Valve writing duo Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek reflect on a 25-year friendship
The late nineties games blog Old Man Murray, if you happened to miss it, was most excellently described by a Kotaku journalist as “unbelievably offensive”, “disproportionately influential”, and with a “wilful, ironic troglodytism aped by internet idiots for years”.
The two men behind it, Chet Faliszek (pictured, left) and Erik Wolpaw (right), were hired by Valve in 2005 and now just happen to be shaping some of the most important triple-A games in the industry.
It’s been quite a career rollercoaster for the two, who have remained close friends now for a quarter of a century.
Develop met with the pair recently to reflect on their unpredictable careers so far.
Let’s start with the hard questions. Why aren’t you on Twitter?
Erik Wolpaw: Actually I am. I have a Twitter account that I made out of curiosity two or three years ago.
Chet Faliszek: That whole curious period in your life.
Wolpaw: I made one Tweet, much like I did the all those other things once [Chet laughs].
But why don’t you Tweet?
Wolpaw: Actually I think it’s dangerous for writers to tweet. You get addicted to it, and I just don’t to want to even deal with it. Also there’s the issue of everything you say being taken the wrong way.
It’s not the Old Man Murray days now, we’re speaking for Valve, so drunkenly tweeting something will come back to bite you.
Faliszek: I actually tweet all the time, but on the Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead accounts.
It’s interesting though because Valve does have a direct relationship with its customers. Twitter seems to gel well with that ethos.
Faliszek: Well if we engage with fans on forums, we can really debate issues. On Twitter you’re posting small sized facts. You kind of want your community to discuss and debate, because that’s what a community is.
You two have worked with each other now for twenty-five years, it’s really quite rare in this industry. And you’re still best friends-
Both: Whoa-whoa-hoo, slow down there.
Wolpaw: “Best of friends”?
Wolpaw: Technically we’ve moved to that phase beyond friends, where we barely even have to talk to each other. Honestly, at some point I’ll be able to simulate what Chet says in my head. I don’t need his input.
But such togetherness is quite rare in games development, which tends to be a fast moving industry in terms of promotions and redundancies.
Wolpaw: Well another thing is we’ve been friends for this long but we’ve not been in games for that long. I mean we have great jobs at Valve now, but before then [both begin laughing]… before then we did anything to get money.
Faliszek: When you register your own company, you have to fill out a form declaring your business intentions. I can remember us writing on one: “anything for a buck” [Wolpaw laughs].
Wolpaw: We have really done all sorts. I remember how Chet got us to install satellite dishes [Faliszek laughs]. We did not know what we were doing.
Faliszek: Oh that was horrendous.
Wolpaw: [To Chet] do you remember that one guy who was like, “Do you guys have my Ecstasy channel yet?”
Faliszek: [Laughs] That was so bad. There was that time we actually consulted for a union.
Faliszek: Very powerful union. I remember we went down to Cincinnati to do some rewiring for them on one of their ceilings, y’know, the kind of square-tile ceilings that are in most corporate offices – but the problem is that as soon as we popped open one of the panels, the whole thing came down around us.
Wolpaw: So yeah, we literally would do anything.
Faliszek: I think that was the day we said we should stop trying to do anything for a buck.
But I get the impression you’re going to work at Valve for the rest of your careers.
Wolpaw: Well when we started, we were pretty sure we were going to be fired any day. I mean, we weren’t being very productive.
Certainly in the early days, at Valve they just told people to go find something to do.
Faliszek: Well yeah, we joined when everyone finished work on Half-Lie 2 so nobody wanted to work after that kind of horrendous push.
Wolpaw: And actually, something else we didn’t know was there is this brutal interview process at Valve, which makes it really tough to join the company.
But every once and a while there’s this ‘Gabe fiat’ where Gabe [Newell] would just grab some people and hire them. So we didn’t have to do that whole interview process. I don’t know if we would have been hired if we had gone through the interviews.
But, certainly, when we joined without the interview, there was… well, maybe not resentment, but certainly people questioned us being there.
Faliszek: And people, I’m sure, were wondering what the hell we were supposed to be doing there.
Wolpaw: So, yeah, we thought we were going to get fired.
But you are both now involved in Valve’s most important software products, the most recent being Portal 2. How much of a physical and mental challenge was the final stretch on that project?
