Project manager Erik Johnson on turning a quaint puzzle game into a triple-A product
The journey of Portal itself is a tale of teleportation; a game concept crudely flung from its primordial college-project roots to become a modern flagship triple-A product.
Starting life as student project Narbacular Drop, Valve released Portal in 2007 as an accompanied side-salad to The Orange Box’s four-course meal – yet it became an overnight phenomenon in its own right.
Now Valve is betting the game’s upcoming sequel can survive the market on its own. Unlike its predecessor, Portal 2 will be released without any commercial attachment to the star pulling-power of the Half-Life franchise.
“We look at building these games as kind of a service – one that fulfils the fans of the product,” says project manager Erik Johnson.
“And doing it correctly is challenging – we want to surprise people and it’s really difficult to pull off,” he tells Develop.
“That feeling you got in Portal one – when everything was pieced together in your head – the reward for that was immense, right? We want that to happen again, but of course it’s tricky.”
Valve knows it needs to transform its quaint little puzzle game to meet the everyday expectations of a triple-A product. Key to this is stretching its lifespan beyond the five snappy and splendid hours that its predecessor offered.
“There were some really valuable things in making Portal 2 a much bigger game,” adds Johnson.
“One was that, because we don’t want the game to be overbearingly difficult, we can now introduce a lot of new elements and train the player at an appropriate pace for each one – before we begin to combine those elements and challenge the player with them.”
Portal 2 will add to its toybox a series of paints that can make the player run faster, jump higher, and dot portals in previously hard-to-reach places. In incorporating all of these elements, says Johnson, Portal 2 can offer the same challenge progression over a longer period of time.
“Portal one was the right length to pay off the skills you developed as you played,” Johnson added.
“We hope Portal 2 works well in giving you a larger breadth of skills in which you can build upon.
“A lot of what we’re looking at is evoking that element of surprise that the first Portal did so well with, and we’re leaning heavily on these new gameplay elements to do that.”
Despite these new additions – which include customised co-op levels – Valve wants to incorporate all these new elements in a way that doesn’t turn Portal into a different kind of game.
”Portal will always, fundamentally, be about thinking your way through a puzzle, and feeling really smart when you solve it,” he said.