Hard Project: Half-Life
Half-Life is not one of the most voluminous franchises in existence. It consists of the original game, a smattering of expansions for that game, the sequel, and two-thirds of an episodic follow-up to that sequel. Oh, and a whole lot of talk, which puts me in the mind of paying money for an idea, but so long as there’s no Kickstarter my carefully cultivated rage gene doesn’t get activated by pretentious talk by people who cannot get a video game to launch.
Then again, I may be a little harder on Gaben & co. than they deserve. I’ll snark endlessly at the fact that it has taken seven years without so much as a peep about Half-Life 3, but when you think about it, it’s a hard project to start on. Not because of lack of money or licensing rights, but because the game has some pretty huge shoes to fill, and a whole lot of baggage that’s weight the hypothetical down.
Say you want a revolution
When the original Half-Life came out, it was something of a wrecking ball. If you wanted to trace the path to the modern FPS from its first popularity with DOOM, Half-Life defines a major changeover. Rather than having self-contained missions of sprawling maps, the game had a tightly scripted flow, story delivered in-game rather than via level intermissions, structured setpieces marking your progress through the game. Puzzles required thought rather than scouring the map for the keycard you missed. The game was entirely unlike its predecessors.
Half-Life 2 did much the same when it came out six years later. The focus was once again on tight, interesting gun battles rather than pumping rounds into waves of foes, level design pushing you in certain directions even while looking more open than that. It also doubled down on things like physics and environmental awareness, with some areas of the game being entirely focused around making use of your environment. While it didn’t completely demolish the field to the extent of its predecessor, it was a massive success; the game was good enough for me to play through it more than once, and I don’t even like first-person shooters.
You probably see the problem here, though. It’s not enough for Half-Life 3 to be solid at what it’s trying to do. The game has to be revolutionary rather than simply evolutionary, a pressure that increases with every subsequent year since the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it length of Half-Life 2: Episode 2. Anything less is going to be seen as a disappointment. And while there’s no reality where the game won’t sell well based on the title alone, making a truly spectacular game is not as easy as pushing a set of buttons and just having it happen.
And I was out of ideas
I think it’s possible that Gabe Newell has no more ideas for the Half-Life franchise.
This is not something to be ashamed of, mind you. I don’t think any creator is a bottomless font of new ideas; eventually you run out of new things to do on a given topic. Frank Miller had two ideas that led to him producing some classic Batman stories with significant impacts, but when someone suggested letting him write more about Batman it turned out that the dude had no more ideas not based around swearing and bullshit. George Lucas made spectacular films right up until he didn’t.
So on one hand, it’s really easy to look at stuff like Gabe Newell talking in grand terms about broadening the emotional palette for Half-Life 2: Episode 3 or Half-Life 3 or Half-Life IIDX Mega Dee-lux Vaporware Edition and say that the man is apparently high on the sound of his own voice. But he might also, you know, not have any more ideas about what to do with Gordon Freeman. The stories of each game end on cliffhanger notes, but they’re not cliffhangers that suggest what’s coming next, just plenty of vague tidbits and hints without an overarching theme. Half-Life 2 features no clash of ideas, it’s Evil Space Conquerors vs. Team Hero with a more low-key presentation. And that’s fine, you know? Plenty to suspend a game around there. But not something that demands a new installment.
And yes, the dude in question is the face of the company and not the only person who would be involved in development. But the core issue remains the same. You don’t want to had this project to someone unknown because it offers such weight, yet you don’t have any new ideas to bring to the table? That’s a rough place to be.
The live team
Of course, we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that at this point publishing additional games is just like gravy for Valve. Steam is a huge cash cow, and so are its online franchises, with Team Fortress 2 enjoying no small amount of popularity even seven years after its release and Dota 2 being a pretty big deal if you care about the genre. But that kind of suggests another issue.
If you look at the history of Blizzard Entertainment as a company, there’s a big long stretch of time there wherein the company just didn’t produce new games. World of Warcraft came out, and it was a huge success, and the company more or less stopped doing anything else aside from producing that game. Even the expansion took two and a half years to materialize, and while the company’s inability to get expansions out in a timely fashion is now a dark legend, at the time it was a testament to the game’s popularity that it could endure that delay.
The reason, of course, is that being the live team for anything is crazy demanding. Keeping a single live game running is a lot of work. Valve has two live games running, other popular multiplayer franchises to consider such as Left 4 Dead, and the darling child of digital distribution from now to forever to keep running and compatible with countless games. The company has about 330 employees. For the record – and to continue the earlier comparison – Blizzard operates two live games and has a couple of additional games in development. It has 4,700 employees. Some of that is a testament to Blizzard’s inefficient management and structuring, sure, but just think about the scale there.
In the end, that may be the biggest threat that Half-Life faces. More than ideas, more than pressure, and certainly more than money or distribution. Even if those factors weren’t in place, there’s just no one there to make it happen. And that’s a hard project if ever I’ve seen one.