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 Gabe Newell, Erik Johnson and Doug Lombardi about their plans to expand their games into other mediums, and why they think it's important to do it themselves.
PC Gamer: Team Fortress 2 seems like the one game of yours that's branching out into all kinds of forms: you've got the Meet The Team videos, and the comics are now like the backstory for it. Is that something that you want to bring to your other games?
Gabe Newell: Yeah. We have been very happy with what we've learned on the production side, and on the customer side of what we're doing with that. I think most of those experiments have been really successful. So yeah, I think we're at the start of that and that TF2 has been very useful at helping us think about how that'll impact our future products.
Doug Lombardi: You'll see some of that in the Left 4 Dead 2 DLC that Chet's going to talk to you about (he did, see link). There's a 150 page comic that's coming as a backstory for that DLC, so it's starting to branch out slowly into the other properties beyond TF2.
Erik Johnson: TF2's validated this theory we had, which is you have all these different kinds of media like films or movies or shorts or a game or a comic and they aren't that separate in terms of what gets built. There's things that customers have reacted to in comics, or in the shorts, that has changed what happened in the game, and that's super powerful. You should ask Robin which was the first one, but the first weapon that we teased in a movie - it was awesome watching people look at that and then that feedback going into the game got released right afterwards.
Doug Lombardi: The Sandvich!
Erik Johnson: The Sandvich!
Gabe Newell: The Sandvich was interesting because, we had to do a service to the community, right? We had to do an update. And so somebody started giggling and we were like, “Shut up, we're in trouble. We haven't figured out how we're going to do a movie yet.” And they keep giggling, and we said, “What the hell?” And they go, “It's a sandwich... in a refrigerator!”
Erik Johnson: TF2 has gotten so close to their customers. The number of offhand jokes that end up getting produced because they understand what their customers want so well. It's a function of so many updates and all these different things coming together.
[With] Half-Life 2, we went several years without having any communication with our customers at all. We hope we get it right - maybe they'll like Alyx? I don't know, she doesn't look like any other video game character. Do they really care about Eli? You know, we go years and years without being able to get the feedback. Whereas- what's the fastest input to design change? It's like a couple of days now, right?
Doug Lombardi: Or less than that now, because people can submit weapon ideas into the site and those can go straight into the game, more or less. A couple of days realistically with all the update stuff, but...
PC Gamer: The video leak button on the Meet The Spy (between this video getting leaked online and being officially released, Valve added a reference to the leak in the video itself).
Erik Johnson: Yup! Exactly.
Doug Lombardi: I mean the Golden Wrench thing, that was real-time content.
Erik Johnson: Yeah, well – there's a little story around that.
PC Gamer: Can you tell that story?
Erik Johnson: So there was this random thought, “What if someone deletes a wrench?” Because we do get support tickets and people mail Robin, “Hey I destroyed my thing and I screwed up." Or, “Oh it destroyed my thing because it hates me,” or whatever.
Gabe Newell: Younger brothers, apparently, do it all the time.
Erik Johnson: They log into people's machines all the time and start cheating and destroying items...
So we were creating this thing and there was this incredibly limited number of them. What if someone deletes it? Instead of saying they can't delete it, we thought, “Well since we're putting out a message when someone gets one, let's put out a message when someone destroys one.”
Gabe Newell: The anguish reverberated through the internet.
Erik Johnson: The TF2 team are Willy Wonka while this is going on. They all have the page open, they all wait to see when wrenches drop and it's this big event. And a bunch of them were playing and it says such and such deleted a Golden Wrench. They're all like, “Oh my God! Someone deleted!” Then that person posts on the SomethingAwful forums and says, “Hey guys, somebody stole my Steam account...”
(There's more on this story in our Robin Walker interview .)
Gabe Newell: What we should have done, there should have been an in-fiction way of restoring the wrench, right?
PC Gamer: The broken halves could be scattered across the servers.
Gabe Newell: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.
Erik Johnson: That would have been awesome, if the whole TF2 community had the chance to find the broken pieces of the golden wrench and restore them. That whole event is going to carry forward in some way.
Gabe Newell: The thing where we can give the community a mission as a whole would be good. You know, the Soldier vs Demoman.
Erik Johnson: The war? (Before updating the Soldier and Demoman classes in TF2, Valve told players one unlockable item would go to whichever of the two had more kills by launch).
