With only a week to go until Portal 2 warps into stores (and maybe even less if those ARG rumours prove correct), excitement for Valve’s next game has hit fever pitch. But there are still some unanswered questions. How exactly does Steam integration work on PS3? Why wasn’t Steam brought to Xbox 360? And where on Earth is Half-Life 2: Episode Three? We sat down with Valve programmer Jeep Barnett to get to the bottom of it.
GamerZines: We’ve been playing the PlayStation 3 version of Portal 2 today, a console that Valve has been quite critical of in the past but seems to be embracing for Portal 2. Why has it taken so long for Valve to develop for PS3, and have there been any challenges in doing so?
Jeep Barnett, Programmer, Valve: Well, the biggest challenge way back with Orange Box was that we literally did not have enough people or hours in the day to develop for PS3. We just didn’t have the people to dedicate to doing multiple console ports. But that was like four years ago, and Valve’s grown a lot since then; we totally have the manpower to pull it off now. And I think that’s the main part. It’s all about what we can focus on. We don’t want to do two really crappy ports, we want to do one good port, and now that we have enough people we can actually pull off two really good ports. I don’t know if you could even call it a port, we’ve been developing for all three platforms simultaneously. So that’s a big part of it.
GZ: The PS3 version includes Steamworks functionality which, on the face of it, gives it the edge over the 360 version.
JB: Uh huh, I think so.
GZ: And it also provides PS3 players with a copy of the PC version for free. How does that process work? Is there a Steam key included in the box to download the PC version, or is a copy gifted to you once you link your Steam account in the PS3 game?
JB: We’re going to send out some more details on that, but when you buy the PS3 version there’ll be a key code in the box, and when you first bring up Steamworks in the PS3 game, that allows you to link your Steam account with your PSN account. That’s where you punch in the code, and once you’ve used that code it’s spent. With that link, you automatically own the game for PC and you can download it on any PC or Mac that you have. If you don’t have a Steam account you can instantly create one through a quick sign up, and then you can activate that later as a full Steam account on your PC.
GZ: Do you need the code to access co-op in the PS3 version, or can you simply play through PSN without touching Steam?
JB: You have to create a Steam account, which again can be via that quick create where all you’re doing is clicking a button saying ‘hey, I wanna play’. You don’t need to input the code. You don’t even need to have a full Steam account.
GZ: So someone buying a second hand copy of the PS3 version would still have access to the co-op even if the code has already been redeemed?
JB: Yes, they would.
GZ: Does that leave the system open to abuse? Let’s say I want to pick up the PC version. Are there any measures stopping me from buying the PS3 version, linking the code to my Steam account, immediately selling back the PS3 game to a store and effectively getting a PC copy for next to nothing?
JB: No, I don’t think there’s anything that would prevent that. We’re willing to take the risk that someone might jump through all those hoops to create what we think is a really compelling feature that people are going to like.
GZ: There seem to be big differences in functionality across each of the platforms. A PS3 user with a code can access the features of Steamworks and play cross-play co-op, but only access PS3-to-PS3 co-op without. Meanwhile every PC gamer is given the ability to play with their PS3 friends, while the 360 user is restricted solely to their console. Is there a worry that the current integration of the tech could confuse some players?
JB: Yes, it is confusing and it’s kind of scary that it’s come to this point and how isolated all these different platforms are. Everybody’s gamers, everybody wants to play the games and everybody wants to play them together, and we’re just trying to facilitate that. It is a little tricky trying to explain it and there are a lot of these little ‘what if’ situations.
GZ: Do the PS3 hacks potentially pose a risk to the Steam network as a whole now that Steamworks is being integrated into the console?
JB: From what I know of the system, I don’t believe so, but if I could leave it at no comment I would be much happier. But just to reassure you, no.
GZ: Did Valve talk to Microsoft about bringing Steamworks to Xbox 360?
JB: You know, I didn’t join the Portal 2 team until just a couple of months ago, and by then all those talks were already done so I don’t actually know.
GZ: Presumably you’d love to bring Steamworks to Xbox 360 if you could, though?
JB: Oh yeah, that would be awesome. The thing that I don’t know is whether we asked and they said no, or whether we didn’t ask. With the PS3, integrating Steam is an experiment. I think that we’ll be able to get some real data out of that to see not only if people like it but if it’s a commercially viable thing and whether it’s an important feature that people want. If Microsoft sees that and sees that it is working and that it actually is as important as I think that it is, then I don’t think they’ll have a reason to say no. We’ll see where it goes in the future.
GZ: Have pre-orders for the PS3 version increased significantly over other platforms since the Steamworks announcement?
JB: Unfortunately I haven’t seen the pre-order numbers.
GZ: Chet recently called the integration of Steamworks on PS3 the "first step". What ideas do you have for developing Steamworks on PS3, and would you like to see Steamworks – or perhaps the whole Steam platform -be fully supported and available on the next-generation of consoles from day one?
JB: You know, we would love that. Part of that is up to the platform holders and essentially what they’d allow us to do. This is the first step, it’s more of an experiment, kind of like everything we do here. We just want to put the most we can get away with onto the platform and do it as an experiment and see if the customers like it. I feel like it’s going to be like a win for Sony and a win for Valve. I think it’s going to be something that’ll create a lot more value and make the PS3 version the standout version on consoles. If that continues to be a successful thing we’ll keep moving it forward. If we’re wrong and it’s awful and everybody hates cross-play and Sony is angry for whatever reason then we’ll go a different direction, but I have a feeling it’s going to be successful. The first time I played cross-play from PC to PS3 it was like magic. I’d done a bit of the programming myself, but it was like, wow. It felt like a big milestone in bringing gamers together in one big happy family. I thought it was cool.
GZ: How can you see the platform developing on PS3?
