Thursday, June 18, 2009

Valve & Left 4 Dead 2

I find that my decision on whether or not to purchase a PC game is largely dependent on its developer. Trailers, previews, reviews, walkthroughs, or any other type of press typically doesn’t sway me nearly as much as a developer’s track record. And when it comes to track records, very few PC game developers can compare to Valve Software.

In releasing Half-Life, Valve revolutionized the first-person shooter genre. The relatively unknown developer brought a new level of immersion to videogames in general through intelligent AI, realistic level design, an immaculate presentation, and a main character geared toward any and all end-users. Six years later, Valve released the sequel, Half-Life 2. Continuing with and improving upon the principles that made Half-Life so popular, Half-Life 2 also brought the use of physics as a gameplay element to the forefront of videogaming. Almost all developers, both big-budget and indie, have since adopted this concept, regardless of the genre or type of game they create.

Valve’s revolutionary philosophy, however, is not confined to its videogame design. Valve also popularized digital distribution with the creation of Steam, streamlining the update process that had proved to be problematic for online PC games, and allowing for end-users to purchase and download full games. Thirty publishers now distribute their games over Valve’s platform.

The number of contributions Valve has made to videogaming overall continues with other various innovations such as the art style in Team Fortress 2, in-game navigation in Portal, and cooperative play in Left 4 Dead. Suffice it to say that I’m a big fan of Valve. Each product they have released has stood out and changed the way I think about videogames in some way.

That is why I became concerned when Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2. Six years were spent in developing the single-player first-person shooter Half-Life 2. Ten years were spent in creating the artistically inspiring Team Fortress 2. Less than one year will have been spent on the development of Left 4 Dead 2.

I have no doubt that Left 4 Dead 2 will be a good, if not great game. I enjoy playing Left 4 Dead, and a game which builds upon and improves its experience will no doubt provide endless hours of fun. However, will Left 4 Dead 2 prove worthy of its pedigree? Will Left 4 Dead 2 make a contribution to PC gaming similar to past Valve games? Will the zombie apocalypse sequel, like those Valve games before it, change the way I think about PC gaming? From the little information that has been released, I am not confident that I can answer these questions in a positive manner. Features such as a new environment, improved AI Director, more weapons, and new zombie types are interesting. They do not however, seem revolutionary or innovative.

My concern however, does not end with the presence, or lack thereof, of original game design. In Team Fortress 2 Valve established a business model rarely seen before in the videogame industry. Almost two years after its release, Valve continues to release updates and new content for the cartoonish first-person shooter, free of charge. Through these updates, and free-to-play weekends, Valve continues to sell copies of their online shooter, justifying more free content and more free-to-play weekends for end-users. It is one of the few systems today that truly benefits all parties involved.

Instead of advocating and building upon this unique business model, Valve has decided to seemingly abandon it, in favor of a model upheld by the sports videogame industry. Left 4 Dead writer Chet Faliszek told Ars Technica, “It just became very clear that this was a cohesive, singular statement we wanted to make, not a more slow update thing… too much stuff was tied together with too many other things.” I can understand why Valve would not want to split up the new content into smaller, discrete updates. However, would providing the new Left 4 Dead 2 content free-of-charge not increase Left 4 Dead sales substantially? If the generated revenue from free Left 4 Dead 2 content would not justify the effort put into it, why can’t Valve delay Left 4 Dead 2 further? Why can’t Valve take the time to make those substantial and revolutionary changes that I have come to expect? Valve has often been criticized for its delays and not adhering to its release dates, but the results have always been worth the wait. From my viewpoint Valve is distancing itself from its revolutionary attitude, in favor of a path most traveled. As stated before, that concerns me.

That is not to say my apprehension extends to support of the L4D2 Boycott (NO-L4D2) Steam Group, now over 32,000 strong. I am not troubled about “continued updates to Left 4 Dead in order to build and sustain the community,” as stated in the NO-L4D2 charter. Nor am I upset that “Left 4 Dead 2 as a stand-alone sequel will split the communities and decrease the quality of multiplayer gaming.” If the communities are split, or even if one community dies, so be it. Enough people will exist for me to enter the zombie apocalypse and either survive or propagate it, depending on the situation. I believe the number of members in the L4D2 Boycott group proves this.

Simply put, PC gaming is a large part of my life, and Valve is one of the last remaining stalwarts in the PC game industry. I have no desire to support a PC game developer that disregards innovation as an objective. Nor do I have any desire to support a developer that follows the sports videogame business model. I must ask myself what state will the PC game industry be in, if one day I decide not to purchase a game because it was developed by Valve?

Perhaps I am off-base in my argument. Perhaps I am being overly concerned at a non-issue. There are certainly more knowledgeable people than me making the decisions at Valve. However, I still can’t help but worry.

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