Gabe Newell: Yeah, the war was the start of the kinds of things that we want to do. Mac versus PC.
Erik Johnson: What we saw in that case, because the scores ended up shockingly close, was that there were less Demomen with more kills at the end of it.
PC Gamer: Because the Demoman's overpowered!
Gabe Newell: We were shocked by that, actually, about how close the numbers were.
Erik Johnson: Yeah, it was weird.
PC Gamer: Because they weren't close throughout, were they? One raced ahead.
Erik Johnson: Yeah I believe the Soldier raced way ahead and the Demoman caught way up.
PC Gamer: I wonder if there was a psychological factor there, people who really believed in Demomen started going out there to even the score.
Erik Johnson: That was what we hoped would happen.
Gabe Newell: I would have thought it would have been the other way. If you had asked me to predict in advance, I would have said people would ally with the dominant side, that they would have joined the winner when they decided there already was a winner.
Erik Johnson: I think in this case the Demoman has this implied skill level that is higher than the Soldier, so it was an affront to that group of people that the Demoman could lose this thing.
Gabe Newell: I think how it plays out is automatically generating interesting stuff for the community to follow, so there's this notion that we're in partnership with the community to create entertainment, which is super important.
PC Gamer: Talking of expanding your games to other mediums, what other mediums could Half-Life expand to?
Gabe Newell: Oh, all the same things that TF2 has.
PC Gamer: To comics?
Gabe Newell: Yeah. To comics, or movies, or whatever the fans would like. I mean in a lot of where we got in this direction was, after Half-Life 1 had shipped, there was a whole bunch of meetings with people from Hollywood. Directors down there wanted to make a Half-Life movie. So they'd bring in a writer, or some talent agency would bring in writers, and they would pitch us on their story. And their stories were just so bad. I mean, brutally, the worst. Not understanding what made the game a good game, or what made the property an interesting thing for people to be a fan or enthusiast of.
That's when we started saying, “Wow, the best thing we could ever do is to just not do this as a movie, or we'd have to make it ourselves.” And I was like, “Make it ourselves? Well that's impossible.” But the TF2 thing, the Meet The Team shorts, is us trying to explore that.
And that's what we think in general needs to happen, is that the content creators who understand what's unique, and compelling, and worth people's time and money about a particular property are the people who are likely to be successful in creating it in all its different forms. Tolkien is dead, so Peter Jackson should figure out how he can make [a game]. He has a much greater likelihood of success if he can develop the skills to make games rather than handing it off to some third party.
As a fan of the Resident Evil game series, it's sort of horrifying to see what's happened on the movie side. Those early conversations about Half-Life movies, and trying to think of how to deal with that, eventually results in the Meet The Team shorts.
Next page: the Half-Life movie .
PC Gamer: So if there's going to be a Half-Life movie, you guys would have to write it?
Gabe Newell: Yeah, or we'd build it the way we're building the TF2 shorts.
PC Gamer: So it would have to be a CGI thing, rather than a live action thing?
Gabe Newell: Yeah, if we thought that's what customers would like. If they don't want that then we wouldn't waste our time with that, or their time. That's what we're in the middle of understanding, right?
So we've learned a lot by what we've done with TF2, and I'm a huge fan of the Left 4 Dead comic. I was a huge comic head, you know, Judge Dredd, what was Frank Miller's samurai robot dude? (It was Ronin .) Yeah, all through the early 80's I was really super heavily into comics, so I think the comic we're doing is great.
It's way darker than the stuff we've been doing on the TF2 side, and it'll be super interesting to see how the community responds. If they love it, that's great, if they hate it then it's interesting. Even if it's a failure, it'll be an interesting failure. We're taking risks on the art direction of the book, but first and foremost, it has to be able to work on its own, as a comic.
Most of the time, when you see these things, they're like the Bear that Dances, you know: “Ooh, it doesn't dance very well, but it's a bear!” And you really need to have the thing be a good comic, or a good short, or whatever. It has to meet that as a minimum, and I think the Left 4 Dead comic is a really strong comic. If you handed it to someone who never played games but was really into comics I think they'd say, “Wow, that's a really good comic. Wow, that's tied to a larger experience? Well that's even better”
If we'd have tried to find someone externally to do it, I don't think we would have had somebody who understood Left 4 Dead or understood what the customers are interested in seeing. I think the customers will be really... it'll answer a lot of questions.