Wolpaw: It was exhausting, of course it was. If you ship any triple-A game and you’re not exhausted by the end then you’re probably not doing something right.
Even though it’s completely a group project, I kind of felt like the weight of expectation was on me. I felt like, if it’s bad, I would feel responsible.
It’s quite rare in your life to be given a bunch of money and bring together a really, really talented team of people. That doesn’t happen that much in your life, if ever. So if you have that chance, you better damn make sure it works.
So yeah, Valve is a great place to work but the quality standards are so high, and you don’t want to let them down.
Under all that pressure, did you ever consider quitting?
Wolpaw: Yes, but that’s because I’ve always considered quitting jobs. I’ve walked out of more places than I can think of. I’m a consummate quitter. It’s a testament to Valve that I didn’t. Think if I’d been anywhere else I would have been out the door.
Faliszek: But sometimes I still get the phone call from a worried developer. “Have you seen Erik?” [Laughs]
Do you think the games development process needs to adapt so it’s less brutal a job?
Wolpaw: Well it is clearly churning people out. Because of the endless grind, no sane person is going to want to do this by the time they hit forty.
Faliszek: I mean Valve skews higher than most other studios, I’d say. We tend to have more older developers than most.
Wolpaw: Yeah but that’s partly because we have the cushion of the Steam business. I mean, at Valve it’s less painful, but you hear all the stories about how brutal crunch work is at other studios. Literally at some point, crunch is going to kill somebody.
Faliszek: There’s the headline.
Wolpaw: [Regretful noises]
Faliszek: [Headline voice] “Valve predicts game developer will die”.
Faliszek: See, this is why we don’t let Erik use Twitter.
But, with regards to projects like Portal, it must have been a lot of fun too. I mean, writing lines for the personality spheres sounds like a good day at the office.
Wolpaw: Yeah that still required a lot of hard work and testing.
My favourite line is from the Space Core, where he mocks a judge and says “you’re guilty of being in space”.
Wolpaw: Yeah I think the line was “Space court. Space Judge presiding. You’re guilty of being in space.”
Those lines were actually written the night before we had to record. We were in LA, and it was a crazy time, we had our meeting with Nolan North the next day but hadn’t finalised his lines. So, me and Jay were in a hotel bar, started pounding drinks, and we just started writing.
Now the whole project is in the past, do you have the energy and incentive to do something just as big?
Wolpaw: Actually, yeah. Now I do. If you’d have asked me this two weeks before we shipped Portal, I’d have said no, never again. Two minutes after we shipped, I would have absolutely said yes, because all the weight has lifted. Shipping a massive multi-year project, there’s a massive high to it.
I mean, thank god it wasn’t a bad game. Making a bad game is about as much work as making a good one, except you have that extra horror of it being bad.
Faliszek: Yeah I mean there’s no magic wand. It’s not like people are thinking they can just coast through projects because they’re making a bad game.
Wolpaw: It’s a lot of fucking work making any game.
Of course, if the game is bad, everyone will quite vehemently criticise it, and the developer must then be thinking why on earth they’re doing this.
Wolpaw: Yeah exactly, and the only thing you’re holding onto is what they’re paying you, and even that might not be that great.
Valve has significantly diversified the kinds of projects that it’s doing, from games to animated short films to ARGs and comics. That at least allows you to switch to smaller projects after big ones.
Wolpaw: Yeah but of course Chet decided that, after Portal 2, he was going to jump straight in to Counter-Strike Global Offensive. So that’s one big leap to the next.
I kind of slowed down a bit, working on comics with Jay [Pinkerton, writer at Valve] and doing Portal DLC packs, and now we’re kind of doing some unannounced stuff. But generally I’m doing nothing as crushing as what I did before.
Faliszek: Yeah and with Counter-Strike Global Offensive at first it just annoyed me that the terrorists sounded like soldiers, so I thought, okay, I can fix that. But once you’re engaged, and you’ve got a lot going on, and you’re going back and forth between teams, you just kind of get sucked in.
I think both me and Erik have this personality where we don’t rest on our laurels.
Wolpaw: Yeah, we basically both live in some psychological driven terror of being fired.
Often people will quit games development by the time they’re in their forties. Do you think game design has to evolve so it’s a job for life?
Faliszek: Hey, let’s hope so.
Wolpaw: Yeah, I’ve got no plan B at this point.
[Images: The Final Hours of Portal 2]