L4D2 promises to set a new benchmark for cooperative action games and become one of 2009's marquee titles, adding melee combat to enable deeper co-operative gameplay, with items such as a chainsaw, frying pan, axe, baseball bat, and more.
WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!
I'm Doug Lombardi, and I'm the vice president of marketing at Valve.
WP: Tell us a little bit about the new Scavenge mode of Left 4 Dead 2. Where did the idea of the gas cans come into play?
DL: Scavenge mode is really about taking feedback from the community, which said, "We love the co-op game and we love the versus game, but we want something that is more designed for competitive play, where there's a clear objective and a clear winner. There's a scoreboard or something that says, 'You've won' or 'This team has won.'" That was the operating goal, and we worked backward from that. People like the 4v4, they like Infected-versus-survivors, now what is the objective?
We played with a bunch of different things that were the items in the game that you could focus the gameplay around, and this idea of the generator and the gas cans evolved, and it snowballed from there. You start play-testing it, and you figure out how many gas cans make the right amount. That just comes from play-testing, so we landed on this number of 16. Then the timer and how many seconds would be added and how many points just come from play-testing, getting lots of people in the game and just iterating, iterating and iterating. That's really, in shorthand, what the goal was: provide a good, competitive experience, really focused and with a clear scoreboard or deterministic factor to declare a winner.
WP: Gameplay-wise, especially with the 90-second timer to start out, Scavenge mode seems to be a lot faster-paced than the traditional 4v4. Was that something that you were trying to do at the outset, or did that evolve from the gameplay testing?
DL: No, that was definitely a goal from the beginning. The versus campaigns that shipped in Left 4 Dead 1 were four, five maps long. They took from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours to play, and trying to get eight people on the same server to stay focused and work together as a team for that long is pretty hard. It can happen, but it's infrequent. One thing to fix that was to say, "Let's make it a more immediate experience." You can do these three rounds and have a declared team win in 20 or 30 minutes. That's much more reasonable; people will sign up for that. If they want to keep playing again and go on for 1.5 hours, they have that option, so that was definitely one of the things that we wanted to put there.
The other thing was we wanted to have this intensity, and when you have the clock going, if the clock is too long, the intensity gets thrown out the window until that last minute, minute and a half. If you start there, that intensity is there from the very beginning, something that is really borrowed from Counter-Strike, where you see people tend to play a little lazy, they tend to hang back until the clock gets to about three minutes, and then a different gameplay starts happening, and then when the timer gets down to 59 seconds, a totally different game starts happening. That was learned from other games, whether it's in this franchise or other franchises, and just try to bring those things together and then play-test the hell out of it.
WP: Let's talk about the character design. Obviously in this one, you've got many more than four zombies, but is it the same set as Left 4 Dead? Have you introduced any new zombies or characters for the sequel?
DL: Oh yeah, a whole bunch! We've kept all the originals, and then we added to them. In Left 4 Dead 1, you had the common zombies and then you had the Boss Infected. There were four that were playable, and then the witch, who was unplayable, but she would appear in the co-op game. In the Boss Zombie class, we've kept the five originals, and we've added three more: the Spitter, the Charger and the Jockey. All those are playable in Versus and in the new Scavenge mode.
Then we've also introduced the idea of a new class. If the common zombies in the original were the lightweights and the Boss Infected were the heavyweights, I would call the new class of zombies the middleweights. We refer to them as the uncommon common zombies. They are unique to each of the campaigns, so in Dark Carnival, there's a zombie clown who has a squeaky shoe that attracts the common zombies to him, and they'll fight with each other until you enter, and then they'll all turn their attention to you. In the swamp, there's an uncommon common called the Mudman, who is very low and creates a vertical gameplay feel. He also has the ability to sneak under the muddy water and pop up and surprise you. It was really going toward the goal of saying that we want more variety in the zombies, but we want each of the campaigns to have a distinct look and feel and gameplay about them.
Look and feel is kind of easy. You can say, "Oh well, it's a road trip from Savannah to New Orleans. One will be the French Quarter, one will be the swamp, one will be a plantation, and one will be a carnival." But to have a unique gameplay mode about them was harder. That's where the uncommon commons really came into play. Fighting the Mudman, for example, is going to be much different than fighting the clown. To give each campaign its own "flavor," if you will, that was the dynamic that came into play for the gameplay modes.
WP: Let's talk about the single-player story mode. In the first game, you're trapped in a town with zombies. In the second game, you're trapped in a town with zombies. How did you evolve the story so that it doesn't feel like a retread of the first game?
DL: There were certain things that we wanted to do in the first game to try and deliver a story that we just kind of failed on, and that became apparent right after we started play-testing the game.
