After years of operating as a studio that shipped one game at a time, Valve's release last year of The Orange Box, a multiplatform product consisting of three new games and two previously-released games, was the beginning of a growth spurt.
Its acquisition last year of Irvine, California-based Turtle Rock Studios, now known as Valve South, marked another expansion in scope for the developer, as it transitioned Turtle Rock's Left 4 Dead from a small, ten-man game into a full, sixty-member Valve project.
Gamasutra sat down with Valve marketing VP Doug Lombardi to discuss the Turtle Rock acquisition, as well as reflect on how far Valve has come in its first twelve years.
What's it like having Turtle Rock now officially part of Valve, versus what it was like before?
DL: You know, the acquisition really felt only like it's a piece of paper that makes things official. When we met Mike in 2002, here at the show, we knew right away that we wanted to work with him; we tried to hire him.
You met him at E3 originally?
DL: Yeah, we met him at E3. We were showing very early versions of Half-Life 2 to some people behind closed doors - it was mostly an engine demo - and we met him, we showed him the engine demo, and we knew right away that we wanted to work with him. He refused to leave southern California and move to Seattle.
He knew then that he wanted to make a co-op game that was heavy on AI, and he loves zombies. But before that, he helped us make the [Counter-Strike] bot which powered [Condition Zero] and Counter-Strike for the Xbox. And then, by then, he had built up a team of about six to eight people, I guess, down here in Irvine, and had grown to become Turtle Rock Studios.
They helped us do Counter-Strike: Source, and as soon as they wrapped that, and did an update for that in 2005, he started prototyping early versions of Left 4 Dead. He went through about three iterations of that, and then folks at Valve started working on it, officially and unofficially. It was very close. You know, we're friends with Mike, and we love working with him, so there has always been a very close relationship.
Those guys have been up in Seattle a lot, our guys have been down in Irvine a lot, and once The Orange Box shipped, it became pretty obvious that we should just make Turtle Rock into Valve South, and, you know, put our most powerful people - or, most talented people, I should say - behind the project, to help make Left 4 Dead everything that it could be.
We saw that folks were responding well to it at QuakeCon, and some of the other places where it was shown, and we were all, "Okay, this game's got a lot of potential. Let's get all the artists, and the playtesters, and the Steam team behind it, to make better matchmaking, better graphics, etcetera," to help take the brilliant nucleus of the game that the Turtle Rock guys had come up with, and make it into a triple-A title.
Obviously it's different, but it's still slightly reminiscent of the Portal situation - someone saying, "Here's this idea," and you guys saying, "Let's make it a Valve game."
DL: One of my new favorite sayings is that one of the smartest things Valve does is it knows who to hire in, to pick up.
We've technically only come up with Half-Life ourselves. If you think about it, Counter-Strike was somebody else, Day of Defeat was somebody else, Left 4 Dead was somebody else, Portal was somebody else. Team Fortress - technically, Robin and John were Quake modders that Gabe [Newell] hired back in the day.
So, luckily, Gabe's always beaten into us that we need to be feeding the mod community, and looking for new people with new ideas to bring into the shop, and to help us expand our business and our portfolio of games. And Left 4 Dead absolutely follows in the model that it was with the Narbacular Drop kids, and with the Counter-Strike kids before that. Mike is a bit older than those guys, but the rest is similar! (laughs)
I guess that's how Blizzard North originated.
Because those guys were making Diablo, and Blizzard was like -
DL: Right, they were Condor, I think, at the time?
DL: And those guys saw that and said, "Hey, we can help you take this to the next level. Why don't you become part of the family, as it were, and open up another shop up north?"
What are your thoughts about being part of this studio that started as a one-game studio, and essentially now has two development branches, and a service that is the de facto hardcore PC digital distribution point, and recently released three games at one time? That's quite an evolution.
DL: Yeah, you couldn't have predicted any of it. I mean, even Steam itself, when it first came out - I remember having a conversation with Gabe about, "Well, when do you think this thing will mean something to somebody?" This was back in 2003, I guess, right before we launched CZ as the first game that was sold on it. And it was like, "Oh, maybe ten years from now it will mean something, and we'll just grow it between now and then."
Four years later, or whatever, we're selling Call of Duty 4 and BioShock, and all these great games on there - fifteen million accounts, and all these great games and stuff. There's no way you could've predicted that, and we've just been really fortunate in trying to listen to what gamers want, what developers want on the Steam side, and just constantly working at it.
Steam was not so perfect when it first came out, but I think one of the things that we can be proud about was that we didn't give up.
I think it's also fairly telling that the philosophy going into it was, "Well, in ten years it will mean something." That alone suggests that it was conceived in the long term. Most product decisions in the games industry are not created with "ten years in the future" in mind - everything seems more financial quarter-based.
DL: Yeah, I think that goes back, again, to having some of the early success of Half-Life, and selling unbelievable amounts there, and that allowed us to bank a lot of capital to be that patient. And also being privately held, right? I mean, we don't have to report to the Street; we're not beholden to the Street. We don't have to have a release this quarter, or this Christmas, or by the end of the financial year.
And that success from Half-Life, and Half-Life 2, has allowed us to be very independent from publishers. As you know, we finance our own development, we do our own QA, we do our own box art. We pretty much own everything except for replication and distribution at retail. So that gives you a certain freedom, and being privately held also gives you a certain freedom.