20 years ago this month, in 1998, a startup named Valve released Half-Life, and it would change the face of gaming. The game, inspired by Doom, another FPS that turned the hobby on its head, would make Valve a power player in the industry. And none of it would have happened if it weren’t for the era of the Microsoft Millionaires. Welcome to Arcadology: The Development of Half-Life.
Part One: Microsoft Millionaires
Gabe Newell is a Harvard Dropout who went to work for Microsoft. However in the early 80s, when he started, the company was not nearly the powerhouse it is today. His story of starting at the company is very reminiscent of others in the early days of the software industry. He was constantly at the office visiting his older brother who had gotten a job there, to the point of aggravating Steve Ballmer. According to Newell, Ballmer finally said to him one day: “Well, if you’re going to be spending all your time hanging out here, you need to do something useful.” Soon, Gabe was working for the company.
“[I]learned more in three months with those guys at Microsoft than I did the entire time I was at Harvard. In Harvard, I learned how to drink beer while doing a handstand in the snow. Which, ya know, is a useful skill – but not nearly as useful as how to actually develop software.”
-Gabe Newell, Co-Founder, Valve Software
So it’s understandable, from Gabe’s point of view, why trading the Harvard crimson for a job at Microsoft made sense. He spent more than a decade at the company, working on early versions of Windows. This period of time in Microsoft’s history is known as the era of the Microsoft Millionaires. In the early years, employees received stock options as part of the compensation packages. Not just the programmers and salespeople, but all the way down to the janitors. The company would generate nearly 10,000 millionaires, all living in the Seattle, Washington area. In a Washington Post article on the topic, Roberta Pauer mentions:
“It knocked our economy out of kilter. You got really high levels of consumer spending — houses, cars, boats — that were not sustainable. You got all kind of investments that were predicated on a fantasy that this flow of money would go on forever.” Roberta Pauer, Economist, Washington State Employment Security Department
This is not totally related to the history of Valve, except that Gabe Newell, and co-founder Mike Harrington were part of this wave of Millionaires. And inspired by fellow Microsoft alum, Michael Abrash who left to work on Quake for iD, they decided to start their own company in 1996.
One of the first things Newell and Harrington did was pay Abrash a visit at ID software. According to Abrash in an interview with GameSpot, the ID guys were none too thrilled to have the meeting:
“Let’s put it this way: It wasn’t like when Nine-Inch Nails came to visit – that was a cool thing. These were guys that worked on stuff like Microsoft Bob and Home Automation. You’re not going to walk into the coolest game company on the face of the earth and have the guys say, ‘Wow, nice to hang out with you!” – Michael Abrash
The idea was to learn what they could from Id, and built upon the hard work that Carmack and tean had already put into the engine, rather than starting from scratch. They were trying to be realistic about their prospects.
“When we sat down and looked at it, the areas that we wanted to be innovative in for first-person action games did not require us to be innovative in the areas where John [Carmack] had already done a lot of work,” says Newell. “It would have been too much to go from 0 to 25 people and have a stable team to build an engine at the same time.” – Gabe Newell
Harrington and Newell went back to Seattle and incorporated the company, on the same day that Newell was set to be married. They settled on the name Valve because it wasn’t overtly “extreme.” Which is a good thing, because if there is one thing about the 90s, is how extreme everything was.
The first two people hired at Valve came from a list of names that Gabe and Harrington had acquired at ID. Steve Bond and John Guthrie were Floridians who ran a Quake fansite and had also a deep knowledge of the Quake engine. The newly formed Valve flew them up to Seattle and offered them a job. The rest of the team soon followed suit with Newell and Harrington prying programmers and developers away from companies like 3DRealms, Shiny, and Microsoft.
