Newell: We've moved beyond the episodic model

Newell: We've moved beyond the episodic model

By Rob Crossley

May 9th 2011 at 11:00AM

Valve co-founder offers insight on the studio's new development philosophy

Valve has concluded its experiment with episodic game content, the studio’s president has said.

Gabe Newell told Develop that the episodic development philosophy has been replaced wholesale by the ‘games as a service’ model.

“We went through the episodes phase, and now we’re going towards shorter and even shorter cycles,” Newell said in an interview published in Develop magazine issue 116.

The ‘games as a service’ credo is to create games that are platforms in themselves; content that can be rapidly reconstructed through a series of updates.

“For me, ‘entertainment as a service’ is a clear distillation of the episodic content model,” Newell added.

Likely the most popular example of this newer system is Team Fortress 2, a game that since 2007 has received over 200 updates. New weapons, new customisation options and even a in-game market have been added to the game.

“If you look at Team Fortress 2, that’s what we now think is the best model for what we’ve been doing,” Newell said.

“Our updates and release model on [Team Fortress 2] keeps on getting shorter and shorter.”

LESSONS LEARNT

Since the five-year Half-Life 2 project finished in 2004, Valve has twice attempted to change the manner in which it creates games.

A major factor in the need for reform was the wellbeing of Valve’s developers, Newell said.

Newell revealed to Develop that, throughout the Half-Life 2 project, he became acutely aware of his responsibility to look after his team.

“I’ve become obsessed with this issue now,” he said.

The episodic game model, he said, was introduced after Half-Life 2 so staff could work on shorter development cycles. This, in theory, meant more frequent breaks between projects and fewer crunch stretches.

But the episodes model itself has come under scrutiny. Valve arguably has only made two games in the last five years from this approach – Half-Life 2 Episode 1 and Episode 2.

Asked if he thought the episodic games model was a success, Newell said: “I think that we accelerated the model and shortened development cycles with it”.

AMORTISING RISK

But Valve is nevertheless moving on. Its new approach is to embed itself in its community of 30 million Steam customers.

The idea is to obtain as much feedback from the community as possible, and in return build entertainment that capitalises on their tastes.

This is not a content creation philosophy limited to games; Valve has made short animations and comics from this approach.

“We’re now fully focused on asking how we can take advantage of being constantly and fully connected to our customers,” Newell said.

“We now work from data we get back from our customers, reading into what they actually do.”

However, Newell insisted that building games under a single philosophy would not result in overly-similar Valve projects.

“We sort of amortise the risk by working on different frequencies for different projects,” he said.

“Team Fortress 2 is the fastest frequency we work on with comparatively fast updates. Er, Half-Life is apparently the slowest! [Laughs] Although, from the outside world, we have no evidence that Half-Life is working on any frequency at all. [Laughs]

“Left 4 Dead is starting to approach the Team Fortress 2 cycle,” he added.

“Portal 2? We’ll have to see how much our customers want us to push in that direction. In general, our approach is to come into work and ask ‘what can we do for our customers today’?

“We get a huge amount of value in releasing things. Every decision you see our Team Fortress 2 team make is a direct result of feedback they’re getting from customers.

“Everything our team does is a result of tests they’ve done on the last two or three releases. Because its information from the last few updates that tells our team what to do next.”

The rapid-fire development model doesn’t necessarily spell the end of mammoth five-year projects at Valve, Newell added.

“You want to distribute your choices. Right now there’s a bunch of pressures to have shorter and shorter development cycles. But that could change.

“I’d have to find a reason for it to change, but it could. I don’t want to be caught completely off-guard and overly invested in one area.

“I think you’ll still see projects from us that are huge in scale, simply because we have the ability to do that.”

THE VALVE MANIFESTO

Valve’s comments are drawn from a new six-page feature in Develop magazine issue 116 (which arrives at games studios and on doormats from today).

The feature draws from interviews with ten key staff at the company. It is available online now, and throughout the rest of the week Develop will publish five separate Q&As with key studio staff.

The feature can also be found through Develop’s free digital edition.