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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 2 of 4 Next

Secret Societies

Throughout 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."

The goal 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.

Cabal 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.

The team explored a variety of visual metaphors that resulted in some very unique and effective opponents.

Once enough 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.

During 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.

The Cabal 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 daily notes.

The initial 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 need be.

It’s important to include information on the
intended path through the level, as well as
rough geometry and character placement.

The first 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.

Internally, 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.

The final 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.

We also 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.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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