. It takes an hour at least to play through, in my experience, and so it's quite rare to find a game at the start of the campaign and get through it all the way with one team. Is there a reason you wanted the campaign to be that length?
Jonathan Sutton: Through the matchmaking, you can say, “I want to start on this mission, find me a game on this mission.” No, I mean, it wasn't really intentional that your single player experience should be the entire game, so that's why we let you go halfway through. Because in the Unreal version you couldn't actually do that, you had to start from the beginning every time you started a game, so here we pretty deliberately said that for this to work with random people, you have to be able to start at any point. So, play with friends.
PC Gamer: There's quite a lot of story stuff going on, did you intend for people to go through in single player and read that or did you think they would in co-op?
Jonathan Sutton: Well in co-op, when you're in any multiplayer game, the tolerance for that is really low, most people just want to run through and shoot. So we knew that was going to happen. But there is a small group of people who will read through everything, and they will harvest all these little story pieces and get immersed in the world that way. And we thought, even if you don't do that, it's still good to have these things in the game just as a background, you might not read them but just knowing they're there will help enrich the world and make it seem more real.
PC Gamer: I think that's been my experience. I always stop and find out what they are, but I won't read them because I'm with other people.
Jonathan Sutton: We did talk at one point about making them collectible so that you could look at them later, we just didn't have time to do that.
PC Gamer: It seems that, as you level up, the unlocks become really universal. When you first start out the class you choose seems really important because you're going to choose their primary weapon and the way you're going to play, but the further up the ranks you get, the less it seems to matter. Was that an intentional decision to make class less relevant as you became higher level?
Jonathan Sutton: No, that's mainly a result of: we wanted leveling up to still have a reward associated with it, and if we give you an item you can't use, then people are going to have a negative response with that. But we do still have some class specific weapons, even high up, for example the the minigun that only special weapons can use. I think it was more just, fictionally, there wasn't any reason to constrain the items, we wanted everyone to be able to use every one.
PC Gamer: What's been the general reaction to the fact that it's free?
Jonathan Sutton: It's been really good. A hugely positive response! Its been great to read all of these reviews and comments and forum posts from all these people who have tried the game.
PC Gamer: Is there a degree of people saying, “Eh, it's good for a free game”?
Jonathan Sutton: No, but we do see that people are more forgiving of any bugs or problems there may be in the game. If someone criticises something there's always a dozen people who say “it's free”.
PC Gamer: Do you have any plans you can talk about about what you're going to do with Alien Swarm in future?
Jonathan Sutton: Not this time, no. Right now we're just releasing bug fixes and tweaking the modding tools so that everything works smoothly.
PC Gamer: I noticed the first person mode seems to be all in there and ready to go, was that going to be an option at any point?
Jonathan Sutton: (Laughs) No, that was just leftover code from Half-Life that just happens to work, but there was no intentionality there.
PC Gamer: You must have played around with it though, right?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, absolutely. It's really strange to see things that you've designed to work top down, to see how they look from the front. In the Unreal version we had a feature where you could look through the helmet cam of the other players, but we didn't do anything like that this time. So, yeah, it's just Half-Life code.
PC Gamer: It seems like the design of the aliens changed a fair bit from the mod.
Jonathan Sutton: Yes. When we came to Valve a bunch of Valve artists really liked the game and wanted to do a pass over all of the content, polish it up and make it look really pretty.
PC Gamer: Because we've got the source code, I can mod this into anything I like, and because all Steam users have it, essentially anyone can make their own Source engine game and it'll be a standalone free product, right?
Doug Lombardi: The engine stuff isn't in there, it would still have to be a mod.
Jonathan Sutton: It would be a mod of Alien Swarm. They'd have to download Alien Swarm, and then install their mod.
Doug Lombardi: If somebody decided to take it and sell it, first of all they'd be violating the EULA, so there'd be actionable recourse there, second of all they'd have to be packaging up our game and shipping it with their game in order for folks to play it which I think is another violation that would be actionable.
PC Gamer: I'm saying for free. Like, I know from a technical standpoint...
Doug Lombardi: If somebody says, “Hey we made this cool thing and if you download Alien Swarm for free you can play all this for free,” then you are correct. But to commercially exploit it, no, because you still have to get Alien Swarm and selling it without our permission is illegal.
PC Gamer: Since it is free, making a mod of Alien Swarm is like making a free standalone thing.
Doug Lombardi: Correct. You have to do that one extra step. There's two that are required, you have to say what you made, you'd have to say, “My thing is free”, and then you'd have to point people to Alien Swarm as a base piece to get the engine. But you could say, “I created this really cool thing and there's this free path to all of it,” yes.
PC Gamer: Was that a side effect of the way you did this or is that what you wanted to happen?
Jonathan Sutton: We wanted that to happen.
Doug Lombardi: Absolutely, a big point of this release for us was to really re-energise that community with some stuff, and a lot of the work they did we think will help people get there more easily, hopefully, or people who are already there do more creative things, giving away code and base stuff for free is a way to get that going.
PC Gamer: Have you seen any community created stuff coming out already?
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, there's a great thread in our forum, the work in progress thread. If you look through that, there's tons of screen shots of maps people are just starting to build, some of them are looking really good, I'm really looking forward to that. I remember with the old version of Alien Swarm, there was a custom mission I played that took seven hours. So I'm hoping someone steps up and makes a mission [like that].
PC Gamer: You must have been a wreck at the end of that.
Jonathan Sutton: Yeah, it was really stressful!
PC Gamer: For me, I was a fan of the mod back in the day, even though I was terrible at it - I don't think I ever completed a single mission. It's just really cool that everyone has it now, and I can play Alien Swarm with my friends.
Jonathan Sutton: That's one of the things with making a mod, you have to really choose your platform very carefully. When we built Alien Swarm with UT, that community was so much smaller than Half-Life, that if we had just built it on Half-Life originally we would have had one hundred times the number of players, just because of the platform we chose. Now, because you don't even require to pay for a base game, the potential audience is huge.
PC Gamer: Jonathan, thanks very much.