Interview: Valve's Doug Lombardi

Always a pleasure to meet with, Doug Lombardi - owner of The Best Laugh in Gaming - speaks with us about Left 4 Dead and Half-Life 2: Episode Three. [Ep2 spoiler removed!]

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Kikizo: Well, shit happens though, and you had warned me in our last interview to expect that someone wouldn't be continuing with us on the journey by the end of the game and... I was like, who's it going to be?!

Lombardi: Yeah, we teased enough so that we would hopefully get you to the end, and then you could find out! But the other thing that played into a lot more people finishing it - my hunch is that more people finished Ep2 than Ep1 -was because we got back to the variety of gameplay that was in Half-Life 2. I heard from folks who felt like Half-Life 2 was like three or four games in one, and we did that intentionally; there were five specific places where we said in this place you're going to do this, in this place you're going to airboat, a lot of gravity gun in this place, in this place you're going to fight a lot of striders... and then at the end we're just going to send things over the top. And I think Ep2 went back to that winning formula, whereas Ep1 was kind of you and Alyx fighting in the city streets the whole time. I don't want to piss all over Episode One and say it was a one-note thing, but it wasn't as varied in the gameplay as Ep2 was, and I think that's one of the things that keeps people going, is that variety.

Kikizo: When are we going to start to hear about Episode Three? Because the gaps seem to be quite long based on the first couple of episodes.

Lombardi: Yeah, the next time you play as Gordon will be longer than the distance between HL2 to Ep1, and Ep1 to Ep2.

Kikizo: Won't you announce or show anything on Episode 3 this year?

Lombardi: We may at the very end of the year.

Kikizo: What do you think about the distance between the episodes, though? Is there a benefit to having a longer wait?

Lombardi: I think our philosophy was that, we spent six years on Half-Life 2 and upwards of $40 million, and basically 80% of the company ended working up on it for a good chunk of that time. And that was just too much; nobody wanted to do that again. There was this trajectory with Half-Life 1 costing a lot less than that, and taking two years or whatever it took. HL2 was six years and a lot more money, so if we were to keep going down that path it was going to get more expensive, and take even longer. And what we wanted was an alternative to that. We wanted to deliver the games more quickly, and we didn't want to be taking the risk of $40 million or $50 million to make the thing, because at that point you're like, "oh my god we have to sell 2 million copies or else we're fucked", right? [laughs]

So I think we were successful in that it's been less than four years since Half-Life 2, and we've gotten two episodes out; each of them had new technology, each of them had new gameplay - arguably Ep2 had more new gameplay than Ep1, but I think that we were successful in giving players more time with Freeman, more time with Alyx, giving them new experiences, telling them more of the story, in a much quicker fashion. I mean, "episodic" conjures up this notion of television where it comes once a week for 12 weeks or whatever, and so maybe there's a better word for what we're doing! You know what I mean? But I think the goal is to get away from that 'half a lifetime, mountains of money' to produce the next thing, and we've succeeded in that - and maybe we could have chosen a better word to describe what we were doing.

Kikizo: In fairness though, these episodes are kind of five to ten hours each, depending on how bad you are...

Lombardi: And I mean to be truthful, games that aren't calling themselves "episodes" are kind of getting around the same [length]!

Kikizo: Exactly.

Lombardi: So I think while we maybe didn't choose the right word, our intentions were... we were trying to be honest, and saying we're not giving you the fifteen plus hours that we gave you in Half-Life 2; we're giving you a little less and we're going to give it at a more rapid pace, and we're going to move the price to be more according.

Kikizo: I think people are happy with that. Well, we could talk all day, because you know I'm a fan, but we'll leave it there. Thanks for your time Doug.

Left 4 Dead is out on Steam on November 18. A retail release is out on the same day in North America, and on November 21 in Europe. Half-Life 2: Episode Three will hopefully start to show more of itself before the end of the year, Doug mentioned in this chat. Find our last interview with Doug here, and last year's interview with Valve boss Gabe Newell here.

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