In the months following the publication of my “Fall of the Empire” feature, I wanted to write more stories about the inner workings of video game development studios. While that article sadly chronicled the demise of LucasArts, my investigative work uncovered dozens of interesting side stories, many of which have never been told. In my search for another dive into a company, Valve and Nintendo showed the most promise, but neither presented an easy entry point. Both studios are closed-off and mysterious, the video game equivalents of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory. We rarely see what goes on behind their doors, yet they both continue to be leaders in the video game industry, and for dramatically different reasons.
The story of Valve intrigued me most. This company isn’t afraid to shed its skin and alter the heart of its business. If you look at the history of games, Valve has taken a different stance in each of the most recent generations; from game developer to digital-delivery platform to the current incarnation of a studio dabbling in VR and hardware. The move away from game development being a primary focus jumped out as the story that should be explored.
Valve rarely falters with the games it creates. Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress, Portal, Dota; most developers would kill for this catalog of sure-fire hits. Not many studios reach this level of success. Each one of these titles has a rabid fan base, and people screaming for sequels or more content. People want to see Chell again. They want to know what happened to Gordon Freeman. They want to see what a Boomer’s bile would look like on new-gen machines.
Valve is sitting on a goldmine, yet, given the lack of movement for many of these games, appears to have little interest in making new entries any time soon. As evidenced by games like Dota and Team Fortress, which continue to be supported through downloadable content, the studio has clearly moved away from traditional game development and single-player experiences. As I jokingly tell my friends, Valve is either the smartest company in the world to know these games won’t continue to sell or the dumbest for leaving easy money on the table.
Valve’s decision makers love to explore new ventures, but why give up on game development? Is Steam generating that much revenue that a successful game isn’t even worth their time? Even if that were the case, why not have a Valve Games division? Again, it seems like easy money. I think most people would blindly throw cash at any new experience bearing the Left 4 Dead, Half-Life, or Portal names.
These questions, along with Half-Life 2 ending on the mother of all cliffhangers, became the backbone of my investigation into Valve. A story like this could take months (perhaps even years) to develop, and if done correctly, should give readers a clear look into the development studio’s day-to-day operations and lofty ambitions. I began working on this article on November 18, 2014. I aimed to talk to as many Valve employees as I could, but I knew the story needed two pieces: an interview with Gabe Newell, the founder of Valve, and information on what the hell was going on with Half-Life 3. Fun fact: Whenever Game Informer teases a new cover announcement, Half-Life 3 is almost always one of the first guesses. This guess is now made mostly in jest, but for years, people thought we would break that story.
On my first day of actively working on my piece, I sent emails to 20 to 30 people. Roughly 70 percent were still employed by Valve, and the remainder had either left the company or worked with it on Half-Life-related titles. I had a good feeling about getting a lead. Someone would talk. They always do. I just needed one person to open up.
The first response I received, from a person who worked on Half-Life’s episodic content, yet didn’t want to be named, said “No comment.”
Minutes later I received an email that said, “Good luck with the story. Out of respect to my friends and family at Valve, it wouldn’t be right for me to say anything. Sorry!”
All of my inquiries were either shot down or ignored. As one developer so accurately put it, “You’re hunting for unicorns, Reiner.”
All of the images are concept art believed to be from Half-Life 2: Episode 3
For whatever reason, no one wanted to say anything about Valve or Half-Life. Were they bound contractually? I couldn’t even get an answer to that.
In the months that followed in early 2015, I reached out to another dozen-plus people. Again, I received nothing but rejection or silence. I was crushed. All of my research and prep work would amount to nothing. I shelved the story and moved on to other writing ventures. A few months went by, and in the summer of 2015, I received an email from someone I originally pitched but never heard back from. The subject line read “Half-Life 3.”
The person said they could talk to me for 30 minutes, but they wanted to remain anonymous. The interview was a real eye-opener. This person didn’t hold back from discussing anything. I finally had the lead I needed for the framework of the story.