JB: We were talking earlier about being able to buy the game for PS3 and have a linked version for PC and Mac as well. Well, we’d love to go the other way with it. Say you buy it on PC and then you have a downloadable version for PS3. That would be beautiful and is something that I would personally like to see next. But there are a lot of other things too. Right now you’re able to chat with your Steam friends while you’re playing Portal 2, but there’s currently no way to do that outside of the Portal 2 game. I’d like to see even more Steam features that are linked within the PS3/PSN interface itself. But, again some of this stuff is up to the platform holders and what they’ll let us do. We’ll just keep negotiating and finding out what’s basically a big win for the customers and what drives people to enjoy all these different features.
GZ: Portal 2′s co-op seems set up to allow you to easily add extra levels. Presumably we might be seeing some post-launch DLC?
JB: For Xbox 360 downloadable we did the full game plus an additional ten bonus maps. Those came out of the mod community, someone actually made those maps and we were like, ‘these maps are awesome, we want to buy them’. We cleaned them up and changed them quite a bit. They’re actually not the same as what you played on PC. So I think we’re going to look at the community and see what they’re doing as well as the reaction and reception to Portal 2 in general to figure out what we want to do next. If people really love the co-op and don’t like the single-player we’ll focus more on that, or if they want more single-player and not as much co-op we’ll focus on that. I think like any of our games, we’ll be thinking about on-going content and what we want to do with that, but what that looks like yet I don’t know. It’s essentially going to be a reaction to what our fans have in mind.
GZ: Why is the co-op element of Portal 2 being pushed so much harder than the single-player?
JB: I think the main thing is that we feel like we’ve already won over the people who liked the single-player on Portal 1. They know that they’re going to enjoy Portal 2. The co-op is a new thing that people might not be aware of or even completely sold on. We just have the feeling that it’s a much more important feature than people might be aware of, and we’re trying to bring in those fans of Portal 1 who wouldn’t necessarily try out the multiplayer, as well as reach a new crowd who are more into the co-operative gameplay and who never played Portal 1. So that’s why the focus has been there.
GZ: We’ve been told previously that Valve had originally considered competitive multiplayer for Portal 2 but that the team couldn’t get it to work. Is competitive multiplayer something you’d like to explore again in future Portal titles or have you concluded that it doesn’t really suit the game?
JB: I think that it’s possible. We were actually trying competitive modes in Portal 1 and our instinct was to give everybody guns and a portal gun and see what happens. It was fun for about 30 seconds and then it was immediately not fun after that. I think given the right rule sets and goals there probably is something there, but we’ve tried a lot of different things and none of them have been successful. We don’t want to just throw in a random mode that we feel is something people will play for 10 minutes and then never go back to, so if we do ship one it’ll have to be something we really like and feel like it has legs. We’re always working on it. We haven’t struck gold yet but we’re still mining!
GZ: We seem to have reached the point where there’s a noticeable difference in visual quality between higher-end PC games and their console ports, and that’s also true of Portal 2. Do you think we’ll see another Portal on this generation of consoles, or would the team rather hold off until the next gen where they can really explore the possibilities a game like Portal offers?
JB: I feel that we absolutely could do another game on the platforms that exist as they do now, not just with Portal but in terms of other games that Valve is developing. I don’t think that’s something that would prevent us from making a game. We wouldn’t say we’re not going to ship this until the next generation comes out. A lot of the stuff that we do scales to the very high end PCs and the very low end PCs, and the consoles are somewhere in the middle. Even as PCs continue to advance in technology, I feel like the high end keeps pushing up but we hold the middle exactly where it is. We still like to keep a lot of support for people with low end PCs. There are some people on Steam who are just playing PopCap games and 2D stuff like World of Goo, and we like to capture that market as well. We don’t want to essentially just throw them away. So I think there’ll always be room to support the consoles.
GZ: Is that other game you mentioned Dota 2?
JB: Dota 2 is PC only as far as I know, but don’t take my word for it.
GZ: So you’ve got another 360/PS3 project in the works that isn’t Dota 2?
JB: Er.. we’ve got other stuff coming.
GZ: Gabe said recently that Dota 2 would be the next game released by Valve after Portal 2. That’s due at the end of 2011. Does that mean that we won’t see Half-Life 2: Episode 3 until 2012 at the earliest?
JB: I agree with Gabe, I think that Dota 2 is probably going to be our next game. We don’t necessarily line things up in terms of, until this ships we cannot ship something else. Sometimes some things will cross paths. Orange Box was a weird case. Portal was actually going to ship first out of the products that were in there, but because it was all landing within a month or two of each other we thought we should really just combine them together. But given a slightly different set of circumstances it could have been the other way around; Portal could have shipped outside The Orange Box or who knows what. So yeah, those things aren’t set in stone but as things look right now I think Dota 2 is our next game.
GZ: If the titles align again would Valve do another Orange Box-type compilation in the future, or would you want to ship the games separately now that they’ve each established themselves as worthy franchises?
JB: I don’t think we would necessarily need to do it again, but it was a circumstantial thing that worked out really well and so I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t. There are no plans for it, but if the planets align again I think we probably could.
GZ: Last year Gabe said that he thought Portal 2 was the best game Valve had ever made. Do you agree with that?
JB: I have a different way of phrasing it but I think it’s the same answer. When you work on a game long enough, at a certain point you become almost sick of it or all you can see is the flaws. That’s true of all games, including Portal 2. There are faults that I see in it where I wish we could have done this or added this cool thing, but on a relative scale I’m happier with Portal 2 than any other game I’ve worked on. I feel that this one is just so much farther ahead than anything else I’ve ever done before. I’m excited and I’m really happy with the game. I think it’s one of our best games.
Portal 2 releases in the UK next Thursday, April 21st on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
Tags: Portal 2
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