Gameranx: There's been an odd lack of traditional “OMG VALVE” hype leading up to Portal 2's release. Instead, it's been this almost dismissive “ok, that's great. When's Half Life 2: Episode 3 coming out?” type of attitude. Why do you think that is – especially considering the modern classic status that the original Portal has attained?
Joshua Weier: Well, you know, actually, sitting here in the booth all day and just being involved in it, I have a pretty different take on that. I mean, people are super excited from what we've seen. You know, we're talking about April 19 being the release date, so I think as we get closer, it's getting more real.
I mean, people are always excited for our games, so of course they want all those. But Portal 1 was such a huge game, and maybe fans are worried [Portal 2's] not quite going to be what they want it to. But everybody who comes to the booth is super pumped and super excited for this. We think it's going to be a pretty big deal.
Compared to other titles in our industry's glitz-and-glamor-ridden triple-A sector, you've been fairly secretive about your game's content. Do you think the traditional videogame hype cycle is broken? Does having marketers spill the beans on all but the final two seconds of a game only serve to dull its impact when you're finally playing it?
You know, that's a hard one. I always have this discussion with myself when I'm watching movie trailers and whatnot. But we've done a lot of work to make sure there are still a ton of surprises. We try to take things out of context when we can. You know, you've seen some cool things, but you don't have the whole picture. So when you actually are playing the game, you see it all together and it's fresh and new. So we try not to trample on everything. We really want fans to have that experience. And a lot of people are like “hey, I haven't been checking out the videos. I'm already going to buy it [regardless].” And that's totally cool by us.
You've called Portal 2 a “full experience” – a full-blown meal compared to the original's light snack. What exactly does that mean, though?
Well, it's kind of tough to talk about hours, because when you talk to people about Portal 1, some people got through in what they felt was pretty quickly, and others took a while. But talking relationally, if you think of the whole length of Portal 1, just the single-player component of Portal 2 is about two-and-a-half-to-three-times larger than that. And the co-op is two times larger than Portal 1 as well. There's a lot of new content there.
And as you can see, the art has been upgraded massively. We have new characters and a lot more writing. There's just a lot more of the world for people to enjoy.
Portal 2's in kind of an odd spot in that the original was practically a cultural phenomenon, primarily thanks to a number of extremely iconic moments – for example, “the cake is a lie,” Still Alive, and the weighted companion cube. Is there any sort of pressure there? How have you approached fan expectations for cameos and things like that? How has that affected the way you've created the game?
Well, I think the big thing we didn't want to do was try and create a bunch of memes. We didn't want to sit down and go “ok, this is going to be the new companion cube,” because first of all, that was going to fail. It would've felt really forced. So our biggest thing going into it was to make sure the game was really good and to really make sure the writing was good and really funny. You know, just kind of let the game speak for itself. And I think people are going to find the parts that are interesting to them. I think it's kind of funny, because even if we tried to figure out what fans are going to grab onto, it's going to be something different.
You've said that Portal 2 will be more complex, but still retain roughly the same difficulty level. At the same time, though, I've seen a few puzzles that – at first glance – made me want to consult my local rocket scientist. Can you give an example of how you're keeping the difficulty in check?
In the first game, a lot of the length came from the number of mechanics, because if we're going to introduce a new mechanic, we have to train you on it, make sure you understand it, and then let you use it a bit. So, for Portal 2, we've added a bunch of new mechanics, so of course we have that same amount of training for each mechanic. As a result, the game grows larger.
But the thing that's different this time around is that a lot of the mechanics kind of add into each other, so for instance, the gels and the excursion funnels can be used together in a way that you don't exactly expect. So there's a lot of complexity there too – just seeing how things move together. It was really important for us to make sure that people weren't running off to the Internet to figure things out or bash their heads against the wall, because we feel like that's a failure. We just want people to get a little frustrated, but then get to the other side and feel really smart.
The original Portal did a number of revolutionary things both large and small, and obviously found massive success because of that. Why do you think more games haven't followed in its robo-augmented footsteps? For instance, your storytelling method and lack of a violent focus in a first-person setting haven't really shown up anywhere else.
I'm not sure. You know, it has been interesting. Like, we expected a lot of follow-ons to the Portal formula, but we haven't really seen them – like you said. I think Portal is just this combination of surprise and the writing and the gameplay. I think that's just a really potent combination, and we're really lucky to have really good writers.
