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References:Valve employee emails

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This page mirrors email conversations made between fans and current or former Valve employees. The legitimacy of these messages have been verified by OverWiki staff.

Conversations

Anonymous Valve employee[a]

On the Sackticks

Hi Graham,

I wouldn't necessarily say that the storyline was much darker in the early days of HL2 development. The art was darker in the literal sense -- with more browns and greys -- but I wouldn't say the storyline was darker. If anything, as we condensed and refined the story to be more about the oppressive Combine occupation, the tone became more serious and mature (in my opinion).

I remember lots of interesting things from the early days, a surprising number of which are somehow already out on the Half-life wiki. The sack ticks were an early monster that resembled dog sized real-world antlions:

Antlion real.jpg

Multiple sack ticks would leap onto a person and attach to them, draining them of blood until they died. We cut sack ticks for reasons that I can't recall, probably the overall design moved in a different direction and they hadn't proven to be fun enough to preserve. Then much later we created the antlions that shipped with HL2, which, amusingly, in no way resembled real-world antlions. Another tidbit about the sack tick: I implemented the first draft of the crow AI and since we didn't have a crow model yet, I used the old sack tick model. So there were sack ticks crawling around, cawing like crows, and generally acting like crows. It was a little creepy.

The only development branches that I'm aware of are personal branches that were used for trying out new features without disrupting the team. Other than that, the whole team worked in the main branch until shipping.

Particularly early on, the driving segment of the game was set in a dried-up sea floor. The wide open nature of that setting proved less compatible with HL2's highly crafted moment-to-moment experiences, so we replaced it with the coast so that water could serve as a natural boundary.

Source  (July 2016)

T.K. Backman

On his video game work

Gabe Newell, TK Backman and Ken Birdwell worked together at Microsoft on the Information Highway PC project prior to Valve Software, LLC. being created. Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington founded Valve Software LLC. In 1996 immediately after leaving Microsoft entirely using their own personal resources. Ted Backman was hired as employee #3 after graduating from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree and showing prowess at drawing tentacled horrors. Ken Birdwell was hired as employed #5 after leaving his Microsoft contract work for the IHPC project and become Valve's primary developer and technical leader.T.K. Backman, Ted's older brother, joined Valve software as a consultant in 1997 and worked on HL1, HL2, episodes and the Valve Dev Tools, while working fulltime for Microsoft on the Windows OS team. Later, T.K. became a Valve permanent employee and worked on the Source Engine, Development Tools, Portal and the Orange Box, after finishing work on Windows Vista. After over a year at Valve as an FTE, TK decided to revert to contractor status and took time off from development before eventually returning to Microsoft to lead dev teams on Windows 7, 8, Kinect, and Xbox One. As of 2016, Ken, Ted and TK are all “retired” and pursuing personal activities.
Source  (August 15, 2016)

Les Betterley

On his video game work

When I worked at valve I started doing animations. Mostly kill shot animations for Half-Life and made a bunch before being moved onto the Prospero Project. Then Valve made the decision to focus its attention on Half-Life and my position became tentative as I was allocated to Prospero. I worked on a few more models and then for Half-Life then decided to go to Looking Glass and work on a smaller team.
Source  (August 18, 2016)

Wes Cumberland

On his video game work

I was an intern at Valve while we were shipping Half-Life. I was still attending the University of Washington then.

So as the intern, I took care of the computers, source control, and email. From time to time I had to lug giant (and very heavy) 21" CRT monitors from our supplier to the office too. I also wrote code in the installer and wrote a few file-handling routines in the game itself. I also worked on a program to generate reports of a Team Fortress match after it was complete and did some gameplay coding in Team Fortress Classic too.

Source  (September 22, 2016)

Stephen Dennis

On his video game work

To summarize my modest role, ...

Independent contract work on just the 1998 version for the last few months leading up to September. I worked on Ichthyosaur behaviors, particularly in closed, tight spaces, a BMP image loader for the sky (which they ended up not using for some reason), how they were generating and using random numbers (quality and also that all cases available were possible), and best of all, key improvements to a part of their pathing.

When I started, choosing a route across all the navigational nodes took 300-1500ms. Obviously, the game is not fun if it just hangs for a second randomly. They were using Dijkstra, and every node has to be visited. There were separate graphs depending on hull size and whether the NPC can open doors or not. So you get a dozen headcrab randomly bouncing against a door they can't open, and you're kinda done.

But I noticed that given the placement of navigational nodes, there are several kinds of redundancy that can exploited. So, I did the Dijkstra thing once, compressed the result down into a compact form (about 25KB per level) for use ever after. The routing query became essentially free. And, anyway, you don't need a full route to begin moving anyway -- just the next three or four points in order to plan the corners correctly. As the game changes, invariable, your route will also change.