Newell and Harrington had been working feverishly through their checklist. With the company formed, the game engine acquired, and a team built, the next thing they needed was a publisher. In present day, through Valve’s Steam platform, game developers have the ability to self-publish, but back in the 90s, finding a publisher to defray the costs and help produce the physical copies of the game was mandatory for and sense of large scale success. The catch-22 however was that publishers were wary about working with companies that had no past work to show, or, at this point even a demo.
After many fruitless meetings, they finally found their partner in Sierra On-line. Ken Williams, the founder of Sierra, received the email himself, and it was perfect timing. Sierra had been looking to get into first person shooter market when they were contacted by Newell.
It rarely snows in Seattle. But the day that Valve was to meet with Sierra, the city was covered in snow. Most places were closed, but the Valve team was determined, and drove over to Sierra’s office Mike Harrington’s four-wheel drive car. Ken Williams was the only person to make it into the office that day at Sierra, and 20 minutes into the presentation he was sold.
Williams wasn’t going to be at Sierra for much longer however, and Scott Lynch, the person who took over the Valve relationship at Sierra, wanted to be very clear with what the expectations from Valve were:
“What we all wanted to see was Valve take the technology as a foundation and add something new. When they started talking about telling a story and creating a persistent world, it was pretty obvious they weren’t going to do a mission pack with the Quake engine.” – Scott Lynch
Part Two: Development of Half-Life
During development, Valve’s first game would be known as Quiver, most likely a nod to the Quake engine that it was being built on. During early development, the idea was to get a game out as quickly as possible. Newell and Harrington had received that advice from their visit at ID, because otherwise they could end up bankrupting themselves.
The team was initially inspired by the Stephen King story, “The Mist” and refined the concept until the story was about Gordon Freeman and the Black Mesa Research Facility. (More needed here) Newell wanted the company to really focus on providing a more story based exploration, rather than straight action:
“For a long time, 3D action games seemed to keep treading down the same path – an increasing focus on a narrow definition of gameplay and a focus on the rendering [graphics] instead of the gameplay.” – Gabe Newell
Valve would hire novelist Marc Laidlaw to shape the story into what it would ultimately be. The big first person shooters of the day were usually flimsy on plot and character development. John Carmack famously said, “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not important.” For the same of game design, this is a pretty common opinion. The systems are the most important part when looking at the game through the lens of the actual player’s experience. However, that being said, that does not mean that those same gameplay systems cannot be used in service to a story. And if the story is going to be there, why not try to make it a good one? Laidlaw put it like this: “In a lot of shooters, for all you know, you could be a weapon walking around a level. It’s pretty clear in Half-Life that’s not the case.”
Much of what they had planned for the game would not work in the Quake engine out of the box. The engine had been designed for characters to be able to speak. To rectify this they model the characters using skeletal animation. Ken Birdwell and Kelly Bailey worked secretly to design a way to get the characters mouths to actually move, and floored everyone when they did.
As the game continued development the gaming public started to become more aware of it. The first screenshots of the game were released in May of 1997 and they didn’t show a whole lot. Then at E3 1997 a gameplay trailer was released. And although the team received positive feedback, they were not totally happy with the product. They did not feel that it would be able to released by Christmas of that year, and upon further inspection, decided that they needed to break apart everything they had done, take the pieces, and start over again.
Part Three: Take Two
On a post on Gamasutra, Ken Birdwell outlined what they felt about that original version, and the process by which the new version of the game was designed. What they came to realize was that Half-life, as it was, was no better than a Quake Total Conversion. Basically Quake with different graphics. They knew that adding just a few more months to the development cycle would result in a game that was more polished, but not any better.
One of the first steps after deciding to scrap the original version of the game was to see what worked, and what didn’t. The team designed a single level that had all the design elements and technology that they had created over the previous year for the initial version of the game. This allowed them to see what worked, and what didn’t. Once that exercise was complete, they moved on to the next version of the game, with a design led be a committee.
There was no lead game designer on Half-Life, or Director that many present day games have. Instead what they had they referred to as The Cabal. The Cabal was cross-disciplinary team team that would spend several hours a day, several days a week working out the high level details of level design, as well as scripted events. This team included three engineers, a level designer, a writer, and an animator.
