Valve Interview Part 2: Left 4 Dead Demo Potential, the Evolution of Steam, and More

By Nick Breckon, May 23, 2008 9:43am PDT Don't miss part one of our interview with Valve marketing VP Doug Lombardi, in which he talks at length about the PC gaming platform and its many perception issues.

Entering the final minutes of EA's Spring Break event, most demo stations in the room long since abandoned, Valve's bank of Left 4 Dead systems were still at capacity.

Zombies exploding in the background, I pinged Lombardi on a number of Valve-related topics, from Left 4 Dead release plans, to the new Steamworks initiative, to what his company has planned for the future.

Shack: What's the current state of development on Left 4 Dead?

Doug Lombardi: So the game is pretty much playable all the way through right now. And as we've done with most of our games, we get to a point where, it's playable all the way through, there are some [minor] issues that we need to work on, and we try to add more time to the schedule to have as many people as possible play the game, to make sure that it's approachable to players of all skills. We want to make sure that all the game that we've built gets played, not just be like, "Okay, it's complete, let's ship it."

For example, Half-Life 2 was pretty much done in April of 2004, and we spent the rest of that year just looking at pacing, and looking at approachability, and making sure the easy setting was easy enough, etc. So we're in a pretty similar state right now, with it being, what, early May, and we're looking at the same time frame--November--for shipping.

So we're going to be spending a lot of time just bringing it to events like this, taking it to Quakecon and Leipzig, and just getting as many people's hands on it as possible to make sure that it's playing right and that it's fun, and that the group dynamics are showing up and are visible to people.

Shack: It's going to ship simultaneously on the Xbox 360, right?

Doug Lombardi: 360 and PC worldwide in November.

Shack: I heard you might launch it with a free weekend?

Doug Lombardi: We're kicking around a lot of ideas now and nothing's final.

The free weekend has proven to be really, really powerful in terms of promoting sales on Steam, as well as on retail. I think the first one that we did was Day of Defeat back in February of 2006, and it was basically a rip-off of the old cable model. Like HBO used to do it when I was a kid. [laughs] We were like, it'd be cool if we could give somebody a taste of the whole game instead of making a demo, and the Steam guys went off and said, "Okay, we can do this."

And so we tried it with Day of Defeat, and it worked out. We saw this huge sales spike on Steam immediately when it ended, but then also that whole week we saw a spike in retail as well. So we said, okay, we're obviously on to something here. So we've done it with Team Fortress--one of the things we experimented with Team Fortress was doing it regionalized. So we did a Germany-only free weekend, and then recently we did a worldwide one. We're still sort of tinkering with the model and playing with it a little bit, but we'll definitely at some point do a free weekend for Left 4 Dead. It'll be somewhere near the launch. Whether or not it's the first weekend is still sort of to be determined.

Shack: Will there be a demo as well?

Doug Lombardi: I think so, I think so. Whether or not there will be a demo before or after is something we're still talking about. You know, most of the time we've done them afterwards, so we'll see where it falls.

Shack: What else is going on at Valve?

Doug Lombardi: Right now Left 4 Dead is our big game for this year. We'll be making some announcements probably at the end of the year in terms of what's happening beyond Left 4 Dead. But right now, we're going to keep pumping out new content for Team Fortress, and ship Left 4 Dead, and that's basically what's on tap for 2008. We've got some new stuff for Steam as well that we're gonna be announcing at the end of May.

Shack: What has the reception to Steamworks been like from developers?

Doug Lombardi: Going into GDC we announced the initiative itself, and we had a lot of people right away--we were sort of overloaded with interest from the developing and publishing community. So we sort of had to go back to the office and step up development of the SDK, which we just finally made available about two weeks ago now. We have a lot of folks evaluating that, and probably have some announcements to make over the next couple weeks for the first couple titles that will be doing a full implementation of Steamworks.

You know, parts of that stuff has been around in other games. I mean, Audiosurf has used the achievements, the Ninja Reflex guys on the PC use some of that stuff. Bits and pieces of Steamworks have already been implemented into third party games. But the more complete package being implemented and used, both in the Steam version and the retail version, that'll be sort of a new thing that we'll be announcing in the next couple weeks.

Turn the page for Lombardi's comments on Steamworks' impact, the future of Valve development, and the company's foray into micro-transaction titles. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Do you guys see Steamworks having a big impact on PC gaming?

Doug Lombardi: I hope so. I mean that's one of the goals of it. I mean for us, we built this whole suite of things that we're calling Steamworks to try to make--I mean, the original goal for Steam was to make the experience of playing on the PC better.

