Page 2: Club Zero
It's September 30, 2004, and Gabe Newell is looking to the heavens. "OK, what now?" he asks the gods above, wondering aloud how the forces of nature will next conspire against Valve. You imagine the thoughts that must be running through his head. Maybe a meteor will hit the building. Lighting could strike him down. A massive computer virus might infect the network. Given the roller-coaster ride that Valve has been on for the past 18 months, all three of these things seem more likely than what Newell is about to say.
"We were right about the date, just not the year," he says with a smile. Yeah, sure, Gabe. You really expect us to believe that Half-Life 2 is nearly done? Newell just grins wider, turns around and slowly points at an object hanging from the ceiling. Fashioned after the scanner robot in Half-Life 2, a papier-mâché piñata hangs in the air, awaiting its fate. "We just hung it up this morning," Newell boasts. Just as he eviscerated a headcrab piñata the day Half-Life was finished, Newell will whack the scanner piñata as soon as Half-Life 2 is sent off to duplication. OK, you think to yourself, maybe Valve really is within hours of finishing the five-year, $40 million odyssey that is Half-Life 2's development. Either that or Newell is sure good at building up the drama.
Further confirmation of Half-Life 2's imminent release comes at the "4 o'clock" meeting where Newell assembles the team for a status update. There have been more than 2,000 of these meetings since the game first began development. This may be one of the last.
Today's meeting is all about reviewing the members of "Club Zero," a list that appears on a whiteboard. Programmers join the club as soon as all their bugs are fixed. Many of them are already in the club, but a few have yet to join. (You can also be dismissed from the club if someone finds a bug in your level). "We cheer when people join Club Zero and boo when you get moved out of it," explains John Guthrie, the lanky young designer who joined Valve eight years ago, when he was 23. Given the rate that employees are joining Club Zero, Newell thinks the game may be done today or tomorrow. All the bugs are almost gone. More than five years in a pressure-cooker environment might finally be coming to a close.
But will the game ship to consumers anytime soon? That's the question that's been nagging Newell all day. He says the game's publisher, Vivendi Universal Games, is "sort of refusing to tell us anything" about the game's release date. There's little wonder why: Valve and Vivendi have been embroiled in a bitter lawsuit for two years related to the sale and distribution of Valve's games. Newell doesn't know if Vivendi will ship the game when it's finished or hold it hostage for up to six months. It's clear there is no love lost between Valve and its publisher.
The lawsuit against VU Games caps off a development project that, at times, has seemed almost cursed with lawsuits, crimes, delays, and general uncertainty. "It's been hard enough to build the game technically, hard enough to build it artistically, and hard enough to do the gameplay," Newell admits as he slowly walks the halls of Valve after the meeting. "But to have some of these other challenges on top has been a bit too much." In this case, the crushing pressure to build a worthy follow-up to Half-Life--which won more than 50 game-of-the-year awards--was just the first of Valve's worries.
Then again, maybe all the drama was to be expected. Half-Life 2 isn't just a game. No, saying that would be like saying the Atlantic Ocean is just a body of water. Newell sees Half-Life 2 as an engine, a platform, or at best a whole industry unto itself. Going forward there will be engine licenses, hundreds of user modifications (mods), episodic content, sequels, add-ons, and expansions. And Steam, Valve's digital distribution network, may forever change the way consumers buy games. Newell once told The Puget Sound Journal that he hopes Half-Life 2 will sell more than 15 million copies in three years. That would translate into more than $700 million in revenue, making Half-Life 2 a bigger hit than Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Halo combined.
Half-Life 2 may end up being all those things--a huge success, an agent of change, and a sign of where games are going next. But behind the flashy graphics and the visceral first-person shooter gameplay is the story of what it took to bring this ambitious game to life. For the 84-person team at Valve, the five-year odyssey of creating Half-Life 2 was a strenuous--and sometimes painful--voyage that tested everyone's loyalty to the project.
Now, for the first time, the team at Valve opens up about its journey in stunning detail. No question was off limits: From the missed release date to the code theft to the lawsuit with Vivendi, you'll hear directly from Valve about what really happened. And you'll find out about other struggles that have never before been revealed to the public. Ultimately, this is a story about sacrifice. A story about how 84 passionate gamers gave up nearly everything over five years to create what Newell believes is the best first-person shooter ever created.
This is the story behind the making of Half-Life 2.