Valve is a rarity in the game development world – being one of the handful of companies with the massive pedigree and skill to take as long as they want between development cycles.
Their popularity is enormous, and since entering the videogame industry in 1998 with Half-Life (largely considered to have revolutionized the FPS genre – at least in terms of enemy AI and interactive storytelling), they have not had a misstep since.
After the release of Portal 2 last month (see our review here), the New York University Game Center invited Valve’s Erik Wolpaw (writer for Portal 2) to lecture in a very genuine 80 minute interview.
Wolpaw (whose resume also includes writing for Portal, Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, and Double Fine Productions’ Psychonauts) walks his audience through the first 10–15 minutes of Portal 2, offering insights into the development processes, the writing, the design choices – essentially anything that comes up – and then ends the lecture by fielding questions from the audience for 30 minutes. The interview is a real treat for Valve fans and aspiring game industry writers and designers.
Check out the full video over at The NYU Game Center
Particularly of interest is Valve’s “cabal” development process, which is touched on in the video. The process was adopted by Valve in 1997 – just before the launch of the original Half-Life when the staff made the terrifying decision to scrap much of the original game shortly before the initial planned launch date.
The cabal process, where a cross section of the entire staff (the cabal) was pulled together into a flat management style (with little to no organizational hierarchy), encouraged complete ownership of every game element.
We aren’t sure we get it, and anyone with project management experience might expect this style to have tossed Valve into development purgatory – and it must have been a nerve-wracking experience for the people outside that initial cabal.
Wolpaw admits that the process is hard to explain and that it shouldn’t work, but he knows that by encouraging open communication, creativity, buy-in, ownership, and (especially) failure, you create an excellent and varied holistic experience with the best ideas pulled from everywhere in your staff. In short, it encourages great games (and yeah, maybe it means players have to wait a while for those good times, but most of us would admit that it’s worth it).
Valve has offered up some of the most memorable single-player and co-operative experiences in videogames, and we can’t wait (though we’ll probably have to) to see what they build from here.
For more with Erik Wolpaw, check out our interview with the writer at PAX – where he discusses the connection between the Portal world and Half-Life.