Half-Life: Alyx’s story traces back to 2016 and the launch of mainstream consumer virtual reality. Valve (who politely declined to be interviewed for this story) hadn’t made a Half-Life game since leaving the series on a cliffhanger in 2007’s Episode Two, and had felt no pressure thanks to the lack of corporate overlords and the financial security provided by Steam revenue. The company was, however, intimidated by the idea of making a Half-Life game with the number ‘3’ hanging on the end of it. “In all honesty,” Valve programmer/designer Robin Walker told Geoff Keighley, “Half-Life 3 was a terrifyingly daunting prospect. VR was a way we could fool ourselves into believing we had a way to do this.”
Of course, VR has a chicken-and-egg problem. We’ve seen so many shallow or limited-scope VR games, largely because making a AAA game costs $50+ million, and making that kind of financial commitment on a platform where the install base is small is a bet no publisher – at least, no one who answers to shareholders, not even Sony with PSVR – would make. So nobody is going to develop AAA games for VR without a large install base, but nobody’s going to buy the $400+ dollar VR headsets in large quantities without AAA games. Chicken and egg.Thankfully, Valve was always interested in VR. Heck, it helped make hardware – the best headsets out there – because it thinks this stuff is cool. And remember, it has 100% creative freedom to mess around and try new things because Steam ensures its financial security. Tech-wise, Valve took the time to build Source 2 because it learned on Half-Life 2 that building the game and engine at the same time sucks. More time went by until finally, Valve told me, the team started messing around with Half-Life gameplay elements and assets in VR and it clicked. It worked. You had one of the most talented studios in the world diving in, devoting a full development team (around 90 people, in Alyx’s case) and four years to moving VR and Half-Life forward in one fell swoop. The cost? Probably $50+ million.
I’d be willing to bet that no one’s ever spent as much money on a VR project before, and while there have been many excellent VR games, none of them have been made by a team as talented as the one at Valve. And to reiterate: Valve can spend that kind of money and time on a AAA VR project because, for Valve and Valve alone, it (financially) doesn’t matter if Alyx only sells 100,000 copies and loses money. Steam bankrolls Valve forever and Alyx, if all goes well, moves a technology forward that Valve is deeply invested in. If someone told you right after The Orange Box’s release in 2007 that you wouldn’t see Half-Life again for over 12 years, and when you did, it would be in VR, you might’ve looked at them like they were crazy.
Doom’s road back to the top of the FPS mountain is a bit more of a traditional story, but it’s taken just as long. Unlike Valve, hardly any of the developers who worked on the original Doom games were still at id Software when the team set out to make the game that would become Doom (2016). “Only a few,” said id Software studio head and Doom executive producer Marty Stratton. Besides himself, he named level designer Jerry Keehan, programmer Robert Duffy, and artist/studio cofounder Kevin Cloud. And that was about the end of the list. Doom was to be reinvented by a new generation of talent – a group that didn’t make Doom, but instead grew up on it.
“I continue to look at [the original games] to this day,” project director Hugo Martin, told me. “They continue to teach us lessons. You have to keep studying the old masters. It’s really, really critical.” Asked what specific notes the team took from the classics, Stratton said, “[It’s] not just the mechanics, but the tone and the attitude and the personality.” Martin added, “Those levels [in the old games] feel like they’re fucking with you. They’re constantly keeping you on your toes. It feels like you’re in a developer’s funhouse made for a person walking around with a chainsaw and a shotgun. It’s critical that the [new game’s] levels have that intangible quality to them because when they don’t they feel very stale. The worst version of our game is ‘Walk into a room of guys and shoot them’.”And whereas Valve seemed to feel almost oppressed by the idea of continuing Half-Life until it was free of the baggage that the number ‘3’ brought with it, id Software embraced the studio’s original legacy. “For a lot of people at id, they come to id for that,” Stratton said. “It’s like playing for the Patriots. Who doesn’t want to go to the team that has a great chance to win Super Bowls? It’s the pinnacle for a lot of people. And we try to hire people who have that mindset. They’re inspired by the [studio’s previous] work; they’re inspired by the company. They want that level of responsibility, that pressure. We absolutely respect the heritage and use it as great inspiration, but we can’t rest on those laurels. We’re only as good as the last game we made.”
But to bring back Doom, id first had to realize the wrong way to go about it. The story of the Call of Duty-ish “Doom 4” that was in development before being thrown away in favor of the direction that would ultimately lead to Doom (2016) is well-told, but Stratton noted that coming out of that time “there was that period going into [Doom (2016)] for about a year where there were a lot of people that said that id had no business making a Doom game without [the original developers]. It was bulletin board material.”
As development on Doom (2016) – and later Doom Eternal – continued, it became obvious which elements the team at id should keep, which they should throw away, and which were a bridge too far from the classic originals. “To be honest, the majority of our audience – I know this is blasphemy – doesn’t probably give a shit about the original Doom,” Martin said. “We only use the elements from the game that keep the game fun. We look to the original Doom because it has something to teach us. It’s a great piece of design. And then when we tie it together, it’s because we’re respecting the heritage. The part that we don’t do is just slavishly put things in just because it was in Doom. Fun is the boss of id. Fun’s in the room all the time and he calls the shots. If it ain’t fun, it ain’t going in the game.”
As an example of what not to do, Martin shared a couple of examples: “Over-reliance on keycards just for the sake of keycards is stupid. And we’ve done that. There’ve been times where it felt like that.” Also: “We’ve never entertained the idea of having any kind of stealth in our game. It’s an action-horror game with a capital ‘A.’ I need to be on my toes, going forward, with a smile on my face.”
In the end, both Doom and Half-Life returned with plenty of smiles put on players’ faces, each mining sheer brilliance out of a decade-plus of player nostalgia, expectations, and impatience. Valve took Half-Life into a new frontier and made it feel fresh, new, and revelatory – just like the originals did – while still creating what is unmistakably a Half-Life game.
In fact, that’s exactly what Martin recommends to future generations of game developers who may one day be called upon or inspired to resurrect these Hall of Fame franchises once again: “Please understand and study the source material. That’s it. I hope you play whatever game you’re making a lot and study it from every angle. Try to look into how you feel and how the fanbase feels about the product you’re going to work on…It’s a deep understanding and respect for the source material. And then I would say, ‘Now take all that and go do what you think you need to do. If you try to sit there and you’re too focused on making me happy, I’m going to be annoyed. It’s going to be boring. I want you to make a thing that I like as much as I like the original thing. Now go and make something fuckin’ new that still feels like the game you remember.’”