So I'll take a step back. If you're trying to build something, and you try to put everything into a single thing, sometimes you're trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Movies are really good at certain kinds of things, and comics or graphic novels are actually better than movies at doing certain kinds of things, and games are better at doing certain kinds of things.
So we're broadening the palate of ways you can create entertainment, and you just have to use the tools in the right way, right? If you do a movie to give people choice, like the Clue movie, or you try to do a branching narrative like all the weird hyper media things that people were doing around 1994.
Erik Johnson: In Half-Life 2, we couldn't tell story when people were under duress, really. That's kind of how it breaks.
Gabe Newell: But in terms of environmental storytelling, which is a new kind of storytelling, games turn out to be really really great. And then if you're trying to do a huge amount of plot exposition, like, “This happened and then this happened,” comics are actually much better than movies. The amount of exposition you can actually jam into a 120 minute movie is fairly small. The amount of forward progress that you can get is much stronger. Movies are way better at nuance than comic books.
I think that's going to be really interesting to see who in the industry figures out how to use those things most effectively. Hopefully it's not going to turn out that we're all a bunch of one trick ponies that can only work in a single medium, because we think that customers are demanding more. It's like this weird situation in the late 90s, where the average internet gamer knew more about how the internet was going to change gaming than your average executive at a studio.
We think that customers are like, “Okay, we're kind of sick and tired of the way you guys are slicing and dicing the experience of being a fan of Harry Potter, or Half-Life, or The Incredibles, and you need to fix it. And the people that fix it will be rewarded, and the people that don't will- well, they'll be on the rubbish heap of history, or whatever the phrase is.
PC Gamer: I know a lot of the reason you guys came up with Steam was out of frustration at the publisher/retail model of PC gaming. Is there anything like that that still frustrates you about PC gaming today?
Gabe Newell: Well, the thing that we've been talking about is that we want - both on the production side and on the consumption side - to make it easier for people to be fans. The experience of being a fan right now is a treasure hunt, where a lot of times you get a toothbrush instead of a piece of candy. What's some candy that you hate? I'm going to use this as my new metaphor.
Right, so I'm a huge fan, and I go out to Barnes & Noble to get my book, and I go to Netflix to get my movie, and I go to GameStop... And it's really hard for me to gather this all together. I've got my little pile of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and half of it is awesome sugary tastiness, and some of it is nasty liquorice. People are going to send me liquorice now.
The point is, I think that this is the reality for customers. And as an industry it's very convenient for us to ignore how hard we make it for our fans. The reality is that for a lot of fans, the social meta narrative around the game is about as exciting as the game itself. The fact that I can see what my friends think, and I can argue with people.
And yet games don't do a good job of integrating that into the experience. If you're a fan, you sort of cobble together, “I happen to know the magic websites to go to,” you know? We're not doing a good job, either on the production side or the consumption side. That's what we think is a set of problems that have to be solving right now.
PC Gamer: It seems almost institutionalised. As a gamer I assume that a movie based on a game is going to be shit.
Gabe Newell: Well, we've taught you as a gamer that it is going to suck, right? No matter how much you'd rather it didn't, it does. As a WoW player, I would much rather that the WoW team made the movie, right? Than anybody else. I like Sam Raimi, I've been a fan ever since Evil Dead came out, but I would rather see Blizzard making the movie.
PC Gamer: The fans say that, too. They see these amazing CG trailers and they say, “Make that as a movie!”
Gabe Newell: More to the point, it's not going to go wandering into the weeds and be some distraction, right? Like I have trouble in my head being a fan or Resident Evil, because I can't remember , “Is that character dead in the movie?” It's an odd, weird, screwed up experience to try to track it. I'd rather they just had the team that understands and built the thing that I love extend it, not have it be licensed to the lowest cost provider who's going to make the cheapest possible version.
Erik Johnson: And gets to walk away from it, too.
Gabe Newell: And gets to walk away from it at the end of the day.
Erik Johnson: We can't walk away from Half-Life, right?
Gabe Newell: If the Mario Brothers movie was a train wreck, nobody at the movie company lost their job, as much as they deserved to. I think that's a big issue at the moment that we need to think about. We're thinking about what we do in terms of making our lives simpler and not in terms of what customers and consumers really want, and that's what we have to fix.
Tomorrow we'll be asking Valve why they released Alien Swarm for free, and talking to its creator about how it changed when Valve hired them. Here's the rest of our Valve interviews .