“It wasn’t clear that egos could be suppressed enough to get anything done… the opposite was true; the people involved were tired of working in isolation and were energized by the collaborative process, and the resulting designs had a consistent level of polish and depth that hadn’t been seen before.” – Ken Birdwell
The main Cabal would have a rotating membership to ensure a cross-section of the company was represented, and to prevent burnout. According to Birdwell, collaborative teams sprung up in other departments to solve smaller problems once the success of the Cabal became evident. After the first month, they had compiled a 200 page design document, and appointed someone to manage it.
Play testing started in the third month of the re-do. Sierra handled pulling in players from the area and during each session, a member from the Cabal, the level designer, and occasionally an engineer would sit and silently observe the player and take notes. Ultimately there were over 200 play-test sessions, with each session giving the team on average 100 action items. That is about 20,000 action items that were generated from the playtest sessions alone!
The use of data in the design of the game was fascinating. According to Birdwell they began tracking every data point as players played through the game and graphed them. For example when they saw that a player would go through a level with too much health for too long, they made the determination that the level was too easy, or if there was too much time between encounters, too boring.
As they fine tuned the levels the collaborative process common for the level designers as well. Although each level had a lead level designer, the other level designers would ultimately make tweaks and edits as well. Birdwell mentions this worked particularly well because each of the designers had a particular strength they could bring to the table, whether that be enemy placement, or the geometry of the level.
At the risk of opening old wounds, this quote from Ken Birdwell made me chuckle the more I thought about it. “The net result is that we threw out just about everything. All the AI was gone, and we gutted the levels. In reality, Half-Life got delayed because of Half-Life. [The game] is really Half-Life 2. It’s an incredible game.” So with THAT logic, then Half-Life 2 WAS Half-Life 3.
All kidding aside, the development of the first Half-Life game can show just how easy it is to let games slide down the calendar. With an initial expectation of Spring, 1998, the game quickly found itself being pushed out the door finally around Thanksgiving for 1998. Back then, however, Valve was working under the pressure of being a startup as well as managing the relationship with Sierra. There’s little external motivation for present day Valve to rush anything they don’t want to.
But enough present day talk. At the 1998 E3, Valve demoed a brand new version of Half-Life, and once again, expectations went through the roof. It would take the dreaded crunch though and scrapping parts of the game in order to make it to its final release in November of 1998.
The opening of the game became somewhat famous, with the player-character, Gordon Freeman, riding the tram on his way into work. We see the Black Mesa research facility before any sort of disaster has occurred. According to writer Marc Laidlaw, the idea came when him and level designer Brett Johnson were reviewing the opening level. Marc was curious to see what the level would look like without the destruction. The result was the opening sequence we all know today.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of records of Half-Life’s development process. Everything that I’ve mentioned so far are the anecdotes and recollections of people that worked on the project. In 2017, Erik Johnson revealed in an interview with Gamasutra that the VSS, or the shadow copies of the previous versions of the development, had been lost. These things happen, of course, and when one is making history, they are often not aware of it. In the same interview, Gabe Newell mentioned from his days at Microsoft that they couldn’t rebuild version 1.0 of Windows, due to hex code editing that had been done source copy of the software. For the sake of gaming historic preservation though, the source code for the Half-Life engine, GoldSrc though as still available.
Part Four: The Game
Half-Life’s game play seems familiar for those who have played first person shooters recently, but in the mid to late 90s, the control schemes for first person shooters were not quite solidified. For example, early First Person shooters, like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D released only a few years earlier, used the direction arrows. Even Quake, which added mouse support, still used the direction arrow for motion. Half-Life used the WASD controls that are probably the most common shooter control scheme today. According to an article on PC Gamer, WASD was popularized by Quake player Dennis “Thresh” Fong.