They had been relying more heavily on local movement and 'check lateral cover' and because a full-blow routing query took so long which made coding behaviors tedious and kinda lame. Now that the routing query was free, the human grunts could take proper point around a target in a semi-circle, check for cover once. So, while I did not implement the human grunt behavior, the plumbing work I did made some of it possible.

So, yeah, the Ichthyosaur was cute, but I'm not sure whether, in the end, that really mattered. The path work was a big deal and probably optimal. I'm sure that code has been enhanced, replaced, re-purposed by now.

Source  (August 15, 2016)

Joe Kennebec

On his video game work

What was my role at Valve? I guess the best job title to describe the breadth of my work over three years would be: "Unsolicited Advisor, Barely Tolerated". I mostly got paid with free food and coupons for government cheese, plus some office furniture and other things they were throwing away. Once I got a crate of cheap blenders they had accidentally ordered for their kitchen.

I worked on Half-Life, Half-Life Deathmatch, Team Fortress Classic, HL: Opposing Forces and HL: Blue Shift, and The Gunmen.

I was a friend of Mike Harrington. As a favor to him, I came in during the last months of Half-Life to assist Erik Johnson with on-site QA. At the time I was a Test Lead at Microsoft, so I took some vacation, and then some unpaid leave, and then I just stopped going to work. Some months later I remembered to send them a letter of resignation.

I had a great time shipping Half-Life, but probably only because I didn't have to kill myself for two years like the rest of the team - I only had to stress for a couple of months. On the other hand, Mike Harrington still owes me money. A lot of money.

When Half-Life finally shipped, everybody was so relieved and happy and punch drunk, they let me be in a group picture with all the employees that shipped Half-Life, and invited me to their company retreat in Mexico. They have regretted this ever since. (Footnote 1)

So much so, in fact, that they kept bringing me back over and over again as punishment. I helped with the international releases of HL, where Erik Johnson and I worked 48-hour stints, building and testing installers for different languages. I used my high school French to badly translate installer strings. Somewhere out there is an original French version of HL where the installer asks you "Etes-vous sûr de vouloir écraser nos baignoires?" ("Are you sure you want to overwrite the contents of our bathtubs?")

I came back to work on Team Fortress Classic, where I was a terrible, terrible sniper. David Sawyer once asked me if I was left handed, and if so, why not try shooting with that hand. I provided a lot of design input on both the Engineer and the Plumber, a class that I came up with myself. My input was was aggressively ignored, much to the betterment of all mankind. Robin Walker later described by contributions, stating "Who? I don't recognize that name." I once looked up from my computer to see John Cook standing in the doorway of my office, shaking his head sadly (Footnote 2).

In a fit of amnesia, Valve sent me down to Texas to work with Gearbox in the final stages of HL: Opposing Force. In theory, my job was to insure that OP "met Valve quality standards" (Gabe Newell: "If you embarrass me I will personally kill all of your children." I am pretty sure he was talking about OP) and to "protect canon" (Marc Laidlaw : "Make sure their storyline doesn't contradict anything from HL. Or that I have ever written. Or that you think I might plan to write. Or that would keep us from making a movie. In fact... see if you can get them to make it all just a dream, like on Dallas.")

At Gearbox, they were (ignorantly) much more receptive to my design input. It was my idea to have Adrian Shephard pass through a broken version of the Half-Life training course, although they ignored on my suggestion to have the holographic guide shout like a carnival barker with a German accent. As Rob Heironimus remembers, "What he specifically said was 'I think you should have that Abraham guy do something funny.' Anything else he tells you is, essentially, a lawsuit."

In fact, Gearbox was so impressed with my work on OP (Randy Pitchford: "He drank all of our Dr. Pepper. Literally - all of it.") that they actually gave me credits in Blue Shift, too, despite the fact that my only contribution was the pizza they got when I had it delivered and then locked myself out of office. Also, I forgot to tell them that Valve hadn't actually sent me to work on Blue Shift; I had really missed a connecting flight in Dallas and took a bus to their offices, looking for someplace to spend the night.

We don't talk about The Gunman Chronicles. (Footnote 3)

1. Also, I am not allowed in Mexico anymore.
2. Technically, Valve and/or Gearbox employees may not have actually said these things. But I could tell they were thinking them.
3. We don't talk about The Gunman Chronicles.

