We know, we know, you're probably knee deep in Modern Warfare 2 madness. But spare a thought for Left 4 Dead 2, the other triple-A first-person shooter out this year. At EA's recent Winter Showcase event in London, not only did we play the living daylights out of a hot off the press preview build of the game, impressions of which you can find here, but we sat down for a chat with Valve writer and all round good guy Chet Faliszek to get some last minute insight into the game's controversial development.
VideoGamer.com: The game's out soon. What does Valve do to celebrate a game going gold?
Chet Faliszek: Going gold is when it officially goes to manufacture.
VideoGamer.com: Is that the big one for Valve?
CF: No. That's our quiet point. There is a going out for certification, where we rally around certification. That's pretty quiet. People have been working hard to get it there. Our big focus and celebration always is the night of launch. Since Steam is one way we activate the product - we have a button we can press that says now the game's out there. So being able to do that, we all come together that night, the whole company, not just the team, and we'll press the button and have a party around that.
VideoGamer.com: I spoke to Insomniac Games recently and asked them the same question. They said an In-N-Out truck comes round to the office and serves unlimited burgers. Does Valve do anything like that?
CF: Not eating that stuff, that's for sure! Good god, that would be like a penalty! Why do I have to eat In-N-Out burger?
VideoGamer.com: I guess down in California that's a big thing!
CF: We're pretty laid back in that sense. When you go to the launch party there are a lot of families there. People bring their kids. We're a bit older for a developer, I think. If you go down to our garage we don't have a bunch of Ferraris and crazy fancy cars and stuff. Pretty grounded, pretty regular guys who make games. So, our party around that reflects that.
VideoGamer.com: On to the game itself. When you approach the end of a big game like this, are you completely happy with it, or do you feel you could have done more with just a little bit more time?
CF: To ship any game, I don't care if you have five years to make it, or if you have 15 minutes, there's something you're not going to ship that you wanted to ship. You see games that don't do that and they don't come out - not to mention names, but you know, a pretty famous one! So you always have to make those choices. But honestly, Left 4 Dead 1, and now Left 4 Dead 2 even more so, I'm just biting at the bit to get it out there. I want people to play it. I want to play against people. I want to play against my friends who I can't give copies to yet. It's so much fun right now. We're having so much fun playing the game.
We're at this weird state now where we're looking for bugs. We're reacting to the demo feedback. I'm out on the road, but literally we'll still, if there's a moment pause, you'd go home and be like, oh, so let's play a Versus game, let's play some Scavenge. People love to play the game and have fun. Letting more people have that is something I'm looking forward to.
VideoGamer.com: Have you had a chance to absorb some of the reaction to the demo?
CF: Oh yeah. We have big email threads about it. People have been emailing me personally about some things they see come up. We definitely share those with the team and go over that.
VideoGamer.com: So it's not too late to make changes based on feedback from the demo?
CF: The game's never done. We have an update for Left 4 Dead 1 coming out shortly. We don't let our games just go out there. We're always looking to see how we can improve it, what changes we can make.
VideoGamer.com: A lot has been said about Left 4 Dead 2 since the game's announcement. Was the criticism something Valve always knew it would be able to answer in due course as the launch of the game neared? Was it frustrating not be able to show everyone everything from the get go?
CF: It was something that happened in the summer. I was trading email with a lot of people. I had given out my email and said, email me, let's talk about this. Then it was clear after a back and forward with a lot of people. We said, well we just need to show you more. Talking about it's not going to do it. Rightly or wrongly you had this reaction to what we've shown, but let's just keep showing you stuff. If you look at how our pre-orders have gone, how the reaction to the demo has gone, people are excited about it. The boycott itself and how that's gone - people are starting to understand now and understand what we were saying then.
It's hard to express plans and designs that aren't done to the point where you can show them yet. Even at E3, we had all this stuff, but we knew all these things that were going to be changed from what we were showing there. A good example is Rochelle. She's drastically changed in her look from E3 to release. There are always refinements we always do, and we always knew we were going to have all this. But you've got to show the game at some point, and that's what we did. We knew when we were first showing it that it was good and that we would be at this place now and be happy.
