The Secret History of Valve’s Half-Life

When it was first released back in 1998, Valve’s original Half-Life game was a punch in the face to the videogame industry, creating the blueprint for modern gaming and selling over nine million copies in the process. But creating one of the most seminal games in a generation wasn’t plain sailing. We delve into the lesser-known history of the genre-defining game

Way back in 1996, two former Microsoft employees took the millions they had earned cashing in their stock options, and founded a videogame development company in Kirkland, Washington. Those employees were Mike Harrington and Gabe Newell, and the company they founded was Valve.

“I like developing software, good working environments, and games,” explained Harrington, in an interview with GameSpot in 1999. “I put all [these elements] together and decided that I couldn’t just leave Microsoft and do nothing.”

However, while they were well set up financially, they still had to zero-in on a game idea. Luckily, they were at least fairly confident of the direction they wanted to go.

“3D action games were our favourite genre,” Newell told GameSpot. “We also thought there was a lot of room for improvement.”

Realising Half Life

From the outset, story was considered a vital aspect of the game, in stark contrast to many of the genre’s big-hitters, along with a strong focus on puzzles and action. And although this focus went on to have a significant influence on the way triple-A games are now made, it was considered a risky move at the time.

“We’d occasionally get people who would say things like: ‘Stories? Who needs them? I just want a rocket launcher that fires faster,'” Newell said to GameSpot. “It’s pretty scary to be spending a big chunk of your own money and be going in a direction that’s different than the norm.”

However, they remained committed to this vision, with Harrington offering a surprisingly prophetic answer to a question from IGN during the game’s development, about whether it would change the way we see action gaming.

“I really hope so,” he said in an interview shortly before the game’s 1998 release.  “I think once people have the chance to play with monsters that have an interesting AI and worlds that you can play with that people won’t ever want to go back to the old run and gun type games.”

In order to create this world, however, they needed to draft in a genuine author. Newell had been reading Steven King’s The Mist, and imagined the game having a similar horror element. As a result, Valve drafted in horror novelist Marc Laidlaw to take up the task of creating an immersive story that translated well into compelling gameplay.

“We didn’t want the story to rely on one character coming and telling you the whole tale at one point and that was it,” Laidlaw told GameSpot. “We wanted to gradually ease the player into the story and provide little clues along the way.”

Valve’s search for a publisher

While Half-Life would ultimately see incredible success from this unorthodox approach, at the time it did not sit well with the highly conservative videogame industry.

Valve approached a host of publishers, but many thought the game was just too ambitious to ever take a punt on.

“We were going around talking to publishers about the ideas we had for Half-Life. It turns out that most of them thought we were on crack, although they were polite enough at the time,” Newell said in a 2002 interview with Trepidation Software.

We were going around talking to publishers about the ideas we had for Half-Life. It turns out that most of them thought we were on crack

However, thanks to a friend of Newell’s, Valve was eventually able to find a publisher in Sierra Entertainment.

“I had a friend who knew Ken Williams, the founder of Sierra, and he kept telling me that we should go pitch Sierra,” explained Newell.

“I was skeptical that Sierra would be interested, but it turned out that Ken had just barely failed to get the publishing rights to Doom and was really interested in making up for that mistake. He had been around enough Microsoft people to realise that we weren’t as insane as we came across to other game publishers, and he pretty much signed up Half-Life on the spot.”

Thanks to Sierra, Half-Life was able to become a reality, although in the years following the game’s release the two had a fairly aggressive parting of ways, with multiple legal disputes ultimately culminating in the severing of all contracts and an end to the Sierra-supported Valve era.

Starting again: Half Life’s ambitious development

But while Sierra was to have a vicious divorce with Valve, while Half-Life was being released, things were rosy, and Valve was free to push Half-Life to the edge of possibility.

However, what the team was trying to achieve was technically very challenging. Even making the characters talk was a serious issue; at the start, the team wasn’t even sure if it would be technically possible.