The one source wasn’t enough, though. I at least needed more people to verify what was said. I again ran into a brick wall of “no comments” and “no thank yous.”
The story was once again thrown into its own development hell. That was in October 2015. I haven’t put much thought into it in the year that followed. I was reminded of what it could have been on last week’s Game Informer Show, when a listener asked us if we thought Valve would ever release Half-Life 3. I filled him in on a small sliver of information I knew from my source, which led to an avalanche of requests to publish the entire interview.
The idea of running an interview with unverified information kills me a little (especially given the current state of political journalism), but I do trust this source, and believe what was said to be truthful. Even with my approval, take what is said with a grain of salt. Unless other Valve employees come forward and say, “Yes, all of that is true,” or “This one part is a little off; here’s what really happened,” we just won’t know the validity of what was said.
In 2007, Valve’s Doug Lombardi excitedly told Stuff We Like, “We haven’t announced anything specific, but Half-Life won’t end at Episode Three – hang on to your crowbars!” Valve clearly had lofty plans for this franchise. Something happened to those plans. The fan base was left with nothing but Gabe periodically saying he has nothing to say about Half-Life.
I don’t think we’ll ever see Half-Life 2: Episode 3, and the cliffhanger conclusion makes Half-Life 3 unlikely as well. The best chance of Half-Life getting a second wind will likely come if J. J. Abrams and Bad Robot can get the Half-Life film to screen. If that comes to fruition, and it doesn’t bomb like almost every game movie before it, maybe, just maybe there’s a chance of Gordon Freeman’s story continuing. Roll your eyes at the movie mention if you want, but how else will this franchise get a pulse again?
The interview you are about to read sheds some insight into how Valve works as a developer. Yes, someone at Valve could just say, “Let’s make another Half-Life” and do it, but there are huge risks and hurdles involved in doing that. Prior to this interview, I was in the camp of, “Valve just doesn’t get it.” Now I’m in the camp of, “Valve is probably doing the right thing, but it’s disappointing.”
This interview opened my eyes to Valve’s unique way of developing games, but also provided a bit of closure for someone who wants to see Half-Life continue. In the days before publishing this story, I reached out to Valve one last time for comment, but my request went unanswered. Without further delay, here’s the interview:
Everyone wants Gordon Freeman’s story to continue. People want the series to reach the number three, either as an episode or a full-fledged sequel. How real are those chances?
There is no such thing as Half-Life 3. Valve has never announced a Half-Life 3. The closest they’ve come is after Half-Life 2, they said there would be three episodes. We only got two of those. That is arguably an unfulfilled promise. Anything else that we might think about as a full game or sequel has never been promised. I only mention that because it’s sometimes frustrating when people sort of assume or have wishful thinking about the future. Because they want to speak about the future, the fantasy starts to become real in their minds, even though they have a completely different form on the developer side.
But Valve did want to make it at some point, yes? At least finish Half-Life 2?
The first time I had any discussions that there may be a Half-Life 3 was actually during Half-Life 2’s development, which is natural for developers. You’re in the middle of something, but you’re already thinking about what comes next. Sometimes we think about it in the context of, “What do we want to set up?” or, “What do we preclude?” It’s in that context that you can probably imagine that different people within Valve have different imaginations that can lead to a future Half-Life game. That’s definitely the earliest roots I know of, and that was probably 2002 or 2003.
Take me through those talks. What was on the table at the time?
One of the things that’s interesting about how Valve works is it’s not out of the question for any given person to just try stuff, whether that is conversations or actually spending their time creating something. That could range from someone writing a treatment or crafting concept art to tinkering around with code. Any given person who does that stuff can kind of internalize why they are doing it, and sometimes there are people doing similar things and those things come together.
Over the years, you’ve probably had many dozens of people within the studio as early as probably 2005 working on things that they would imagine from themselves as Half-Life 3 or Half-Life: Episode 3. If you talk to people there, you’re going to get mutually exclusive information about the project from them, and for each of those people, it is correct, but will be different for the next person you talk to. Those two individuals may have been working with the same project in mind, but never linked up internally to connect the pieces before it was scrapped or they moved on to a different project.
