the first 11 months of the project we searched for an official "game
designer," — someone who could show up and make it all come together.
We looked at hundreds of resumes and interviewed a lot of promising
applicants, but no one we looked at had enough of the qualities we wanted
for us to seriously consider them the overall godlike "game designer"
that we were told we needed. In the end, we came to the conclusion that
this ideal person didn’t actually exist. Instead, we would create our
own ideal by combining the strengths of a cross section of the company,
putting them together in a group we called the "Cabal."
of this group was to create a complete document that detailed all the
levels and described major monster interactions, special effects, plot
devices, and design standards. The Cabal was to work out when and how
every monster, weapon, and NPC was to be introduced, what skills we
expected the player to have, and how we were going to teach them those
skills. As daunting as that sounds, this is exactly what we did. We
consider the Cabal process to have been wildly successful, and one of
the key reasons for Half-Life’s success.
meetings were semi-structured brainstorming sessions usually dedicated
to a specific area of the game. During each session, one person was
assigned the job of recording and writing up the design, and another
was assigned to draw pictures explaining the layout and other details.
A Cabal session would typically consist of a few days coming up with
a mix of high level concepts for the given area, as well as specific
events that sounded fun.
team explored a variety of visual metaphors that resulted in some
very unique and effective opponents.
ideas were generated, they would be reorganized into a rough storyline
and chronology. Once this was all worked out, a description and rough
sketch of the geometry would be created and labeled with all the key
events and where they should take place. We knew what we wanted for
some areas of the game from the very start, but other areas stayed as
"outdoors" or "something with a big monster" for
quite some time. Other areas were created without a specific spot in
the game. These designs would sit in limbo for a few weeks until either
it became clear that they weren’t going to fit, or that perhaps they
would make a good segue between two other areas. Other portions were
created to highlight a specific technology feature, or simply to give
the game a reason to include a cool piece of geometry that had been
created during a pre-cabal experiment. Oddly enough, when trying to
match these artificial constants, we would often create our best work.
We eventually got into the habit of placing a number of unrelated requirements
into each area then doing our best to come up with a rational way to
fit them together. Often, by the end of the session we would find that
the initial idea wasn’t nearly as interesting as all the pieces we built
around it, and the structure we had designed to explain it actually
worked better without that initial idea.
Cabal sessions, everyone contributed but we found that not everyone
contributed everyday. The meetings were grueling, and we came to almost
expect that about half of the group would find themselves sitting through
two or three meetings with no ideas at all, then suddenly see a direction
that no one else saw and be the main contributor for the remainder of
the week. Why this happened was unclear, but it became important to
have at least five or six people in each meeting so that the meetings
wouldn’t stall out from lack of input.
met four days a week, six hours a day for five months straight, and
then on and off until the end of the project. The meetings were only
six hours a day, because after six hours everyone was emotionally and
physically drained. The people involved weren’t really able to do any
other work during that time, other than read e-mail and write up their
Cabal group consisted of three engineers, a level designer, a writer,
and an animator. This represented all the major groups at Valve and
all aspects of the project and was initially weighted towards people
with the most product experience (though not necessarily game experience).
The Cabal consisted only of people that had actual shipping components
in the game; there were no dedicated designers. Every member of the
Cabal was someone with the responsibility of actually doing the work
that their design specified, or at least had the ability to do it if
important to include information on the
intended path through the level, as well as
rough geometry and character placement.
few months of the Cabal process were somewhat nerve wracking for those
outside the process. It wasn’t clear that egos could be suppressed enough
to get anything done, or that a vision of the game filtered through
a large number of people would be anything other than bland. As it turned
out, the opposite was true; the people involved were tired of working
in isolation and were energized by the collaborative process, and the
resulting designs had a consistent level of polish and depth that hadn’t
been seen before.
once the success of the Cabal process was obvious, mini-Cabals were
formed to come up with answers to a variety of design problems. These
mini-Cabals would typically include people most effected by the decision,
as well as try to include people completely outside the problem being
addressed in order to keep a fresh perspective on things. We also kept
membership in the initial Cabal somewhat flexible and we quickly started
to rotate people through the process every month or so, always including
a few people from the last time, and always making sure we had a cross
section of the company. This helped to prevent burn out, and ensured
that everyone involved in the process had experience using the results
of Cabal decisions.
result was a document of more than 200 pages detailing everything in
the game from how high buttons should be to what time of the day it
was in any given level. It included rough drawings of all the levels,
as well as work items listing any new technology, sounds, or animations
that those levels would require.
ended up assigning one person to follow the entire story line and to
maintain the entire document. With a design as large as a 30-hour movie,
we ended up creating more detail than could be dealt with on a casual
or part-time basis. We found that having a professional writer on staff
was key to this process. Besides being able to add personality to all
our characters, his ability to keep track of thematic structures, plot
twists, pacing, and consistency was invaluable.