Gabe Newell

When the head of the dev studio behind the finest FPS experience ever speaks, we listen

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Episode Two is the second in the trilogy - it has been about seven months since Episode One. Can we expect to see Episode Three come around slightly quicker?

Gabe Newell: It will probably be about the same distance between the two.

How is your foray into episodic gaming shaping up?

Gabe Newell: We decided we wanted to do three episodes, then sit down and see how that was received, what the pros and cons were. And to assess the impact it had on our development, as well as how it was received by gamers. We think that the industry is facing a sort of explosion in game budgets - we're at $20 million now and, following movies, we're going to be at $200 million in the not-too-distant future. That's driving everybody to become very conservative in their choices. Rather than building their intellectual property and their own worlds, they're going to license the next big action movie, ship day one with that and take advantage of the $60 million marketing budget. They don't want to be innovative on game design - they want to do exactly the same game design that worked before with prettier graphics. And I think that's kind of a dead end - it's a disaster for the games industry if that occurs. So, managing that is one of our challenges as an industry.

The solution that we're trying is to break things into smaller chunks and to do them more regularly. So far, it seems to be working. When we look at how long it took us to build a minute of gameplay for Half-Life 2, versus how many man-months it takes us to build a minute of gameplay for Episode One or Episode Two, we seem to be about four times as productive. But we'll go through all three episodes to see... We sort of made a commitment to do it three times and then assess.

And you always said that you could plug new things into the engine as you went along...

Gabe Newell: You saw that in Episode One with the new lighting, and in Episode Two, you can see it in the cinematic physics - the wide-open areas forced us to solve problems of performance with those battleground kind of areas, with the particle systems. We're about an order of magnitude faster at drawing the kinds of smoke and weapon effects that show up when you have lots of Striders running around with lots of Combine forces.

Can that be retrofitted to, say Episode One?

Gabe Newell: Yes. We definitely think that content needs to move forward. For example, one of the things we're reacting to is the speed at which microprocessors are coming out. So, Intel has very aggressively moved up delivery of desktop processors with four different cores; we'll have support for that in Episode Two, and we'll definitely go back to affect, you know, Episode One or Half-Life 2 or Counter-Strike Source, so they can take advantage of that. We'll definitely try to keep the existing games - especially the multiplayer games - current as technology evolves.

Some new companies, such as PopCap, have committed to Steam. What plans do you have for Steam?

Gabe Newell: The way we think of it is that we need to continue to make Steam more useful to other game developers and to customers. For an example of that on the customer side, we want to improve performance. The engineers said: "Rather than guessing what's bottlenecking performance, let's go and measure what's actually going on." We instrumented all the Steam clients, and the answer was surprising. We thought that we should go and build a deferred level-loader, so that levels would swap in. It turned out that the real issue was that gamers' hard drives were really fragmented, and all of the technology we wanted wouldn't have made a difference, as we were spending all our time waiting on the disk-heads spinning round. So we put something in Steam that automatically detects and defragments people's hard drives.

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