On Team Fortress 2 and Portal

Let’s get the most important fact out of the way first: I don’t have the Orange Box yet. Regardless, here are some Team Fortress 2- and Portal-related items you might find interesting.

Rock Paper Shotgun has an interview with Erik Wolpaw, who is currently working at Valve and who was the writer of Portal. I think one reason why Portal resonates with a lot of people (with me, at least) is the surreal setting, and the writing is an important part of that. I knew Mr. Wolpaw was one of the people behind the amazing Old Man Murray, but I didn’t know he was also the co-author of Psychonauts. (Psychonauts didn’t spring fully-formed from the brow of Tim Schafer? I am shocked.)

Anyway, the interview is highly amusing but low on actionable intelligence. For that, I recommend Rock Paper Shotgun’s interview with Robin Walker and Charlie Brown (in two parts). They seem remarkably sane despite having worked on a game for, what, 10 years or so? Although it wasn’t all TF2:

RW: Well, we worked on TF2 a lot. We tried three or four different version of things we called TF2. And we all worked on Half-Life 2 and Episode One. Valve’s a small enough company that everyone works on everything. So it hasn’t been all TF2.

From which those who remember how Half-Life 1 was developed can conclude that one important key to success is having the freedom to throw entire games away and start over again. (On the other hand, so many companies throw entire games away yet never end up with a successful game… hmm.)

I think one of the things we’ve learned as designers over the time we’ve been here is to better preserve our ideas while still making them more understandable. We’re personally very proud that TF2 is the best product we’ve produced at doing this, where we don’t think we’ve sacrificed any of the depths or complexity that we wanted, but at the same time players can sit down in front of it and have fun without really understanding half of what’s going on. Most things that happen tend to be visually understandable at face value.

[…]

RPS: That acceptability really struck me, prompting to write about how welcomed in I felt by the game. In contrast to this, I once had a two hour lesson in Counter-Strike and didn’t learn anything, other than it was incredibly hard.

RW: That was something we spent a heck of a lot of time on. [We’ve] really spent a lot of time on trying to make sure wherever we could that in visual and sound areas of the game it was up-front about what was going on. The obvious place where that occurred was in the visuals. We really built an art direction that was totally formed for the game. This was one of the advantages of the development taking so long. We really understood our game, so we knew the areas that the art direction had to be able to solve.

More about that art direction in a future post.

RW: We’ve been building multiplayer games now for so long that we have an understanding of the first set of problems that any play-tester runs into. In any multiplayer game you play, there’s this batch of problems you always run into, and we made sure we addressed every one of those in TF2. You can regard any multiplayer game as a constant optimisation problem for players – they’re getting in and they’re going to try something, and they’re going to need to be told whether it worked or it didn’t. And then they’ll try something else, and they’ll need to be told again. And the more explicit and successful the game is at showing the cause and effect of any of your actions, the better you’re able to learn.

… which I believe corresponds to a basic principle of user interface design. There is more about this in the interview.

I found this quite interesting:

One of the things, technically, that we really wanted to do with the project was bring a lot of the knowledge that we had in the single player space into the multiplayer space. Like pacing, and things like that, which we spent a lot of time on in the single-player experience. Our multiplayer games haven’t really had that kind of pacing. TFC, its pacing while consistent, was flat. It wasn’t spiking as far as having a bunch of highs and lows, or building to a final crescendo. We wanted to capture that and bring it to multiplayer as best we could. Which was some of the ideology behind trying to avoid stalemates.

I expect you could learn a lot about pacing in multiplayer games from board game design.

I think the intentional use of humor was very smart:

CB: Funny stuff just happens. So when we started, we knew what kind of weapons we wanted, we knew the physics, we knew we had really fast movements speeds and not all our weapons were realistic, and so it was pretty easy to see during testing that these funny moments happened way more frequently than they did in our other games. That was one of the reasons we chose this art style in the first place. We said, let’s just embrace the exaggerated funny things that happen. We used that to our advantage.

RW: It led to a lot of ideas that I don’t think we would have had. One of my favourites is the gib call-outs, where in the Death Cam, if there are little pieces of you on screen, they’ll get little labels.

CB: My personal favourite would be the Spy masks. We never would have done that in something serious. The humour solved a bunch of problems.

The reduced realism caused by humor and a cartoony art style can make games more immersive, not less. And it totally differentiated Team Fortress 2 from anything else on the market, plus it distracted from the whole ‘Wait is this the game you’ve been working on for ten years?’ issue.

I was fascinated by the medium- to long-term dynamic of class balance:

RW: It’s been really fun watching the online communities go through a micro version of the passage we’ve all gone through here. It’s like, “Oh, they’re all at the Heavy/Medic phase! They’re soon going to get to the, Holy crap, Snipers kick the crap out of that phase!” They’re saying, “This is too powerful,” and we’re thinking, “Well next week you’re going to find that this destroys that.” It’s really fun to see.

[…]

RW: So much of the class interactions are a result of the best choices on your server. If you’re a hopeless optimiser like I am, then as the numbers of the Heavies and Medics increases, the value of Snipers increases, so I’ll often switches classes after about five minutes once I’ve seen what the enemy make-up is, or I can see what they’re trying to do. That’s why it’s been really fun going out on public servers with an over-abundance of Spies these days. Internally we all have a fairly effective Spy radar in our heads, so you get to have a lot of fun. I’ve had friends message me with Steam Community and say, “There’s this Spy that’s causing us a lot of trouble.” So I’ll go in the game and dominate the Spy pretty easily, because at this point most of the Spies are still using pretty simple tactics. They haven’t been forced to learn the harder tactics the Spy uses, and as people get more and more experienced dealing with Spies, they’re going to be forced to do that. Right now the population of Spies is such that you can have a blast just running out there as a Pyro. That back and forth is an interesting one, and I don’t think it ever stops. There’s always going to be a flavour of the month. And that’s always a response to what the flavour of the last month was.

This makes me understand the PvP parts of World of Warcraft patch notes a bit better.

Coming soon: something about Team Fortress 2’s art style. First I need to find out if I can get an English-language Orange Box from Amazon.de.

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