Friday. April 27th. 2008. 3 PM.
It takes a few minutes for it to sink in, but the life size replica of Gordon Freeman, his infamous weapon of choice Crowbar mounted on the wall, and the huge, albeit it very loud when spun, working valve dead center in the middle of the reception area, solidify it is indeed a reality. We are at Valve Software. Even so, I am half expecting to hear the voice of the G-Man, "Wake Up Mr. Cooney."
Even though there were no actual sweets to be devoured, to say I felt just like a kid in a candy store is an understatement. Valve is single-handedly responsible for the most memorable gaming experiences in the past six years of my gaming life. Half Life 1, Team Fortress, Counter Strike, Half Life 2 with its corresponding episodes and Portal. Now, as a result of the trip, I can add Team Fortress 2 to the list, which there will be plenty more on that later on and details about TF2 can be found here.
I realized I do not think about it often, but being there in those hallowed offices quickly made me realize that no one does gaming better than Valve. Truth is no one possibly ever may. Valve are the stuff (actual) legends are made of. They truly are the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of Game Developers. Luckily, for the next two odd hours in a non-descript sleek modern skyscraper in downtown Bellevue, Washington, I become both a passive and aggressive participant in the Valve experience.
First Things First. The Guided
Katelyn, who would serve as our Tour Guide of the tenth floor office, greeted us. Immediately she explained to us that although Valve now also occupies floors nine and eleven, our area of focus would be on floor ten, although several times I would ask if we could go to other floors, it was to no avail. She then gave us a very brief history and breakdown of the company. We were then explained the hierarchy system at Valve. No employees at Valve actually have a true title associated to their name. As such, no true positions at Valve exist as there may be at a normal company. Everyone is the same level so to speak. You cannot work at Valve without at least 5 years experience in the industry, so no one is considered entry level. Needless to say, as Katelyn explained this, it without a doubt made complete sense to me. A company that produces products at the level of craftsmanship as they do, and it is no wonder the fact that everyone on their team is the absolute best at what they do.
Screenshot: >> Our Tour Guide Katelyn <<
Katelyn then politely asked us to follow her as she opened one of two closed doors on the right side of the reception area. Upon entering the hallowed halls of their office, she immediately asked that all cameras and recording devices be turned off. This is going to be damn good I thought to myself.
In The Presence Of Gaming Royalty
Sure enough, in the first hallway we walked, the first office door on the left, there he was, the detractor from Microsoft who went on to create one of the best and unarguably one of the most groundbreaking games in PC Gaming history ... Gabe Newell. Since I was the in the front position of our tour group, I spotted him first. I could only see a side view, and he was sitting in front of at least a 40" LCD TV that was serving as his monitor. Katelyn did not even point out it was Gabe's office, and just casually kept moving forward talking about something or other which I did not catch as I was obviously distracted being in the presence of a gaming legend.
I began motioning frantically to the rest of the team pointing towards Gabe's direction whenever Katelyn's back was turned to me. I felt I could not just stop as it would be obvious, so we continued walking on. Since I only got a very quick glance of him, I was told later on by Hurmoth that Gabe was actually playing WOW as we were passing by, and that he only turned around and glanced in our direction as our group went by. So literally one minute into the actual "tour," and we are already in the presence of those gaming legends I referenced in the opening paragraphs. Yep. This was indeed going to be good.
Screenshot: >> Gabe Playing WOW <<
The Rest Of The Tour.
We were able to see various offices with various people occupying them, and it is those people who are the creative forces behind making the magic happen. Some offices were completely unoccupied, however I could not help but notice that every office in one way or another had some kind of artwork related to one of the more recent Valve titles plastered on a wall more often than not.
I especially took notice of one vacant room that had at least a 100 printouts of artwork pinned to the walls. Very close to the open door was around five or so print outs of what was obviously to be a new look for Alyx from the HL series. I know this since it was her face with Alyx written next to it. I can only assume this new Alyx was a prototype to be used for Episode 3, going in line with the fact that Valve truly never rests on it's laurels. It was still Alyx, but the level of detail was absolutely unbelievable, giving her a new upgraded look that did in fact change her appearance somewhat.
I may be dead wrong that it is going to be used for Episode 3, but the other drawings on the wall all appeared to be concept art related to the game itself. I have to stress that although it is mere speculation on my part and nothing was confirmed, based on these drawings hanging on a wall, especially of Alyx, it would appear one definite noticeable upgrade to HL2: Episode 3 will be in the visuals department. Then again, I admit it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Valve would continue to push the graphics technology on each release, however if the artwork I saw is a representation of what Alyx will indeed look like, that push is much greater than I thought it would have been.
