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The Cabal: Valve’s Design Process For Creating Half-Life
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The Cabal: Valve’s Design Process For Creating Half-Life

December 10, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Square Pegs

Practically speaking, not everyone is suited for the kind of group design activity we performed in the Cabal, at least not initially. People with strong personalities, people with poor verbal skills, or people who just don’t like creating in a group setting shouldn’t be forced into it. We weighted our groups heavily toward people with a lot of group design experience, well ahead of game design experience. Even so, in the end almost everyone was in a Cabal of one sort or another, and as we got more comfortable with this process and started getting really good results it was easier to integrate the more reluctant members. For current projects, such as Team Fortress 2, the Cabal groups are made up of 12 or more people, and rarely fewer than eight. The meetings ended up being shorter, and they also ended up spreading ideas around a lot quicker, but I’m not sure I’d recommend that size of group initially.

Just about everything in Half-Life was designed by a Cabal. This at first seemed to add a bit of overhead to everything, but it had the important characteristic of getting everyone involved in the creation process who were personally invested in the design. Once everyone becomes invested in the design as a whole, it stops being separate pieces owned by a single person and instead the entire game design becomes "ours."

This "ours" idea extended to all levels. Almost every level in the game ended up being edited by at least three different level designers at some point in its development and some levels were touched by everyone. Though all the level designers were good at almost everything, each found they enjoyed some aspect of level design more than other aspects. One would do the geometry, one would do monster and AI placement, our texture artist would step in and do a texturing pass, and then one would finish up with a lighting pass, often switching roles when needed due to scheduling conflicts. This became critical toward the end of the project when people finished at different times. If a play-test session revealed something that needed to be changed, any available level designer could make the changes without the game getting bottlenecked by needing any specific individual.

By placing traditional combat action in more challenging environments we were able to intensify the feeling of tension and suspense.

This idea also extended to all code, textures, models, animations, sounds, and so on. All were under source control and any individual was able to synch up to the sources and make whatever changes were necessary. With a little bit of self–control, this isn’t as random as it sounds. It had the added benefit in that it was fairly easy to get a daily record of exactly what was changed and by whom. We would then feed this information back into the play-test cycles, only testing what had changed, as well as helping project scheduling by being able to monitor the changes and get a pretty good estimate of the stability and completeness of any one component. This also allowed us to systematically add features throughout the process with minimal impact. Once the technical portion was completed, the engineer assigned to the feature was able to synch to all the source artwork and rebuild any and all files (models, textures, levels, and so on) affected by the change.

The Workers Control the Means of Production

Even with all emphasis on group activity, most of the major features of Half-Life still only happened through individual initiative. Everyone had different ideas as to what exactly the game should look like, or at least what features we just had to do. The Cabal process gave these ideas a place to be heard, and since it was accepted that design ideas can come from anyone, it gave people as much authority as they wanted to take. If the idea required someone other than the inventor to actually do the work, or if the idea had impact on other areas of the game, they would need to start a Cabal and try to convince the other key people involved that their idea was worth the effort. At the start of the project, this was pretty easy as most everyone wildly underestimated the total amount of work that needed to be done, but toward the middle and end of the project the more disruptive decisions tended to get harder and harder to push through. It also helped filter out all design changes except for the ones with the most player impact for the least development work.

Placing the player in a
soldier-vs.-alien conflict
helped reinforce the illusion
of an active environment,
and let Valve show off
its combat AI with minimal
risk to the player.

Through constant cycle of play-testing, feedback, review, and editing, the Cabal process was also key in removing portions of the game that didn’t meet the quality standards we wanted, regardless of the level of emotional attachment the specific creator may have had to the work. This was one of the more initially contentious aspects of the Cabal process, but perhaps one of the more important. By its very nature, the Cabal process avoided most of the personal conflicts inherent in other more hierarchical organizations. Since problems were identified in a relatively objective manner of play-testing, and since their solutions were arrived at by consensus or at least by an individual peer, then an authority that everyone could rebel against just didn’t exist.

On a day-to-day basis, the level of detail supplied in even a 200-page design document is vague at best. It doesn’t answer the 1,001 specific details that each area requires, or the countless creative details that are part of everyday development. Any design document is really nothing more than a framework to work from and something to improve the likelihood that work from multiple people will fit together in a seamless fashion. It’s the Cabal process that helped spread around all the big picture ideas that didn’t make it into any document —things that are critical to the feel of the game, but too nebulous to put into words. It also helps maximize individual strengths and minimize individual weaknesses and sets up a framework that allows individuals to influence as much of the game as possible. In Half-Life, it was the rare area of the game that didn’t include the direct work of more than ten different people, usually all within the same frame.

In order for highly hierarchical organizations to be effective, they require one person who understands everyone else’s work at least as well as the individuals doing the work, and other people who are willing to be subordinates yet are still good enough to actually implement the design. Given the complexity of most top game titles, this just isn’t practical — if you were good enough to do the job, why would you want to be a flunky? On the other hand, completely unstructured organizations suffer from lack of information and control — if everyone just does their own thing, the odds that it’ll all fit together in the end are somewhere around zero.

At Valve, we’re very happy with the results of our Cabal process. Of course, we still suffer from being overly ambitious and having, at times, wildly unrealistic expectations, but these eventually get straightened out and the Cabal process is very good about coming up with the optimal compromise. Given how badly we failed initially, and how much the final game exceeded our individual expectations, even our most initially reluctant person is now a staunch supporter of the process.

Tips for a Successful Cabal


  • Include an expert from every functional area (programming, art, and so on). Arguing over an issue that no one at the meeting actually understands is a sure way to waste everyone’s time.
  • Write down everything. Brainstorming is fine during the meetings, but unless it’s all written down, your best ideas will be forgotten within days. The goal is to end up with a document that captures as much as is reasonable about your game, and more importantly answers questions about what people need to work on.

    The first incarnation of the game’s main character, now known affectionately as
    "Ivan the Space Biker."

  • Not all ideas are good. These include yours. If you have a "great idea" that everyone thinks is stupid, don’t push it. The others will also have stupid ideas. If you’re pushy about yours, they’ll be pushy about theirs and you’re just going to get into an impasse. If the idea is really good, maybe it’s just in the wrong place. Bring it up later. You’re going to be designing about 30 hours of game play; if you really want it in it’ll probably fit somewhere else. Maybe they’ll like it next month.
  • Only plan for technical things that either already work, or that you’re sure will work within a reasonable time before play testing. Don’t count on anything that won’t be ready until just before you ship. Yes, it’s fun to dream about cool technology, but there’s no point in designing the game around elements that may never be finished, or not polished enough to ship. If it’s not going to happen, get rid of it, the earlier the better.
  • Avoid all one-shot technical elements. Anything that requires engineering work must be used in more than one spot in the game. Engineers are really slow. It takes them months to get anything done. If what they do is only used once, it’s a waste of a limited resource. Their main goal should always be to create tools and features that can be used everywhere. If they can spend a month and make everyone more productive, then it’s a win. If they spend a week for ten seconds of game play, it’s a waste.


Ken is senior developer at Valve and has contributed to a wide range of projects in the last 15 years, most recently on animation and AI for Half-Life. Previous projects include satellite networking, cryptography, 3D prosthetic design tools, 3D surface reconstruction, and in-circuit emulators. Oddly enough, Ken dropped out of studying EE to pursue a fine arts degree at The Evergreen State College, which he considers far more relevant to creative thinking than any silly differential equations class. You can reach him at

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