You've chosen to focus on user-created, mod-based content straight out of the gate, and that seems to be something many developers aren't really prioritizing very highly these days. Do you think other developers are underestimating the value of robust community generated content – or even their communities in general?
I think if you look at Team Fortress 2 right now, I mean, TF started as kind of like – I mean, we've been supporting that game for years now, and the fanbase has grown and grown. And now we've moved to the point where fans are making maps, fans are making hats, and we're kind of giving them more ways to get that out. So that's been awesome for us. I mean, the stuff that our fans have been making is incredible, so why not get it out to everybody else and just let them support the game in that way? And we really want to keep that going with Portal 2. There were just so many cool maps and things that came out for the first Portal, and we want to keep that for Portal 2 as well.
So is that your plan for post-release content, or are you planning official DLC as well?
We do want to have official DLC. We're not announcing the whens and the whats just yet, but we definitely want to support it that way as well.
Of all your possible games and franchises, why did you decide to really hitch a horse to the console bandwagon with Portal 2? Why was that sort of the one where you finally said “ok, we're going to develop the console version ourselves,” etc?
Well, I think coming out of the Orange Box, we felt pretty good about all our versions, but the PS3 version's players told us they weren't happy with it and they didn't feel it was up-to-par. We really took that to heart, so this time around, we were pretty familiar with the Xbox from Left 4 Dead and everything else, and this time we really wanted to do the PS3.
The other big thing was that PS3 had Steamworks integration. We really wanted to get that right and make sure Steamworks on PS3 worked really well. We were really happy with the cross-play that we were able to achieve. So like, you're on a PS3 and you can play with somebody on a Mac or a PC, and it doesn't seem different to you. You're just playing with friends.
Speaking of Steamworks on PS3, what does that entail, exactly?
Right, so inside the game menu, you hit a button and it brings up the Steam overlay. If you're familiar with the PC version, it's very much like that. So you can see your friends list and your Steam achievements listed in there. We're also doing cloud saved games, so that you don't need anything other than Steam. It'll back your games up and you can take them somewhere else.
Even between PS3 and PC/Mac?
No, we decided not to go that route. There were some technical difficulties there, and we may expand into that in the future. But for right now, if you go from one PS3 to another, it'll keep you up-to-date.
Obviously, Microsoft wasn't quite so gung-ho about letting Steamworks infiltrate the Xbox. Do you think such a restrictive policy is a big mistake on Microsoft's part?
Well, I think we're going to see how fans react. People have reacted really well to the cross-play and just having Steam integration, so I think we'll be able to watch Portal 2 and see how that goes, and I think that'll affect how everybody's looking at that.
Valve's got an absolutely fantastic writing staff, and it shows in the quality and broad appeal of your games. Do you think that's key for the rest of the industry, though? Going forward, do you think big-budget games will follow your example and put a special focus on writing?
That's a tough one, because writing just by itself – I mean, we could throw a book at the designers and say, “hey, make this work.”
But integrating writing within the context of the game. Because that's something else Valve does incredibly well: you make the storyteller suit the story.
It's tough. Every game is different. For Portal, we wanted to keep that sort of intimacy that the first game had where GlaDOS was speaking directly to you. So when we set out to develop it, that meant having designers and writers both sit down at the same desk and try to design something. And by the time they were done, they'd designed something completely different that was ten times better. So for us, it's not just integration of the story into the game; it's integration of the writers into the teams. That's been huge for us, and I wouldn't want to work any other way.
On an entirely unrelated note: Wheatley. He's hilarious, but he talks. A lot. Are you at all worried that he might get, well, annoying?
Sure, that's always been a concern for us. Pacing throughout the whole game is a big deal. The first game was pretty small, so when you played it, you got to the end and felt like “ok, that was a good piece.” But as we made the game bigger, we didn't just want to extend it so that you'd get half-way through and be like “oh my god, I can't take anymore.”
So the writing is a big piece of that. The characters are a big piece of that. So Wheatley will come in and talk to you. He'll interact with you. But when we get to the point where he's maybe been around too long, we make sure you get a break from him. And it's the same thing with puzzles. You don't want someone talking to you when you're trying to figure something out, so we're really careful about that. That's been a big focus for us.