Continuing our tour through the office, we naturally saw plenty of people working at their designs as we were walking through. I can whole-heartedly say that any person who actually saw us acknowledged our existence and were warm and inviting and always had a smile on their face. I saw one person working alone in a room on a 3D character model of a Combine solider. The model was all Grey, as it had no a single texture mapped out to it yet. Other than this one worker, one could not help but notice while walking through the hallways that every other worker was doing the same exact thing... playing Team Fortress 2. We all made several jokes about how damn fun their jobs appeared not fully realizing just yet why they were all playing.
Which leads me to arguably one of my most memorable moments of the trip itself, and probably one of the more memorable gaming moments in life ever...
Are we really playing Team Fortress 2 with the people who created it?
As our tour itself was winding down at the Team Fortress 2 teams cabal (A cabal in Valves office is an open air office filled with at least 10 desks set up as a think tank if you will), we were invited to join in play testing the Goldrush map with the actual developers themselves.
Katelyn then explained that everyone in the office was actually play testing Goldrush one last time before it's release this upcoming Tuesday. Every employee is asked on this Friday to help play test the new map and game mode just days before it's release. We learn that Valve does not bring in external people or outsource play testers. The people that make the game do the actual play testing as well, and the reason being... who better to do so then the people who made the game itself? We just happened to be on the right tour at the right time and we asked if we would like to help play.
Once again, I am expecting to hear the G-Mans voice, "Wake Up Mr. Cooney." It is one thing to play with some developers on Xbox Live on those weekend events they often had. Undeniably that is very cool on it's own right. It is completely another thing when you are sitting in the same room as the people who created the game, playing it is they are watching over your shoulder giving you tips on how to kill their coworkers. I truly have to stress how absolutely incredibly cool and down to earth the Team Fortress 2 team was, and how fun they absolutely made it for us while playing.
Screenshot: >> Our Team Playing With Their Team <<
Since we were using their actual workstations, the second computer I switched to (since it had a nice 30" monitor), turned out to be Robin Walkers desktop itself. I did not even realize this while I was playing, although I did see the name Robin itself popping up to the right top side whenever I got a kill, but literally an hour later while conducting our interview, I put two plus two together that I was using the computer of one of the two guys who actually created the original Team Fortress mod many years ago. I just wished I knew it while I was playing, because at the very least I would have had made some notes as to what his mouse settings where, etc.
Impressions Of Playing new Map Goldrush & New Game Mode entitled Payload
In regards to actually playing TF2 itself, I have a confession to make that I must get out of the way before I continue. I have not played much of TF2 at all. I bought the console version on launch day, and to say I was not all that impressed with how it ran is putting it nicely. I really gave it a few chances after that first launch day as I had played TF1 in the past and really wanted to enjoy TF2, but it just got lost in the dust thanks to a small game on Live called COD4 and the fact when I did get into a match not hampered by lag, which for the record was not all that many, well lets just say that great community known as the members of XBox Live just did not seem to grasp the concept of playing as a team and the pretty dramatic difference in gameplay from other games in the same genre.
With all of that said, the first thing I plan on doing tonight when I get back home from my flight and am settled in if I do not pass out is trying the 360 version of the game and seeing if some of the issues I had were ironed out. Even though it is not apparent at all when Goldrush and this update will come out for the 360 itself. Actually, I think I may finally have the incentive to start building a new comp, as it would literally be just to play TF2 on the PC itself. Why would I do that you ask?
Goldrush and the new game mode it introduces called Payload, is really that much fun and that enjoyable to play. I enjoyed TF2 before being given a chance to preview this new map and game mode, but I have to say after being given the chance to preview this mode, I enjoyed the game overall so, so much more now. While TF2 has always been about team based game play, this mode not only emphasizes it, the only true key to success itself is playing as a team, which is my preferred method for online MP games.
Other than that, payload makes for some truly incredibly fun matches. It is simple enough. Blue team is offense. Red team is defense. Blue team must get the train through three main check points inside the map by standing next to the train, preferably with as many team members as possible to make it move faster. This simple concept makes for incredibly hectic, pretty damned concentrated, heated exchanges between both teams. However strategy is paramount to success, which really does add the perfect dynamic layer to everything for a perfect balance.
The above few paragraphs are just my initial impressions of the update itself while being able to play them with the developers at Valve. More detailed information about the update, including screenshots, a description of the 3 new items, are coming very soon, a list of the full 36 Medic achievements also being introduced with the update, can be found in the following News Story.
Link: Team Fortress 2 Goldrush
Interview with Erick Johnson of Valve.
Believe it or not, our visit to Valve did not stop with being able to play test Team Fortress 2 Gold Rush before it is released this week. We also were able to interview Erick Johnson.
We talked about TF2, User Created Content, developing for consoles, and a few other topics of interest.
Stay tuned for that interview coming soon this week.