Killer app

GamesBeat: A lot of VR games are shorter experiences, things you play in bursts. Is it a challenge to make a longer VR title? Does that change the way you approach development? 

Coomer: For us, no, because we didn’t have a cadence of development that was tuned for VR before. We had a type of development that was pretty highly tuned around how to make a Half-Life game. There were a lot of things for us to figure out about the translation into this new medium of VR, but as far as creating a 15-hour experience, that was much more about how to create a Half-Life game, which Valve really, that’s just our core competency, to the extent that we have one. It really is about crafting that kind of thing. And so it felt normal to us to — the kinds of craftsmanship that go into fleshing something out that is a Half-Life experience that’s about this length, it felt like a normal development cycle to us in a lot of ways.

Look out!

Above: Look out!

Image Credit: Steam

GamesBeat: Some people have been asking if we’re going to get a VR killer app. Do you feel any pressure to deliver that? Or is that not something you actively think about?

Coomer: Primarily, although we didn’t use that phrase when we were building the game, we did really set out to make a meaningful piece of content for the medium. We knew that — we were actually taking a big step forward compared to what had been created so far on the platform. We were intentionally doing that. We threw ourselves into that task pretty wholeheartedly. To that extent, yes, we really set out to accomplish that, and we hope that other people agree that that’s what Alyx represents. We didn’t use that phrase, but we knew that what we were taking on was really moving the medium forward.

Benson: I was possibly in a funny position in that we were very — my household was already a super-VR household. My wife is really into competitive-ranking Beat Saber stuff. I’d voraciously hoovered up VR in general before working on Alyx. I was a big VR booster generally. To me it was like — I was essentially already very happy that the VR landscape was providing a ton of stuff that I love. The scale and scope and the sheer production value of Alyx is obviously pretty far above and beyond anything that I’d ever played. But I had been really deep into having a ton of stuff I was playing at home. So it wasn’t like, if Alyx doesn’t come out then VR is over. But I certainly think it’s above and beyond the thing that everyone is going to need to put on their machine if they have a headset. It would be insane not to play Half-Life if you have a headset.

GamesBeat: For some years, Valve was focusing on other projects and a bit less on game development. You’d see people saying things like,” Valve doesn’t make games anymore.” Is that a frustrating sentiment to see?

Coomer: Yeah, I think it was. Inside Valve, there’s a story to tell about how many things were going on. Some of that, I think, is beyond the scope of our current conversation. But I would just say that on many fronts, there were game projects that we were exploring. There were many game projects that were just ongoing and public that are these big service titles that have so many users on Steam playing them. And a lot of work going on just on the Steam platform. We were simultaneously becoming a hardware company to some degree. We were accomplishing things on a lot of fronts, and shipping games that entire time. But simultaneously, we completely understood where that sentiment was coming from.

There’s a set of people who, like many of us, consider their very favorite things that Valve has produced to be the games that have a ton of craftsmanship and attention to detail and a single-player component. Those things were not coming out of our studio for a long time. To us, that didn’t feel like it was because we had decided to stop making them, or that we really had stopped making them. We were just figuring out what’s the right next thing to do, and how we should get back to some of our most important franchises like Half-Life. Figuring out a way to do that that made sense, like Alyx does, we think, really was a relief, to get back to that. When we were announcing the title, we had a little bit of trepidation about how it would be received, because of the VR medium and everything, but we weren’t worried about whether or not we had actually returned to making that kind of title, because we had a lot of confidence in the game that we had ended up being able to produce.

It's a bleak, bleak world.

Above: It’s a bleak, bleak world.

Image Credit: Steam

GamesBeat: Crunch continues to be a hot topic in gaming. Is there a crunch culture at Valve? Was there any crunch happening on the development of this game?

Benson: My experience, I’m a father of two. I moved my family over here a couple of years ago now. That’s a huge deal, a big thing. You can probably hear my accent, that I’m English. We lived in Liverpool and I worked from home for the previous eight years on different projects. All that kind of thing, okay, well, I’m in a new country. Health insurance is a big thing in America. Contracts are different. Also just the company culture could be this or that or the other. There’s a lot of changeability. Who knows what this adventure will be like? When my wife and I talked about moving over, it was like, let’s find out. It’s this big adventure. The thing I ended up finding about the working culture at Valve is, essentially it’s very family-oriented. In ways that I was actually surprised by. One of the floors of the Valve building, the canteen and food sort of area, there’s a big kids’ play area that’s all secured and has all these toys to play with and so on. On Thursdays that’s family lunch day, and everyone brings their kids and eats together.

A few of my friends who all moved over to the company together — at the time when we moved over, they were either expecting a child or they’d just had a child, or they ended up expecting once they joined. And so it would be fairly common for someone to be walking around the office — plenty of times Greg’s seen me walking by with my two-year-old on my shoulders babbling. I’ve gone to talk to my mate Pete, who’s a programmer here, and he’s there looking after his son. My personal experience is that the company is very family-friendly and family-oriented. Greg can talk more to this than I in terms of the balance at the company, but it seems to me that Valve basically doesn’t think it’s good or useful in terms of good game development practice to slowly erode your home life by working you to death.

Coomer: I think explicitly, we’ve purposefully made it so that crunch mode is not the norm, and hopefully not a thing that goes on at Valve. Except in very rare cases where people are in the last couple of weeks of development, a subset of the group will choose to work hours that are sort of extended in order to get through certain periods. But I think as somebody who’s been around forever at Valve, I’m pretty proud of the fact that, even in recent months, as Alyx was wrapping up, I would walk around the office and if it was past normal working hours, the office was empty. The kind of thing he was talking about really is an intentional design, to not burn out the very best people in the world. We managed to hire them. If we were causing them to not be able to see their family or work too many hours, it would be shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s almost not a thing in the company. But we can’t keep some people, at the very end of the project, from working a few late nights. That’s almost the extent of it.