Fans have waited a long time between Half-Life projects, but Valve is finally ready to release Half-Life: Alyx, a big-budget prequel to Half-Life 2 designed exclusively for virtual reality technology. Before the game was released, we sat down to chat with Robin Walker of Valve and Brad Kinley about the lack of triple-A VR projects, how the coronavirus almost affected their game release, and why Alyx didn’t weapons.
About four years ago, you started working on a great VR game. Did you know straight away that it was going to be Half-Life or did you play with other ideas?
Walker: You’re right, it was about four years ago, I think, until this month. For reference, it was about six months before the release of the first Vive, and so we were looking at the state of the VR market. Back then, there were a lot of small studios doing a lot of really interesting creative work, but it was pretty clear that people wanted to see a great triple A title in VR. And there are many very good reasons why it has been difficult for many companies to spend the resources necessary to produce this type of product. So we thought we could be the company that would build a great content-oriented VR title. We didn’t start expressly with Half-Life, but it quickly became Half-Life. We did what we always do, that is, take everything we already have and try to use it as a tool to quickly understand things. We built a prototype using a bunch of Half-Life 2 assets, and I think we stole models of gloves from Counter-Strike Go, and put together a prototype that you could walk around.
VR is full of interesting indie projects, but are you surprised or even disappointed that other studios haven’t tried making more big game releases in VR?
Walker: I wouldn’t say we are surprised or disappointed at all. I mean, the reality of most companies is that you have to do the thing that generates the most revenue, and the reality is that the VR market is a smaller market than some other markets. It is growing steadily and the pace of its growth also continues to increase, and we are really satisfied with it. I think we have always been fortunate to have no outside investor, no one who has control or property over our business other than the people who work in it, so we are free to do what we consider good. long-term investments that are not necessarily profitable in the short term. As a company, we have been working like this for two decades. This is how we were able to build things like Counter-Strike, which started earning no money for many years before it was a resounding success. For us, it’s more about investing in our long-term growth.
When you started working on a game that people could play for long periods of time in VR, what were the big problems that you thought you should solve?
Kinley: We test it as soon as possible humanly, so there was a point very early, right after the team got together, where we threw a lot of stuff against the wall, and then tested it almost every day , seeing what worked and exposed problems.
Walker: There were a huge number of issues that we had to resolve on how to translate the gameplay of Half-Life into virtual reality. In all honesty, I think part of the process turned out to be a little easier than we expected because the gameplay of Half-Life turned out to be just right for VR. That’s why we ended up choosing Half-Life. I would say locomotion was probably the biggest thing we expected to be a problem with, but it turned out much better than we thought.
I don’t know if you’ve ever played Budget Cuts, but it was one of the first VR titles. Before the Vive was shipped, there was a first version of it floating around, and we played it. Budget cuts made us realize that we were wrong to assume that teleportation would be destructive to the player’s experience. It was an opinion we formed when watching people play VR, but there is a much bigger difference between the experience of playing VR and the experience of watching VR. There are several places that can be quite shocking to a spectator, but when you’re in the helmet, you don’t notice them at all. Teleportation is one of them. It’s not as bad as it sounds when you play. Another is weapons. It is immediately obvious when you watch someone else play the game that you have no weapons, but when you play the game you do not notice it at all because in real life you do not notice not really your arms either, your brain edits those of your experience.
Were there any aspects of the development of a great VR game that surprised you?
Walker: In the end, it turned out that we had a whole host of other issues that we didn’t anticipate. When you say you want to move somewhere, say you are entering a room and want to teleport across the room to another place in the room. As a human, you understand internally, unconsciously, how you are going to get there. If there were a table and a chair and lots of other things in the room, you would know that you would be walking around the table. You’re not going to jump on the table, cross the table and jump down, right? If there was a can of Coke on the floor, you’re not going to trip over it. You can ignore that. You don’t think about any of this, you just do it automatically. But, in each piece of Alyx, there are like 20 or 30 physically simulated objects, and so we really had to understand when a player says he wants to go to a point, what do they think of? Where do they want to go? We had to understand this because there were constraints that we did not want to impose on you. We could easily have said that you can’t get on the tables, but we didn’t want to. So it took a lot of code.
