Everyone's seen the demo. A good chunk of FPS players probably have it memorized, with every scene mentally dissected, looking for clues as to how the game will actually play when it hits the shelves. There's no doubt that Half-Life 2 sits atop the list of most anticipated games of 2003. Upon it's release, the sequel to the 1998 hit first-person shooter will, no doubt, shatter all record sales and instantly become a must have, a classic, and become the new standard all in one fell swoop.
At least that's the plan. But who are the people behind the game? Who are the developers responsible for, not merely slapping together a game for some quick cash, but forging a game so powerful that it revolutionizes the industry?
We sit down with Valve's Ken Birdwell and Josh Weier, two Half-Life 2 developers, in an effort to understand the entire process of creating a follow-up to one of the most beloved games in PC history. The covers a lot of ground, from the inception of the idea, to the development, the numerous pitfalls along the way, and finally following that dream all the way through to realization.
SE - Hi guys. Can you briefly go over your roles at Valve?
Josh Weier - I'm a programmer and I also do a lot of design work. So my job breaks down into to be more like designing what a creature does what he's supposed to be doing and stuff like that, then go into and go "I need to program that. I need to set this up." and then tweak it and say "Okay, how's this going to play for gameplay and how well is this going to work out?"
Ken Birdwell - I'm a developer there, primarily responsible for a lot of the technology behind the faces as well as working on game design.
SE - How long has development been taking place for Half-Life 2?
Ken - The day that I shipped the SDK for Half-Life 1, I started on Half-Life 2. In fact, some people even started on Half-Life 2 before that even shipped. I would have to say January of...'99 was when it started.
Josh - It started right after the first one ended. So it was like Half-Life 1 went out the door and then it was like "Okay. Time for Half-Life 2!"
SE - Wow. Over 4 years ago.
Ken - Yeah, directly after Half-Life 1 shipped we started talking "Okay, what are we going to do [with Half-Life 2]? What are the technologies that we didn't think were very successful? What things were successful? What things did we think we could have done better on? "And then really push the art direction. Our art team did tons and tons of prototypes and mock-ups, sketches, oil paintings of what we wanted Half-Life 2 to look like. After we started to get a good idea from the art team about what we wanted the whole game to look like and the visual feel was, we started working on technology of how do we make that visual sense come into our game. How do we get that look? How do we get that feel? And then express that in code.
Josh - A lot of it was just listening to what our fans told us. A lot of it was just them saying, "Wow. We really liked Barney." And we didn't expect that at first. Barney and the scientist were just supposed to be these "throw away" characters and weren't really supposed to be anything too interesting but then, all of a sudden, people were really responding to them, they really loved them and we thought that was great. And then we said, "Okay, this is something that we have to pull ahead on. We have to do more with this."
And we also realized that people really responded well to the fact that you are always Gordon Freeman, you were always in your own eyes and you never took other vantage points. So we knew that people liked that too, so those were two things that we said that we really had to pull forward. And then also we started to say, "Well, it was cool that we could push boxes around and stuff, but man, it's time to really realize this. It's time to really move forward and go 'Now were going to have physics.'" We looked into licensing the Havok engine. Did a lot of work to incorporate that into the game and bring it to this level where it's just completely immersive and everything is physical.
SE - Obviously from 1999 to 2003, there have been a lot of technological increases in the level of graphical quality. New Direct X releases, newer video cards, things like that. How did the Half-Life 2 engine evolve from when it first began in 1999 to now in order to keep itself from becoming graphically, and even technologically, outdated?
Ken - Actually, technology-wise it hasn't [evolved much]. Right from the beginning, one of our major goals was scalability. We wanted to make sure that our engine would scale to hardware that wasn't going to ship for several years. We knew it was going to be a three to four year development process. So when we started we said "Okay, let's project what graphics hardware will look like in three to four years." Get a rough idea of the polygon counts. Talk to NVIDIA. Talk to ATI. Get an idea as to what direction they are going. And how fast they were going. We offer all of our content at extremely high resolution. All of our base textures are 2 [kilobytes] by 2 [kilobytes]. All of our polygon counts are very, very high. We won't actually ship that, primarily because there's currently no hardware that can possibly [run] it. However, once hardware releases that can run it, then we might release that higher rez content. So we actually author for hardware that doesn't exist. And then our game will scale from a [Direct X 9 system] all the way down to [Direct X 6]. Of course, it certainly won't look like this on a DX6, but the game will still play and it will still be fun.
Josh - [And] that was [a] hard one because we were sitting down and saying "Well, [some of] this technology doesn't exist yet, so we have to build it." So we had to sit down and look at ourselves and say "Okay, we have the people the do this, but what are we going to do? What are we going to look for? Here's the physics engine. We can license this and we can start to incorporate this but what else can we do?" And Ken did a lot of research and found a lot of stuff about facial animations, cause you know, Barney's cool, and his mouth moves, but he's still this kind of wooden character and said "We really have to make it that much better when people see this their like 'Oh my God, this is a real person! I can see what he's feeling and I know what he's thinking.'" And other things that were said: "We need to invest time in facial animations." and then right along with that we said "They could have great facial animation, but if they're not animated very well, if they're jittery and poppy, that's not going to help [draw the gamer in]." So, we started to lay down these [features], like the NPC's with [the player] and that has all these things like their speech, it's going to have their AI (how they follow you and what they do) along with the facial animation.
And physics was the same way. We knew we were going to have physics but we wanted to see how far we could push that and, over the course of time, [Senior Software Development Engineer] Jay Stelly's done an awesome job with the physics engine. At first we integrated, but then we started getting real physics stuff in there like the player bumping into things. The player can touch things. The players can break things. The entire world is physical.
But a lot of it was just sitting down and saying, "I think we can do this." We start to do some tests, we start to get a feel for it and go "Yeah, we can do this" and then we say "Okay, it might take a year...or it might take two years to get [this feature] in, but it'll be worth it."