In the first game, we basically gave up more or less on the idea of trying to tell any story. It was a goal for the game, but as we started play-testing, we found out that things like the lexicon for gameplay was way more important for the characters to give than to provide background. Things like "Weapons here" and "Boomer reloading" were a vernacular that we felt we needed to teach people so that they would enjoy the game, and the story is always kind of secondary. It's always the gameplay, stupid. The story is nice to layer in as you can. We did little things like put some writing on the wall to try and give people some context, but at the end of the day, the original Left 4 Dead was four campaigns that were kind of similar, and it really didn't matter what order you played them in.
Another thing that was important, learning from the first game, was you can't have a replayable, fun, co-op experience that gets interrupted halfway through the campaign for a scripted sequence to deliver some story because it totally ruins the intensity of it all.
WP: Was it a challenge developing something that was so different from Half-Life 2, where story was such a huge component of the game? Was it something that you tried to do, or was it just a natural evolution?
DL: It was definitely something we played with. Half-Life hinged on the scripted sequence; it hinged on the dialogue that the characters would give you, whether it was funny, dramatic, whatever. The original goal for Left 4 Dead was to combine that narrative of a Half-Life game with the competitive play or team play of Counter-Strike. We brought that cool team play of Counter-Strike to a co-op experience, but we failed on bringing in that story, and we made sacrifices along the way. We cut those things in the name of making the gameplay good and establishing Left 4 Dead as a gameplay mechanic. Now that we have the vernacular for gameplay set, we can let the characters give you more dialogue, especially during the moments of calm.
For example, Ellis is sort of the country bumpkin, young male character in the game. When there's a moment of quiet, he has these wild, long stories he'll start telling you about, how freaky the zombies were, where he was when the apocalypse started, and his background. Each of the characters has these moments that they'll deliver; strategically, the AI director will schedule them when there's a moment of calm. "Now it's time for a moment of story." It won't break down and do this big, scripted sequence to break the illusion of it, but if you're on a tram going from A to B and there's a moment of quiet, Ellis is going to start yakking and telling you some story.
We've also pushed what's in the world. In terms of the graffiti and stuff like that, there's much more there that's more thought-out. And finally, there is a bit of a linear progression. You can play the campaigns in any order you want, but if you're looking for story, it really behooves you to start in Savannah and play your way through the road trip to New Orleans because things will unravel as you go through.
In typical tradition, just like the Half-Life games, the story's there for you to get engrossed by or just to skip and start blasting by if you want to. It's still a game at the end of the day, so we didn't want to interrupt the player's gameplay moments with story, but we did want to allow people who want that story to have [layers] to peel back. "Hey, wait a minute. I'm going to slow down here. I'm going to listen to Ellis and not just going to blow off and find the next zombie," or "I'm going to stop and read this stuff on the wall." Something that I read on the wall in Savannah may mean something when I get to the carnival or when I get to New Orleans. It's little pieces like that to turn up the element of the story in the game. I wouldn't say that this is now a narrative game like Call of Duty or Half-Life, but it definitely has more story and context to it than the first Left 4 Dead.
WP: Valve has always been a company that's known for its strong fan base and its interactions with the fans. When Left 4 Dead 2 was announced, there was some fan backlash, and you brought some fans in to see the game, but more recently, you had a very vocal fan out in Australia, who Gabe challenged to a fundraising duel. Since some money was raised, it's going to be donated to a charity, but Gabe's scheduled for a flight out to Australia. Can you tell us how that started out and give us a little background?
DL: We had a group of folks who thought that Left 4 Dead 2 was coming too soon, that we were going to abandon Left 4 Dead 1, etc. We started off by showing a little bit of the game and had a plan that we were going to reveal more as we got closer to launch, which I think we followed up on pretty well. We also said that we were going to follow up with more content for Left 4 Dead 1, which we followed up on with Crash Course. About halfway through the summer, we thought, "We should fly these guys here, show them a little bit more about what we're going to reveal, and let them play Crash Course." That happened, and the story went out, they blogged about it and posted some stuff.
A couple of people started e-mailing Gabe, saying, "Hey, I want a trip to Valve," or "You should fly me up there so I can show you my mod." This guy Joe in Brisbane, Australia, was one of those guys, and Gabe rather flippantly, after replying to a lot of these e-mails, said, "I would fly you to Valve to see your mod, but I'm actually boycotting it." So Joe took it upon himself to post online that Gabe Newell was boycotting his mod and that he was going to raise money to fly Gabe to Australia as Gabe had done with the boycotters of Left 4 Dead 2. He raised the money for two tickets from Seattle to Australia in about 48 hours, all from online donations from the community of gamers.