You mentioned that people don’t notice weapons when they play. Have you tested a version of the game that had weapons at one time?
Walker: Yes, we disjointed with the actual representation of your arms. In the end, we settled on invisible arms that we use for physical detection, so we can tell if you put your hand in a drawer and close the drawer on it and stuff like that, but we’re never got to the point where we were at the level of precision that we felt we needed to be for them to work with everyone. We don’t know where your arms are. We know where your hands are and we know where your head is, but there is actually a large amount of variation in humans regarding the length and varied movements between these points. The sad fact is that if you do it right, people don’t notice it, but if you get it wrong, it really stands out. However, it was interesting to see how the consciousness of people around various things like this had disappeared by the time they were in dense environments. The less dense the game, the more time you had to think about things like your arms.
Do you have any interesting examples of something that happened in a playtest and how it inspired you to change the game?
Walker: There are those on a large scale, like how much we expect you to explore your environment as you go along. Another saw how people really reacted by using both hands at the same time. We went in this direction. There are a whole bunch of places in the game that require you to use both hands at the same time while moving your sight. But there are also a lot of little moments, like people trying to open something that we didn’t plan to make openable, or people picking up a hat from the floor and trying to put it on their head and we let’s say, “ ugh, why can’t they put on hats? The game is full of them.
Kinley: Reloading comes to mind. It is not a push of a button. It’s a physical gesture, and it took tons of tests and there have been all kinds of feedback around it. The people who played the game and gained a bit of control to be able to reload and make the gesture really appreciated. Being pressurized is a very different reload than simple reload if you are in an empty room.
Speaking of the story, Half-Life hasn’t always been very funny, but it looks like there are quite a few fun parts to Alyx. Was it an intentional choice to make this game more fun or was it just a product of Valve staff at this point?
Walker: There are two parts to this. One is that Half-Life has always had a dark sense of humor. Like no elevator has ever killed anyone in the Half-Life universe. So we knew there would be humor anyway, but this product needed it a little more than the previous products. One of our goals was to create the VR game which, hopefully, helped everyone understand why VR was such a great platform for experiences you never had before. Narratively, we wanted to make sure there was no reason for you to want to play it but not. One of the things that worried us was the level of horror or fear in the game. We know VR is much more immersive and compelling than non-VR games, but at the same time, we didn’t think you could eliminate these elements from Half-Life while creating a Half-Life game. We used a whole bunch of design tactics to deal with this and help players get through the scariest parts. One of these tools was the narrative use of humor. It was a conscious choice to do some of that in some places, but it wasn’t a set, ‘Oh, we should make a funnier game’, or something like that.
Obviously, the Coronavirus is the headline these days. Did this affect the release of Half-Life Alyx in any way?
Walker: No, it could have been. I think we all realized, in a way, your brain is thinking about things, that if it had been a week earlier, it would have been really scary in terms of release date, but it just so happens that we just to finish our last real production stuff and then the week after, we realized: “Hey, everyone should start working from home.”
Now that you’ve created this great full-featured VR game, are you looking forward to other VR projects or are you excited to go back to normal PC game development a bit?
Walker: Valve is a place where you have to sort of ask the same question to everyone on the development team. I think overall it was really fun to do, in a way that was like going back to an old friend. I think many of us want to keep building things like that, but one of the strengths we have as a company is the flexibility to respond to what our customers think of the work we have done, and therefore we ” I tried not to make any decisions about what to do next until we got more data.
Kinley: People were very excited to come back to this IP address, and it was a huge pleasure to create this game and we are all very excited to see people playing. I have a lot of time set aside next week to just surf the Internet and watch feeds.
Half-Life Alyx will be released on March 23, so stay tuned for our full review. In the meantime, be sure to watch this collection of gameplay videos or read our article on how multiple fans work together to create their own version of Half-Life 3.