Part of that is just because, when Left 4 Dead 2 started the process, we had a bunch of stops built into place. At multiple times during development, we brought in a bunch of people from the company, looked at it and said, you know is this worth doing? Is this going to be right? Is this not going to be good? It's really brutally honest feedback at that point. Everyone at Valve, there are no managers, everyone's a manager. We all own part of the company. We're all very much in tune with the company as a whole, not just our project. And when that happens, everybody is going to be honest on what you need to change, what you need to do, before we're happy with that. So at any point during the development process leading up to E3's announcement, we could have said no, we're not going to do it. But we kept hitting our mark and kept delivering what we wanted to. People at the company were able to see that.
VideoGamer.com: Is it always a vocal minority?
CF: It seems that way, doesn't it? And that's fine because they've been engaging a lot with the more hardcore tournament players. We're waiting to see Scavenge mode and how they react to that and Versus, the new changes we've made there, before we do anything too concrete. There are always groups that are vocal. It's helpful. It's helpful to have a clear voice about stuff.
VideoGamer.com: At the end of the day, though, you know they're the minority.
CF: We have 3.5 million people playing Left 4 Dead 1. 40,000 said something. But equally though, if one person emails me, some person can say, I have this problem, and we'll go look at it and we'll go make sure. You figure any time there are that many people, or even just one person, there are more that have that same experience and that same feeling. So we always want to make sure we're clear about that. People mail me, people mail Gabe [Newell, co-founder and managing director] and Robin [Walker, software developer] a lot - we all get a lot of feedback from the community. We try to answer as much as we can. We definitely read all of it. And we react to it. We take it to heart. Even when it's mean and they make videos of me and Hitler!
CF: You've seen the Hitler video where Hitler's all upset about something?
CF: Gabe's actually Hitler, and I'm upsetting him, which means I'm doing the right thing!
VideoGamer.com: You're one of the good guys!
CF: Yeah, because I'm upsetting Hitler, right? Isn't that how it works? If you upset the evillest man of the 20th Century, you're a good guy, right?
VideoGamer.com: It's better people care than they don't at all, right?
CF: Yeah. And that's the other thing. When that first started happening, some of the press wanted to make it an us versus them. But it was more like a fight inside the family. They are passionate about our games. They play our games. So we always take the feedback seriously, because we're gamers as well, and these are people who are playing our games and will probably play our games with us. So we always want to make sure we're listening and understanding the issues.
VideoGamer.com: You say it was like a fight inside the family. Did that make it hurt more than it might have done otherwise?
CF: There's a little of that. But honestly, that's fair, because I don't expect everyone to know the whole history of Valve. I don't expect anyone to know who I am. I don't expect anyone to know who Gabe is. I don't expect them to have played Half Life. That would be arrogant to think that people know us that well. It was just that knowledge though of, okay, but you've played Left 4 Dead, you're happy about that, let's keep talking about that and going with that. We play it with you. It'll be okay.
VideoGamer.com: Once the game's out of the door, will Valve be able to take a break or will you have to stick around and react to what players are doing?
CF: There's a group that will stay and make sure that if there's anything that comes up that needs to get addressed quickly, we address it. Then, just the nature of releasing at this time of year, in the United States we've got Thanksgiving, which is a big holiday, and then we have Christmas. You'll see people going off to celebrate holiday. But honestly, now, I've been gone for two weeks doing this and I'm just antsy to get back. It's a fun game to work on and it's a fun group to work with.
VideoGamer.com: Moving away from Left 4 Dead, Valve hasn't released a non-Left 4 Dead game since Orange Box in late 2007...
CF: There was an Xbox LIVE Portal release. And obviously a lot of Team Fortress updates.
VideoGamer.com: I mean in terms of new retail releases.
VideoGamer.com: Is there a desire in Valve to make some other stuff as well as Left 4 Dead, or are you guys happy concentrating on Left 4 Dead now and for the foreseeable future?