The amount of creative freedom Valve creators have is fascinating, but how does anything ever get done without people working as a whole?
I know at various times there have been different groups of people that have started things that they hoped and imagined would be Half-Life 3. I know over the years some of those things have had different degrees of awareness and involvement, whether it’s the inclusion of senior or principle members of Valve, including Gabe Newell. There are also efforts that other people may not have known were going on. All of them are actual, valid things that are happening inside of the walls of Valve. To pick one thing and say, this was absolutely Half-Life 3, or this is Half-Life 3, that’s hard to do given the nature of how Valve works. How that project comes to be or ever manifests is kind of strange.
I remember three distinctly different imaginations of what Half-Life 2 could be, developed sufficiently to where there were storyboards, plotlines, script outlines, concept arts, and each approach was radically different than the others. I think it’s their process to kind of explore to see where things go. I remember having conversations with people at Valve about Half-Life’s story, and where it was going and where it could go beyond Half-Life 2. At that point, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Half-Life 2 would be a story-driven experience along the lines of Half-Life 1, and that there would be another Half-Life game beyond that of the same general construction.
So they actually came close to making it happen?
Imagine you are a game developer, and you manage to get a job at Valve. You go through the interview process and talk to a whole lot of people and nobody vetoes you. You manage to join up. Let’s pretend it’s 2010. You join the studio. You remember the people you interviewed with and some people you may have spent more time with or less. You have a person you kind of talk with from your hiring process, and then you are just kind of there one day, and you have to figure out how you are going to fit in. What are you going to do? You talk with some of the people you talked to before during the interview process. What are they working on? They are undoubtedly involved with something, so maybe you help them with their thing; whether that’s the Steam platform, or Dota, or the speculative stuff going on.
It’s almost like a university up there. At some point you think to yourself, “Okay, I’m inside Valve, I can start asking questions like, “What’s going on with Half-Life?” The person you are talking to is probably going to say, “I’m not really worried about that right now. I need to get another game out. You should talk to this person or that person or that person.” Time goes by and maybe you eventually start a developer relationship with someone who can give you access to some of those people. You talk to them and learn people may be tinkering with some things, but most of the stuff is already dead or going nowhere. Maybe the group is five or eight people. And there are other people five doors down that may be cynical that that is going on at all. You can find every flavor of sensibility along the spectrum in that studio about the game’s development.
When they were making episodes for Half-Life 2 that was probably the best and strongest effort that ever happened toward another Half-Life project.
That was when they had a team dedicated to making episodic content, right?
Even that is giving too much credit. You have people that were working on Half-Life, people that finished Half-Life: Episode 2, that already imagined where they wanted to go next – they were cooking, and wanted to keep the wheel spinning. You also have a body of influencers and decision makers. When I say decision makers, Gabe is probably the king of that group. When he proclaims where the wind blows, it just blows that way. If you fight it for too long, you are going to find yourself either out or executed or just exiled. It’s really a weird climate for them.
Undoubtedly what happened is a lot of things were changing for Valve. Orange Box launched and did its thing. People who care about Team Fortress were doing their thing. You had people trying to get something going with Counter-Strike again. You got people that are playing other games, and that led to Dota 2. You have the Steam platform itself. Left for Dead. Portal 2. The hardware teams. You have a whole bunch of pet and big projects going on. All of that is getting more gravity than this third episode of Half-Life. There’s something with that third episode that isn’t sitting right with Gabe and other people at Valve. Ultimately it just starves to death. The people that tried to give it life find themselves better off working on other projects.
What you have left is nothing going on with Half-Life.
How close do you think Half-Life 3 or Episode 3 has come to release?
I’ve heard that some teams have had two to three people working on it, and they eventually ran into a wall, and some teams may have gotten up to 30 or 40 people before it was scrapped.