We had Counter-Strike getting huge, and every two months or so we wanted to put out an update, or code changes or new content. At the time we'd have like peak simultaneous players of about 50-60,000 players--obviously Counter-Strike has gotten a lot bigger than that now--but we would see it going from that level down to zero when we released the update in the patch form in the old days. And then over the next 48 hours we'd see it slowly creep back up while we all had anxiety attacks. And we were like, "Okay, we gotta fix this, we need to auto-update the games." And so that was the genesis of Steam--how do we get around that 48-hour anxiety-rollercoaster of updating the game and making it better, but for a short while, sort of breaking it.

You know, we're all getting old now, we all have kids, and obviously Left 4 Dead isn't a kids title.
So then we started looking at other things, like better server browsers, anti-piracy, anti-cheat, friends, all the community stuff. And we hear from a lot of people, "I wish all my games were on Steam." We've heard that from a lot of gamers, and a lot of people who have distributed their games on Steam. Publishers and developers who had [their game] out on retail first, they'd put it up on Steam and say, "Oh, can't we use Steam for all the server browsing?" or something similar to that. And they've gotten really positive feedback from their players.

So it was a natural thing--the feedback sort of pushed us to do this. It wasn't like, "We had this great idea three years ago where we were gonna do this." As we were deploying these different things, we were like, "It would probably make sense if we just wrapped this stuff up, and just gave it to developers to put out there." More people would use Steam, which benefits us, and hopefully folks playing those games will have a better experience, which will benefit those developers and publishers. So we're really optimistic about it. The fact that we're doing it based on positive feedback tells us that it should work, so we'll see.

Shack: You recently made some comments about a desire to branch out from the FPS genre. Is that something we should definitely expect, or was that just speculation?

Doug Lombardi: Oh I mean, a lot of it is just sort of speculation and talking about what we'd like to do next right now. We for a long, long time had interest in doing something in the MMORPG space, and interest in doing something that's a game that we could play with our kids.

You know, we're all getting old now, we all have kids, and obviously Left 4 Dead isn't a kids title. [laughs] So those are interests that we have, but they're not things we're getting ready to greenlight tomorrow. The Wii is something that we all play a lot, so there's interest in doing something for that platform. I think that if we put a team on something and said, "Let's do something interesting with what's cool about the Wii," I think that we're confident that we could come up with something cool. But it's all just consideration and conversation right now.

Shack: I was just over there playing Battlefield Heroes. Ever consider doing something under a free-to-play model?

Doug Lombardi: We're doing it right now with Counter-Strike Online with Nexon. You know, the free-to-play, micro-transaction model has a lot of sex appeal right now, because it's working in certain markets with certain games. We took a good long look at that and said, "That's working in Asia primarily, and it's working with a certain couple genres of games." RPGs obviously, card games.

No one's really done it effectively in the action space, and no one's really done it effectively on a wide-scale level in the Western world, outside of a very few set of examples. So when we said we wanted to take a closer look at that and experiment with that, we said, well, we have zero experience in that--

Shack: Well that's never stopped you guys before.

Doug Lombardi: [laughs] True. But the majority of our success has been in the Western world, Europe and North America. So we said we want to learn about this, and we want to experiment in this area. We have a couple good friends at Nexon, and we were always sort of talking with them and trying to figure out a project that we couple maybe work on together. They're doing a Source-based game with one of their action RPGs, so that was sort of the first thing we started doing together. And so they said, "What if we did a free-to-play Counter-Strike thing, and deployed it only in Asia, and sort of shared a lot of the information that was learned from that for future games from us, or a future version of CS or TF or who knows." And so we said, okay, that makes a lot of sense.

They actually just came out of beta and deployed Counter-Strike Online. And so we're going to learn a lot in the next couple months about what sort of success they had with one of our properties, and in the first-person action world, and what worked over there, and try to figure out what would translate coming over here. We're taking baby steps into the water with that.

Shack: Is that model something you'd consider directly applying to a Counter-Strike sequel over here?

Doug Lombardi: I mean we'll see. You know, my gut tells me that whatever the IP, the game probably needs to be developed with that model in mind. So whether it's a CS property, or TF, or some new property, I think what's more relevant is that the game needs to be thought of with that free-to-play, micro-transaction model in mind.

There are certain things that in the Western world we're accustomed to having off the bat from our games. I think that we're probably going to see a couple things fail before we see a lot of things work over here. Saying, "You only get a pistol until you open up your wallet"? I'm skeptical of that. I think there are other things that people would be more willing to pay for. So we'll see. I think it's just going to be a lot of trial and error, and things may hit at varying degrees of success before we see the big run-away, at least in the action space.

Check back with Shacknews next week for the latest hands-on impressions of Left 4 Dead.

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