CF: There are quite a few teams at Valve. There are people working on other stuff as we speak now, that were working on it during Left 4 Dead. I think there are about 150 to 200 developers. The team of Left 4 Dead is about 60. So there are a lot of things still going on. But definitely as we get near to launch a lot of people pull together and help put the game out.
VideoGamer.com: What's happening with Half Life? Do you have any update on Half Life 2: Episode 3?
CF: No. We hate to ever talk about anything until we're close to releasing it, just because, who knows what will happen? So we'll see.
VideoGamer.com: And Portal, is it a game that will go down as a unique, self-contained experience, or does it have the scope to be fleshed out with other games?
CF: We'll see! I don't know! We'll see!
VideoGamer.com: Can Portal it be more than an FPS puzzle game?
CF: We'll see! I don't know!
VideoGamer.com: Left 4 Dead 2 is a unique co-operative experience. EA UK boss Keith Ramsdale said at the opening of this EA Winter Showcase that "single-player experiences are no longer the future". What do you say to that?
CF: In the world of Left 4 Dead what we love is it's a social thing. It's not a skill thing. It's not a challenge of like, oh my god I got to be such a great player to kill all these zombies. It's this thing you do and hang out with your friends. And that's why I love to play it. That's why I play with a bunch of people in the community. We play with people at work. It's just fun and it's hanging out. So it's definitely a social aspect of games, where they don't have to be what people would think are social games and they don't have to be something that's just some Flash game where you're playing something together. It can be a lot of different games are social. So I love that part. I play a TF2 server where people read from books sometimes or sing songs and it's this whole weird social thing. It's cool, right? That's a neat way to interact with everybody, because you're this group that loves this game and wants to play it. So definitely that's strong.
But there are still, like a good book, games I want to pick up and play by myself. I'm going to pick up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and I'm going to go play it by myself. I'm going to go experience the single-player game that's there. I think there's room for both. I play a lot of single-player games and I play a lot of multi-player games.
VideoGamer.com: But these days can a single-player only game be successful?
CF: BioShock was single-player only, and I think that was pretty well received. People were pretty excited about it. So it'd be hard to call that a failure.
VideoGamer.com: But the developers are adding multiplayer for the sequel.
CF: They're ruining my point! Who was it that was talking about it once? If you redefine single-player games enough they all become multiplayer. There's definitely a lot of social stuff around games now where you go into forums and you chat about them. And not just hardcore game forums. You go to places like Gamers With Jobs, or even just other more mainstream magazine sites that have a game section, and people talk about them. That way games live outside of that and they are this social thing.
My favourite games right now are social games, but I'll pick up and play single-player games because that's what I like as well. Bad Company I played single-player more than I played multiplayer. Bad Company 2, there's still a single-player portion, right? I'll be playing that. It's always scary when someone says this is the only thing, or this is dead, because it's so fluid in how it changes and what it is. Definitely if people put more hours into playing games being a lone nut in your basement gets scarier if you're playing all by yourself. So in that sense with social games, you have the best of both worlds.
VideoGamer.com: Dedicated servers is this month's hot topic. Infinity Ward hasn't done dedicated servers for the PC version of Modern Warfare 2...
CF: I can't comment on what they're doing there. I don't know the details of anything.
VideoGamer.com: Generally speaking then, is dedicated servers something Valve has an opinion on?
CF: Definitely with Left 4 Dead 2, and we're continuing it with Left 4 Dead, we have dedicated servers for the PC and the 360. It's interesting watching the community and what they do. Often it drives us nuts, because they have some crazy things they do. Sometimes it's interesting things. In the TF world, for instance, the karaoke mode they put in. There are always interesting things that are always cool. The weird thing is, we were having this discussion about something else, modding. If you just anoint three people and tell them make something cool, they're not going to make something cool. But if you anoint 3.5 million people and say, out of the group of you someone make something cool, you're going to get cool stuff. That's just a cool part of releasing a game to our community, and that's why we support the community. But Infinity Ward are smart people. I'm sure they're making it for good reasons.
Left 4 Dead 2 is scheduled for release only for PC and Xbox 360 on November 20.