Source  (August 16, 2016)

Marc Laidlaw

David Speyrer

On "Danger Ted Action Play Set"

Yes, it's the same map that we called the Danger Ted Construction Set (or something like that). Ted's ragdoll had fallen into an entertaining pose and we snapped a screenshot. I don't think I have the original image anymore because I've changed work PCs a few times since then!
Source  (August 17, 2016)

Aaron Stackpole

On his video game work

I created an internal translation of all of the original Quake DM maps for HL1 that were never released initially due to rights issues. I worked on Gunman Chronicles (originally Gunmanship 101 a Quake mod) and have an uncredited DM map in that as well. I worked for Mike Harrington, was responsible for building the gold master, and in fact, to this day still have the second physical copy of Half-Life gold ever made, along with the still valid key that is now part of my Steam Account. I'm sure there's more...
Source  (September 1, 2016)

Harry Teasley

On Ivan the Space Biker

I did not build the Ivan the Space Biker model, Chuck Jones did. I started a concept that inspired it, but it was largely completely ignored by Chuck in almost every detail. My concept was simply a bearded man in an Apollo-mission-style space suit. Metal ring collar for a helmet, bulky, looking like a heavy-duty environment suit that a scientist might wear when working at a secret government research facility...

He was bearded, and the space suit was bulky in the way space suits are, to give the model some visual bulk without making him a superhero-type. He was inspired by several bearded computer programmers I had worked with up to that point: a little Ken Birdwell was in there. I didn't finish it because Chuck sort of went off and modeled what he was going to model, obviously not really intending to follow the concept. "Ivan", a wild-eyed guy in sci-fi bronze space armor, was the surprising result.

Source  (August 3, 2014)

Steve Theodore

On Gus and the Loader

Wow, Gus! That was a looong time ago.

Gus was named for the janitor in my college dorm, who was famously cranky and had about the same level of stubble (although the model has probably 50 lbs. compared to the real Gus, who was not as portly). I also liked it because it was the sort of name you see in those little round name labels on work overalls, but not so often in real life. The forklift on that model actually works, although I don't believe we used that in the game.

As I recall (again, long time ago!) there was supposed to be a level in which you remote controlled a loader to fight a Gargantua. I recall a control layout with a lever control that was supposed to drive the loaders and I think you were supposed to either push Gargantua off a cliff or maybe push boxes of explosives into him. The art for the level and the animations for the loader were made but there was no time to do the AI needed (or perhaps it was 'no time to wrinkle out the bugs in the ai', which amounts to the same thing).

Source  (February 2, 2014)

On Construction and the Osprey

The construction worker is indeed a re skinned Barney - Chuck Jones was the modeler on that one. I believe it was not seen in the final game but am not sure - it may have been I ended for one of the many scripted sequences we had to cut out after play testing or it may have just been filler for the opening train ride.

I don't believe the osprey was ever intended to fire on the player, its job was to deliver marines. One interesting note is that "parametric animation" -- the buzzword term for animation blending, which half life pioneered, was originally added to the engine to allow the marines on ropes to aim as they came down from Ospreys. We found a lot of fun uses for or after that, though. Including the tilt rotor effect on the osprey if i recall correctly...

Source  (November 19, 2015)

Ray Ueno

On the origin of Mr. Valve

I worked with Gabe and team to develop the "guy in the logo" back when we first named the company, Valve (circa 1995/6), and needed to develop the visual brand vocabulary to go along with it.

Interesting that you should ask about the bald guy. Back then, the casting agencies we were using to find models only had "supermodel"-type talent. We kept requesting "heavy-set", "normal" models, and they kept sending us "beautiful", "thin", "perfect" headshots to review.

So, we finally asked them to just go out on the street and pull "everyday Joes" who were more "interesting", "common", and for the bald guy, "kinda big, heavy-set, and bald".

They went out to the streets of Seattle's Broadway district, took tons of polaroids of the types of folks we were looking for, and brought the shots back to us. We selected the bald guy from the batches of "off-the-street" polaroids—he was literally pulled out of a coffee shop or book store!

A few days later, we brought him into studio and shot the image you now see at the beginning of our games. We also shot a 2nd image of a different guy with a valve in his eye using the same process (you might remember him as well—attached below). The two comprised the "Open your mind. Open your eyes." concept for our initial brand, respectively.

It's been very long since we did that work, so we don't know who the models were. And the fact that they weren't professional models, would make it very difficult to find them—if not impossible for the bald guy (not facing camera).

Hope that answers your question. If you have any others regarding the Valve brand, please feel free to contact me anytime.

Thanks for your interest in Valve and the bald guy image.

Source  (April 2011)

Bill Van Buren

On Robin Williams

We did talk with Robin Williams about voicing the vortigaunts - we thought he'd be a great choice, given his amazing voice characterization talents, and especially since he played our games and even showed up at our E3 booth for our first reveal of HL2 - but he wasn't able to do it at that time.
Source  (February 20, 2014)

Notes

  1. The employee's name is not shown here for privacy reasons but is known to the OverWiki staff.