“I’m certainly not going to take credit for the creation of [WASD]. I stumbled across it. I’m sure other people started using it as well just based on what was comfortable for them. I definitely think I helped popularize it with a certain set of gamers, particularly the ones that played first person shooters.”
While Quake II added a standard keyboard configuration file that allowed to quickly bind the controls to WASD, it still was not the default configuration. It wasn’t until Half-Life’s use of it as the default, followed by Quake 3 using it as the default the following year, that the control scheme became the standard by which shooters operate today.
The game’s story, as mentioned above, focuses on Gordon Freeman, a young scientist working at the Black Mesa Research facility. During an experiment he is involved in, a portal to another dimension filled with ghastly and aggressive creatures is opened. Soon, Black Mesa is under assault from these beings, and Gordon, wearing his HEV suit and a crowbar, has to find a way to survive. Unlike other shooters of the era, much of the plot is relayed to Gordon by way of encounters with NPCs, such as other scientists who have managed to survive. Gordon’s journey through the game evolves.
At its starting point, he is simply trying to survive the invasion. Then as it becomes clear that the government is attempting to cover up the incident by sending int he Marines, Gordon takes it upon himself to find a way to end it, ultimately being teleported into the other dimension to destroy the creature that is keeping the portal between the two worlds open.
Sales for the game went way beyond expectations. Newell mentioned in an interview in 1999, that they had only expected, and budgeted for around 180,000 lifetime units sold for the game, but within eight weeks of it’s release the game had eclipse the half-million mark. In terms of critical reception the game received incredible reviews and since has been recognized as one of the greatest games of all time. Much like the game that inspired it, Doom, Half-Life had tremendous support from the modding community. Perhaps the most famous Half-Life mod is Counter-Strike. The mod, developed by Jess Cliff and Minh Le, was eventually acquired by Valve, and the duo were hired as game developers. Counter-Strike, however is a big enough topic that it deserves a video of its own. Team Fortress has a very similar story, starting as a mod developed for Quake, which was ported to Half-Life after Valve hired the development team. Over time, it had been tweaked enough to be referred to as Team Fortress 1.5.
The base game would have several expansions developed by Gearbox Software. Opposing Forces put the player in control of a marine, while Blue Shift featured a security guard named Barney Calhoun. The name, by the way, is derived from what the Valve team referred to the security guard models as. This itself was a reference to the Don Knott’s character from the Andy Griffith show, Barney Fife.
When Half-Life 2 was released, Valve released a new version of the original game called Half-Life: Source. It used the new engine, the Source Engine, to render the game. The re-release didn’t blow anyone away, but it got some enthusiasts to consider what it would be like to fully remake the game. The overhaul, called Black Mesa, has been in development for years, and has switched engine versions several times in order to keep up with Valve’s= releases. In 2015, an early access version of the game was released, and recently the team behind the game, known as the Crowbar Collective, have announced that Black Mesa: Xen will be released in 2019.
Part Five: Closing
We all all aware of the current standing of Half-Life. After the second episode of Half-Life 2, we’ve seen scant news about any further development in the series. Meanwhile games like Counter Strike and DOTA 2 have taken the lead for Valve, as well as the money they earn from their Steam platform. As I said earlier, Half-Life 3 has no external motivating factors, the drive to create it has to come from within.
Additionally, shortly before I started putting this video together, there were rumors that Valve was working on their own Virtual Reality headset, and possibly a Half-Life game to go with it. The nature of this game though is still unclear, but consensus is that it would be a prequel to Half-Life. Given Valve’s history, and the internet’s ability to read into things just a bit too much, I would take any rumors with a grain of salt, until there is some sort of official announcement. In the meantime, let’s lift a crowbar to Gordon Freeman’s original adventure, and celebrate 20 years of Half-Life. That’s all for today, if you enjoy this content please like and subscribe. My name is Kevin and you have been watching Arcadology. Take care everyone.