Orange Box Designer Commentary

Valve first tried out designer commentary with the Lost Coast standalone demo. Apparently it was such a big success that they decided to do the same for all the games in the Orange Box.

Now Valve is a group of some very, very smart people, and it shows.


Escape from City 17 at the end of Half-Life: Episode One.

Generic behind-the-scenes specials tend to tell the same old story: the development cycle was hectic, but the team eventually persevered and released a great product (even if it was a little flawed and missing some features). In between all that you might come across an interesting tid-bit or two, but don’t expect any mind blowing revelations.

The commentary on the Orange Box, though, is full of pure-gold nuggets. In fact, playing through its four commentary-enabled titles will probably teach you more about various aspects of videogame production than any game design book. If you haven’t checked it out but are in any way interested in videogame design, I urge you to do so now.

Here are just a few segments I picked out:

ep1_citadel_000008“[Matt T. Wood] To convey a sense of urgency, we originally designed Alyx to nag the player pretty frequently. She’d say things like ‘Hurry up!’ and ‘Keep moving!’ Whether or not this created a sense of urgency is debatable. But after about three minutes of this, the one thing it definitely did was make the player hate Alyx. This was one of the observations that eventually led us to switch Alyx from generally leading players to almost always following. Through playtesting we discovered that players much preferred to set the pace themselves and that they especially disliked virtually any hint of bossiness from Alyx.”
ep1_citadel_030108“[Greg Coomer] The core was a central element of this part of the game, and, as much as possible, we wanted to constantly reinforce its importance. Zigzagging through the space in three dimensions while navigating a variety of challenges let us present a few different visual and gameplay perspectives on the same space. By letting the player see the core from a bunch of different angles, we were able to give them a real sense of its scale.”
ep1_citadel_040160“[Matt T. Wood] We wanted the crashed train car to be very disorienting. In early tests, though, players felt that it was too confusing and too hard to navigate. That feedback prompted us to tone it down a bit. By rearranging some of the geometry, we were able to create a banged up, tilted environment that still offered a relatively unobstructed path to Alyx.”
ep1_c17_010191“[Charlie Brown] We populate our environments with spots where players can take a break to look out over an expanse of cool scenery. We call these ‘vistas’.”
ep2_outland_010044“[Joe Han] From the beginning of Episode 2’s design, we intended for Alyx to be gravely injured and fall into a coma. However, the timing and nature of her injury changed dramatically. In the earliest version, the player woke to find Alyx already unconscious. We wanted the player to be unsure of what to do, but instead this turned out to be merely confusing. In the next iteration, Alyx balanced precariously in the train car near the player, only to slip and fall as the train shifted. This was unsatisfying because we have painted Alyx as tough and agile; having her injured in a fall seemed arbitrary and impersonal. We kept trying to add a stronger emotional aspect to her injury — something that would give rise to anger and fear. Around this time, the Hunters were coming online, and we were having trouble giving them a really powerful introductory moment. Solving both problems at the same time, we introduced the Hunters as the cause of Alyx’s injury.”
ep2_outland_01a0055“[Carl Uhlman] In early tests, playtesters didn’t realize that antlion grubs drop health nuggets, since they tended to pick up the nuggets by accident after squishing the grubs. In order to showcase the feature, we placed a grub on the far side of this webbing. When a player breaks the web, they squish the grub and send the nugget rolling. Most players chase the nugget and naturally understands how to exploit grubs in the future.”
ep2_outland_040060“[Jason Holtman] When the vortigaunt discover the extract, we wanted to do something to distinguish the nectar from all the other glowy alien substances we’ve seen in the caves so far. Therefore we had him perform a bit of a chant, and had the extract give off a show of its own.”
ep2_outland_020092“[Tim Larkin] We sometimes use sounds to set a mood rather than to literally underscore the onscreen action. The G-Man sequence, for example, relies heavily on the use of abstract and ambient sounds. We wanted the soundscape to have the deadened, internalized quality you get from putting your hands over your ears, so we started with recordings from inside a womb. If you listen closely, you can hear internal gurgling noises as well as muffled heartbeats. We then added various other effects around the rhythm of the heartbeat, plus long tailed reverb. None of the door or transition effects are literal interpretations, but are obscure metal and feedback sounds created to work in sync with the observable action. All of these things contribute to the scene’s dreamlike quality.”
