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Neowin Interview: Erik Johnson Of Valve

The conclusion of our recent trip to Valve's offices was an interview with Erik Johnson who is listed as a Project Manager on the Valve website. We talked to him about Team Fortress 2, creating for the consoles, Steam, and a variety of other Valve related topics.

The following is a summary of our discussion with him. Video will also be posted soon.

Why Goldrush as the New Mode for TF2?
"The community was requesting a mode similar to Hunted from the original TF." The train in Goldrush serves as the VIP character. The reason for an AI based train "is it will not make mistakes or go AFK."

The Variety of the TF2 Medic Achievements
"Some of them are grinders (heal this number of points), some of them are interactions (heal 10 friends on friends list), some are a "little more wacky" (save a player as they are falling to their death.)" He also added that heal points collected prior to the update will count once the update is initiated. Initially the target was 10 million for the Chief Of Staff achievement, it is now 1 million as after some testing on their end "that seems to be the sweet spot."

Was TF2 influenced by any other games in regards to introducing Items?
"Not really." They had this idea since the original new TF, but they did "not want to disrupt the design of the game or break it" by introducing new characters or items. Since TF2 is still in it's infancy, it allowed them to introduce this system early on, which again they always had plans for.

Edit: Video of interview now available

TF2's "lukewarm" reception on the consoles.
It was the first time they went through the process internally. They do wish they had their own servers instead of using the Live or PSN system. "We will never make that mistake again." We were also assured that "Left 4 Dead will not be plagued by the same issues."

Will the TF2 Update be released on the consoles?
"It is in Microsoft's court." He then explained the size of the update is about 180 MB in size, and Valve does not want to charge for it. As a result of the size and no cost, they are not sure what the official status is. On the PS3 side, if the update is released is actually up to EA.

Any plans or guidelines in regards to future TF2 updates?
Lots of plans, but "not a whole lot to share right now." They have ideas of what they would like to do, but it could be once the community plays Goldrush, the response will be they want "something completely different." "We're happy to sit back and wait to see how people receive the update and make our decisions after that."

In regards to TF2's scheduled release date of April 29th
"We were going to put out a press release begging them (rockstar) to just release (GTA IV) it today, mainly so I could play it this upcoming weekend."

Were they influenced by consoles when doing the Achievements?
"We knew we had to build achievements for the console. In a multiplayer game we use (Achievements) to try and influence people's behavior online a bit. In a game like TF2, we have things that we want people to do because once they do it they find out it's fun and it benefits the whole team. We also want to reward people that play a lot."

"That's why we started with the Medic because out of all of the classes, the community would say it is the least rewarding, but the most useful, so we wanted to point those guys out as being real useful."

Note: I then asked him if it was safe to say that future releases would include Achievements, such as a new Counter Strike, to which he replied "I don't know what you are talking about."

About the Orange Box on PS3
"There was a press build that was distributed before some major changes in performance" were implemented, so a lot of press received an older build of the game that indeed had some issues. He did not deny that the final product still had some "things that needed to be fixed", but within "weeks or days" the EA guys did a "really, really good job" at delivering what is now a "good experience" on that console.

On Left 4 Dead
No solid release date, but they are aiming for a definite Holiday Release date. They are screening it in Europe now, and it is the game they have actually had the best success when testing the game to random people. They are in full production get-it-done ship mode."

Any news on a new Counter Strike?
"No News."

Any news in regards to Half Life Episode 03?
"When it comes it comes."

New Maps For Portal?
"We don't have anything to announce on that" but "There's a Portal team somewhere in this building."

Note: The conference room we were sitting in is the same conference room that they offered jobs to the Portal team, on the spot, based on their Narbacular Drop release.

How do you see not charging for DLC from a financial perspective? Especially when other developers charge for their DLC?
It has been 10 years since they launched Half Life 1, and the entire time the objective was to launch it and build a community behind it. Valve "does believe it is a good monetization strategy especially in a multiplayer game, as there is a lot of value in every customer because a lot of the content is your interaction with people you're playing with." They saw this with Counter Strike. They were "feeding the community with a bunch of content, and the community was feeding each other" and even today Counter Strike 1.6 sells in pretty huge volumes, so they really do not think they are missing out by not charging for their DLC. They feel they have never gotten to the point where they have made the "customer too happy." "In a lot of ways that community (in regards to CS but can be any game) is selling that product."

Any plans for XBLA or PSN releases?
"No, we have our hands full."

Creating games with the Mod community in mind.
"I don't think it's fair to say we predicted something on the scale of Counter Strike was going to happen."
When building the Source engine, the idea was " Here's the source code, here's the rules. Have at it guys and good luck."

In regards to user created content and TF2, any maps standout or any plans of a community map pack being released?
"I think that something we have done poorly at recently is having a way for our customers to go find additional content to our games on the PC side. There's maps like Red Stone that is a pretty good map. We play test (UCC) once a week in TF2 where we download a bunch of user made maps and try them out." He believes the community is just "getting going" with TF2, and it is taking the community a bunch of months to learn the rules, just as it took Valve themselves."

"We have more work that we can do (but) we definitely have a set of features we can build into Steam so people can find those things." It is just something we have not gotten around to yet.

"I am a bit surprised of the visual quality of the user created maps."

Have they considered simplified scale for User Created Content similar to Smash Bros level creator?
Yes. We talk all the time about how user generated content, even things like levels that people make and how that fits into the Steam Community. It's a direction that we're going to push the Steam Community into."

What is the future for Steam?
"The thing we are focused on right now is Steamworks we want to give developers our installers" and provide them with the tools to let "customers ability to play their game from any machine through their account."

Another big aspect of Steam that they are preparing for later this year is giving customers "server side data storage." "Things like your save games, config files, maybe screenshots and other media will be tied to your account so if you go to another machine you will be able to access those things."

They knew the feature of Steam was "your products would follow you around and not your computer," but they were surprised at just how popular that feature wound up being. "We have seen a real upswing in the value of this, especially when people get new hardware and Steam makes it so easy to update their games." Providing server side data storage is "an obvious extension to that so people can store some of their data so everything is exactly as they wanted it."

And of course we have a huge list of things we need to do.

We asked them about Stardocks release of Impulse, and he said, "I think competition is a good thing."

Future plans for the Steam Community itself?
"We have kind of a laundry to list of a bunch of small-ish kind of incremental improvements to the Steam Community now that we have it out, along with a list of kind of bigger things." They have thought about integrating Steam Community into other communities such as MySpace, but no true plans yet. "We specifically don't want to go out and compete with MySpace or Facebook. The Steam Community was built so our customers could play games with their friends. It's not a place to go out on dates or anything else, although (with 15 million customers) I am sure that's happened."

Finally, What games are you currently playing or looking forward to?
"(Of Course) I am looking forward to GTA IV. I am also looking forward to Fallout 3. GTA IV is kind of a no brainer, but Bethesda has made so many good games that I think they are going to do a great job with Fallout 3 so I'm pretty excited about that."

Well, this concludes the coverage on our trip to Valve.
Many thanks to Erik for taking the time to sit down with us, the TF2 team for inviting us to play test Goldrush with them, and to Katelyn for being a great tour guide and truly delightful.

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