But with a licence for id Software’s cutting-edge Quake engine secured by a former Microsoft colleague who had moved to the graphics-focused videogame company, Valve’s developers were able to push forward what was currently possible in gaming. Over time they modified the engine, adding, among other features, sophisticated AI until it was essentially a different engine, known as GoldSrc.

Supported by a newly formed cabal of game developers and designers, Half-Life was taking shape. But at the end of 1997, the game was good, but not at the truly incredible level that Newell and Harrington knew it could be.

So, in essence, they started again.

Images courtesy of Valve

“The net result is that we threw out just about everything,” Half-Life developer Ken Birdwell told GameSpot. “All the AI was gone, and we gutted the levels. In reality, Half-Life got delayed because of Half-Life.”

For most developers, this move would generally be considered insane. And if Newell and Harrington didn’t have pockets full of Microsoft stock money, it would have been impossible. But they did, and so they did it. And the result was Half-Life graduating from a decent if fairly unremarkable game to what has since been described as one of the greatest games of all time.

“The whole way we initially designed the game was broken. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had to go back and more-or-less start over from scratch,” Newell told Trepidation Software after the game’s release.

“I would have loved to know what we had learned by the time we shipped when we had started, but I’m not sure it works that way. I really cringe sometimes when people trot out some of my early ideas for Half-Life.”

The rush to release the game

With a complete rebuild, inevitably, came delays. Sierra had planned for the game to be released in 1997, but instead it would not see the light of day until November 1998, and during this time, Valve’s developers were madly rushing to get it finished.

“I don’t think we wanted to admit to ourselves how much work we had left to do on the content side of things,” said Newell of the delays in a 1999 GameSpot interview. “It’s extremely embarrassing.”

With Sierra execs tearing their hair out over the delayed game, the race was on, but by the time of E3 in June 1998, there was a lot to show to the industry, and the feedback was incredibly positive, with Half-Life receiving a Game of the Show award.

Nevertheless, work was continuing apace, and the game did come out later that year, in excellent form. But there were a few nightmare moments up to release, including the near loss of the entire game.

Three months before we shipped, we lost the whole history

“Three months before we shipped, or two months before we shipped Half-Life 1, we lost the whole history; our VSS exploded,” Valve staffer Erik Johnson told Gamasutra earlier this year.

This meant the loss of the compiled game and its backups, forcing the team to reassemble it from the fragments littered across team-members’ computers.

“We had to put that all together off people’s machines,” explained Johnson. “So yeah, we don’t have the history going back to the very start. We have the snapshot from that month.”

With such nightmarish occurrences, it is perhaps understandable that in the years after its release, Newell was more proud of its release than any awards that Half-Life received.

“Actually shipping is something we’re pretty proud of. There’s a lot to be said about actually getting a game finished and out the door with the features you promised and with a high degree of quality,” said Newell of the release in a Trepidation Software interview. “A lot of game companies don’t seem to be able to do that right.”

On to glory: Half Life’s seminal success 

In its release, Half-Life went from a crazily ambitious project to a seminal game. It went on to win more than 50 Game of the Year Awards, with universal acclaim and, eventually, the Guinness World Record for the Best-Selling First-Person Shooter of All Time.

Nevertheless, while others continue to pour praise on the series, Gabe Newell seems to regard the game that launched his career in a rather bittersweet way.

“The issue with Half-Life for me is that I was involved in a much higher percentage of the decisions about the games, so it’s hard for me to look at them as anything other than a series of things I regret,” said Newell in a Reddit AMA in January of this year.

“If you are involved in a game, everything ends up being a set of trade-offs. Anything in a game is a sacrifice of things not in the game. I just feel those more personally about Half-Life for a bunch of reasons.”

Of course, for many Half-Life has also become bittersweet, as fans continue to pine for Half-Life 3, the game that may never be. Still, with the game announcement season kicking off this month, many will remain hopeful that the series will finally get a conclusion worthy of its legendary start.

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Images courtesy of YFAI

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