Do you know the direction some of these teams were going in?
Yeah. Some people – I don’t want to name names – were excited about their projects. They’ve had some different thoughts about what it should be. Some are all over the place, from one end of the spectrum being what you would expect – a single-player narrative-focused game – to completely different entertainment ideas that are as wild as they are weird. They were thinking about using the Half-Life characters as a brand for entirely different purposes. Some were bizarre, like turning Half-Life into an RTS, or a live-action, choice-driven game. These things have been contemplated by people, but were never being considered by the whole of Valve as “Yeah, that was the plan.” The nature of Valve is there aren’t plans like that. That’s not how Valve operates. Ideas come from the passion and drive of the individuals within the company’s walls.
Does Valve owe it to fans to finish what they started? At least wrap up Half-Life 2?
I don’t think there will be any more. But at any given moment, they make decisions as they come. If some people within Valve make something that they collectively feel is exciting, then it will happen. That’s going to be hard for that to happen now. Every time a Half-Life project gets some gravity and then collapses, it becomes harder for the next one to start up. Because the business changes so much, and there are so many other things to do, it just gets harder and harder. It’s one of those things they’ll always have to accept. People are going to harass them for more Half-Life. The idea of delivering a third episode of Half-Life 2, that’s dead. There’s no universe where that will happen. I think there is a universe where a standalone thing could come together to fill in that hole, but that’s tough.
There are some business connections that could help it, like it being released exclusively on Steam OS. That’s a big thing. People would be like, “Well, I now need to get a Steam Machine.” There would be value in that. Is it enough? If Valve seriously contemplates that, you’d think they would look at bigger things first, like a Steam-native Counter-Strike or Dota 3. Half-Life is big for us who played it, but the game has never really mattered to console customers. The brand really doesn’t have the penetration it deserves.
If they can’t get it done at Valve, why not hand it off to an external developer?
If you are trying to take care of fans, giving it to a third-party developer probably isn’t the best way to do that. It wouldn’t have the soul of what it should be. Even a lot of the people within Valve are different now, so that credibility isn’t there necessarily. What they don’t want to do, in a George Lucas type of situation, is deliver something like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. There may be no avoiding that. It’s so tempting. So f—ing tempting. The reality, though, expectations are everywhere. Where is the bar? If you don’t reach that, people will be disappointed. That will be the legacy.
All we know is we love what we had before, but everyone has a different idea of what Half-Life 3 should be. The best thing they could do is give up on Half-Life 3, avoid it entirely, and do Half-Life experiences instead. Experiences that connect, but aren’t the flagship sequel.
But that doesn’t sate the hunger. Valve will continue to be harassed for a sequel.
That’s why they won’t talk about it anymore. Every time they talk about it, the hunger comes back. That’s why they ignore it. The pain subsides with time.
When we want something, like a new Half-Life game, we can’t help but let excitement take over. Our expectations are through the roof. Yes, it is unfortunate that Gordon Freeman’s story was left dangling. But given how much time has passed, what kind of a conclusion would we get today? Even if Valve reassembled the Half-Life 2 development team, people are at different states in their lives and they view the world differently. The odds of the sequel flowing as a direct continuation are infinitesimal. Do we just want closure for closure’s sake?
I don’t want to see Valve make the mistake of finishing something just to sate the hunger of fans. I hope any entry in the series is born from a great idea first and foremost. Valve thought they harnessed something special in the episodic format, but that ship ran aground earlier than they hoped. I may be in the minority here, but I would rather read a script for Half-Life 2: Episode 3 to learn what happened than play a game that misses the mark.
Valve has a great track record with its games. I’m guessing significant effort went into trying to wrap up Half-Life 2’s story, but the stars just didn’t align, and Valve didn’t want to sully the legacy of this series. At the end of the day, I just wish someone from Valve would come forward and officially outline what happened. Many of us love these games, and would like to know what happened, what was planned, and why we’re at this point today.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask. That isn’t the closure we want, but it’s at least an ending.