Gabe was very taken by that and was struck by the community rallying around that. He decided that the money that was raised was better off going to charity, and he would actually take the money out of his own pocket to pay for the ticket and let that money go to a good cause. He's actually there right now. He met Joe yesterday. There was a group of Australian press that was there. I'm told, but I haven't seen it yet, that during the night and early this morning, some YouTube videos are out of Gabe meeting Joe and them doing a joint press conference with folks there. Gabe has always been completely conscious of the community and has drilled into all of our brains how important the community is from day one.
I had the good fortune of working with Valve. I was at Sierra at the time as their product manager during Half-Life 1's pre-launch period, and I moved over to Valve right after Half-Life shipped, and I can remember meeting Gabe back then in early 1998 before Half-Life 1 came out, talking about how important it was going to be to support the mod community, to get the tools out, to provide dedicated server stuff, to listen to their feedback for future content that they were going to do. He had that in his brain as a priority for the company and everybody working on the products before the company really even had a product. It's something that he's kept in the forefront all along, and while it's been a wild ride with the boycott and stuff, I think everyone has had a lot of fun with it, including us.
It was kind of a bummer at first to announce this product and have a group of core fans tell us it's sh*t, but I think we've done a good job of explaining our case and laying out what we're doing over time, embracing them and then having fun with what Joe did. Hopefully folks see that we're all human, and Valve is just trying to make the best games we can so that folks will love our games and feel that for every dollar they've put into a Valve game, they've gotten their dollar's worth out of it. If that's what folks say at the end of the day, then we can be proud of what we did.
WP: Speaking of things that Valve does well, let's talk about digital distribution. Sony has actually been getting a lot of negative backlash from the PSPgo being exclusively digital, but Valve's Steam platform is not only celebrated by a lot of gamers but also loved. With Left 4 Dead, for a short while, you ran a promotion where you dropped it to half price, and sales soared through the roof. How has Steam evolved your concept of how you market and sell a game?
DL: It's changed everything. At first, we had Counter-Strike and Team Fortress classic out there, and the player numbers were growing, and every time we would release a monolithic patch, the player numbers would drop from 20,000 to 30,000 simultaneous users to zero. Then we would all sit there for 48 hours, having anxiety attacks, hoping that people would go get the patch and the numbers would go up again. We said, "We've got to figure out a way to fix this and do this more elegantly." So we came up with the idea of auto-updating, and then features just started snowballing. We can do any cheat with this, we can collect stats and data of what weapons they're using, what levels they're getting choked in, etc.
Oh, and we can sell the games over Steam. It's one of those things that we just keep finding more things that we can do to make the experience around the game more pleasurable for people. My game is never out of date. When I buy a new game, I never have to worry whether or not it has a patch. I worry less about cheaters being online now because of Steam. For us, it's just another tool to help us make the games and the game experience even better. The fact that we can sell the games over Steam is the bonus at the end of the day. It was not the original intention of the platform, and even to this day, it's not the primary goal of the platform for us.
For a lot of folks, it is an additional distribution channel, and they're using Steam Achievements or the other Steamwork features to different levels. Some people go all the way in and use it for encryption on their retail discs. Some people just use it as distribution, and that's cool. I think the claim now is that we have over 100 publisher and developer products on steam, which equals over 800 games that aren't Valve's that are on Steam. That's huge. We launched the first game in March 2004, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero on Steam, and in five and a half years, we've gone from one game to over 800 and one publisher/developer — us — to over 100.
That's huge for a company of 235 people to have brought a platform to the PC specifically for gaming that allows people to have an experience that rivals or is even better than what was on the consoles. People always used to say, "Oh the PC is great, the interface is great, but there are all these patches and broken things about the PC experience. I prefer to play my game on the console because of that." As PC gamers, that used to drive us bananas. Hopefully, Steam has helped bridge that gap or close that gap.
WP: You've been pretty detailed with your answers, so we're going to ask you to distill this down. If you had to look at Left 4 Dead 2 and tell us in two or three sentences why it's worth playing, what would you say?
DL: It's super, super polished. It's huge with the game modes and the amount of campaigns that are in there. Hitting a zombie in the face with a frying pan is one of the best things you'll ever do in a game.
WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
DL: We're really, really proud of this game, and we hope that folks see all the labors of love that went into it, whether they're the big-ticket items of the Charger, the Spitter and the Jockey, or the fine-tuning things that we put into it — reworking the AI director, changing the way the finales work, some of the items that are in there. There has been a lot of love and attention that has been put into this game, and we're 40 days from releasing it to the world, and right now, we're in that weird anxiety-ridden state. We're basically done, we're squashing the end bugs and sending replication discs off to manufacturing, and all we can do is sort of twiddle our thumbs and hope that people like it as much as we tried to make it enjoyable.
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