ep2_outland_070118“[Nick Maggiore] The barn scene was critical both to this episode and to the development of Advisors as characters in the series. They represent another intersection of story and gameplay concerns. This is the first time the player actually interacts with an Advisor, and determining the right level of interactivity was tricky, especially given the player’s reasonable expectation that he’ll get to fight them directly at some point. Therefore, we wanted to show that they were powerful but not invulnerable. This was a long-term goal. For the short term, we wanted to get the player familiar with some Advisor behavior so that when the episode finale occurred, they would already understand how Advisors operate. By showing the Advisor fumbling with an inert object, then a dead rebel, and finaly grabbing the player, we allow the player to observe behavior, and then gradually make it more and more of a direct threat. This all serves as foreshadowing for the episode’s finale.”
ep2_outland_12a0149“[Gary McTaggart] The launch of Magnusson’s rocket ties directly into the rocket Gordon launched at Black Mesa. Here, the portal satellite array that opened a gate to Xen in Half-Life One has been repurposed to shut the Combine out.”
testchmb_a_000004“[Robin Walker] Portal is effectively an extended player training exercise. We spend a huge portion of the game introducing a series of gameplay tools, then layering these tools into increasingly difficult puzzles. This layering starts here, where we train the button/box mechanic before introducing the more complicated concept of portals.”
testchmb_a_020008“[Nick Maggiore] Early versions of Portal featured more detailed, cluttered environments, much like Half Life 2. We quickly realized that unnecessary objects scattered all over the place distracted players to the point where it actually interfered with the portal training process. So we simplified the art style to favor clean, focused test chambers. The modular approach we settled on makes it look plausible that the chambers can reform dynamically on these pistons.”
testchmb_a_030014“[Jeep Barnett] Originally, these scaffolds ran on electrified tracks. But, crafty playtesters would hop along the rails to the exit, bypassing the puzzle entirely. We tried to solve this by killing players as soon as they touched the rails. That solution ended up being too much of an over correction, as even skilled playtesters were getting frustrated by these one-hit kills in the more complex puzzles later in the game. Making the scaffolds run along immaterial beams of light solved both problems.”
testchmb_a_110003“[Erik Wolpaw] Even though Portal tells a simple story, we created a lot of backstory — for Aperture Science, for its employees, for its rivalry with the hated Black Mesa, and for where all of this fits into the cosmology of Half Life. This first Portal game doesn’t reveal all of it, but we crammed a lot of little details into the environments. This area, for instance, called the Ratman Den, hints that there may be other people trapped in the facility.”
testchmb_a_150001“[Eric Wolpaw] Before the player escapes the fire pit, the AI dialog is all delivered in a computerized monotone. After the escape, however, GLaDOS gets progressively more expressive until, by the end, she’s cycling through a whole mess of emotions.”
escape_020009“[Eric Wolpaw] The fiction behind this red phone is that, while GLaDOS was being developed, it was somebody’s job to sit by it, and, if it ever looked like the AI was becoming sentient and godlike, that person would pick up the phone and call somebody to come help. At the point in the time where the actual game takes place, it’s become obvious that the Aperture Science Red Phone plan didn’t 100% work out.”
tc_hydro0009“[Andrea Wicklund] The more your art direction can use well-understood visual representations, the less work you have to do to explain your game elements. Put the massive Heavy next to the pinstripe-suited Spy, and players understand both the numerical health differences between the classes and their very different gameplay styles. The medic’s healing beam was understood by playtesters when they saw the floating red plus symbols streaming into the target. A stylized fiction can easily explain why the team’s bases are built right next to each other. Finally, a TF2 screenshot is easily recognizable, ensuring that no one will confuse it with another of our games.”
cp_well0015“[Iikka Keranen] We build our 3d skyboxes at 1/16th scale to reduce the memory used by the large spaces in them. This means we have to get a little tricky when dealing with trains moving between the skybox and the player space. There are actually two versions of each moving train; a player-scaled one for the actual gameplay space, and a tiny one out in the skybox. The small repair sheds on either side of the middle building disguise the point at which we swap between the two trains.”
cp_gravelpit0020“[Charlie Brown] The sniper rifle was another tricky design problem. To meet players’ expectations, a sniper rifle has to be able to kill an opponent with a single shot to the head. On the flip side, we need to ensure it can’t be snap fired from the hip with the same effect, because then, in the hands of an experienced player, it also becomes the game’s most lethal short range weapon, negating the Sniper’s primary weakness. To solve this, we implemented a charging damage meter that only appears when the sniper is zoomed. This solution has several beneficial side effects: the low damage both while un-zoomed and at the initial zoom ensures that Snipers can’t kill opponents with impromptu snap fire. The charge time means Snipers can deal out low damage shots quickly or highly damaging shots at slow intervals, which allows opponents to overwhelm them with a coordinated rush. The high damage at the end of the charge rewards Sniper-esque behaviors, such as locating a decent vantage point and taking very deliberate shots.”

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