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Thinking With Portals: Creating Valve's New IP
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Thinking With Portals: Creating Valve's New IP

November 4, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[As Valve re-releases an update of Portal for Xbox Live Arcade, Gamasutra is proud to present a Game Developer magazine-reprinted article by the creators of the 2007 Game Developers Choice awards' Game Of The Year, discussing the creation of the GlaDOS-domineered cerebral action-puzzler. This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.]

To our genuine delight, Portal became one of the most notable games of 2007. Though Portal's development path was by no means perfect, during the two years we spent creating the game, we refined what we think is a terrific process.

A rigorous playtesting schedule, iterative story design, and a marketing strategy that helped mitigate some of the game's riskier elements all contributed to a fresh, enjoyable experience for players -- one which remained accessible despite its unconventional narrative and gameplay mechanics.

Getting Started

Perhaps the most unconventional element of Portal's development was the way in which the project arrived at Valve. All of us on the Portal team (with the exception of our writer, Erik Wolpaw) were students at DigiPen Institute of Technology, a university focused on video game development.

As a part of the curriculum each year we had to form teams and create a game from scratch using our own code and artwork. The requirements for the games range from a text-based game for our freshman year to a fully 3D game with simulated physics for our senior year. For our final game project, seven of us got together and created a game called Narbacular Drop.

We knew that we were going to be graduating soon, and we needed a great project to put on our resumes. When trying to come up with the game design for our project we focused on creating a game that was simple and unique.

Simple, because from our previous school projects we learned that there are never enough hours in a day to do what you'd like. Unique, because we figured we could get more attention for a new idea, and since we were in school there was no risk in trying out an original concept.

After throwing around a few ideas we were able to come up with the game design for Narbacular Drop, the predecessor of Portal. In that game, you were able to create two interconnected portals, a red and a blue, and place them dynamically around the level; using them to solve challenges and traverse the various maps in the game.

Nuclear Monkey Software's Narbacular Drop

Every year, DigiPen holds a job fair for graduating seniors, during which they bring in developers from across the country to take a look at students' projects -- and hopefully offer them interviews.

During our job fair, Valve sent over a couple of representatives who took a look at Narbacular Drop, and they subsequently invited us to come to their offices and demonstrate the game for Valve founder and managing director Gabe Newell.

We ecstatically accepted and the following week we found ourselves in one of the conference rooms at Valve, with Gabe Newell sitting with rapt attention on a couch. About fifteen minutes into our demo, Gabe stopped us and asked what we planned on doing after we graduate. After we answered, Gabe offered us a job on the spot to make the game in full using the Source engine.

Needless to say, we all accepted the offer and started working on Portal in July 2005. Working at Valve straight out of school certainly required some adjustment. One of the wonderful things about Valve is how intelligent and helpful everyone is. We've learned many things that have helped us to become better game developers.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Jake Romigh
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These are the kinds of features that draw me to Gamasutra everyday. Well done.

Brice Morrison
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Valve is the king of playtesting. They learned their lesson in developing the first half life and now they have a method for delivering balanced and fun gameplay. Great article.

Bart Stewart
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How much more satisfying might the gameplay of Spore have been if Maxis had done as much iterative play-testing (and refinement) for that game as Valve does for its games?

James Smith
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Portal is one of the best games Ive ever had the joy to play - and this sure explains a LOT as to why! The guys are clearly pretty brainy and with a bit of direction hit the mark right on the dot!

Is it time for a new generation of puzzle games now?

Stephen Etheridge
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Re: the "king of playtesting" comment:

While Valve have shown themselves experts at playtesting singleplayer games and making their games more accessible, I have to say this seems to have been at the expense of destructively testing their products to the full (specifically TF2, since it's not essentially a ported mod with minor changes).

The decision to give an overpowering +50HP to the Backburner Pyro, the ignorance of the impact of achievement farming on TF2 and where it left the average player, the Medic Uber exploit, the dominant Scout-rush strategy in no-doors Granary, the many Engy structure exploits and shooting-through-doors exploits. Most of not all of these should come up in destructive testing if there enough testers working for long enough on the project.

Valve's 'everyman' approach to testing and job titling has certainly proved itself for humans-versus-AI play, but for multiplayer too much is still being left for the public to guinea-pig first. The latest test case being the Matchmaking Lobby system for the Left 4 Dead pre-order demo, which is surely just a dressed-up, closed beta test they actually got the testers to pay for first.

The very scant information on the Matchmaking system before pre-orders began and before the demo's release shows Valve were very hesitant on this feature, and the speed that the normal server browser was re-implemented shows that they weren't sure enough about the Lobby system to totally remove the server browser. The pre-order demo is a way of testing the product before an improved demo is released to the public, in the full knowledge that anyone put off by the first demo has already pre-ordered on Steam. So no money can be lost while Valve irons out the creases in L4D's Matchmaker, which they will hopefully have fixed or in a better working state by the time the demo is released to the general public.

Clever business move, but I'd prefer it if they'd be more transparent about it like they were with TF2 where they actually called the Beta a Beta.

Brian Handy
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For single player, this over the shoulder method works like a dream. Miyamoto talks often of it in his design process as well, certainly something all developers should consider.

Sam Smith
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This article is great, I wish gamasutra had more like it. So insightful and interesting. It's obvious why Valve hired you. I look forward to your future work and writing.