The story so far:
Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2. Some fans protested. I was unimpressed with the list of complaints. This did not endear me to the protesters. Then someone posted a link to this movie, which shows Valve employees (purportedly VP of marketing Doug Lombardi and writer Chat Faliszek) talking about adding campaigns and monsters to the original Left 4 Dead. Given the gameplay footage we’re seeing, I’m certain these quotes are before the launch of Left 4 Dead.
The video is made with an overdose of accusation (tossing the charge of “LIE$$$$$” at Valve) and much too little documentation. (Would it have killed them to throw some names and dates over these quotes, along with citing the source? Bad form, guys.) If the protesters had began with this stuff up front, and presented it in a more pragmatic way, it would have saved the entire community about two weeks of bickering and drama, and would likely have drawn more people to their cause.
Culling the cruft the debate has gathered since it began, I see two main charges being brought against Valve:
1) Left 4 Dead 2 is too small / too much the same to justify a sequel so soon, and thus it should be free / an expansion pack.
We’ve been over this one in detail, but for the sake of being pedantic and comprehensive I’ll set it down once again. Left 4 Dead 2 is larger than Left 4 Dead Original Flavor in both scope and content.
- Five new campaigns, compared to the four of the original.
- Three new special monsters, to add to the original five.
- Twenty weapons, compared to the original eight.
- Four new characters and dialog.
- New, overarching story.
- A fresh slate of common infected models.
- Other changes, like melee combat and incendiary rounds.
- New music, new videos.
If Left 4 Dead was big enough to be a game (and opinions differ on this point) then Left 4 Dead 2 is big enough to be a game and then some. If you insist on taking us for a few more laps around this rhetorical premise in the comments, realize that I do not plan to accompany you. I expect we’ll end up where we started, and I am sill dizzy from last time.
2) Valve promised the community specific types of content and has yet to deliver, and in fact it looks suspiciously like that content was simply pushed into the sequel.
On this point I consider the protester’s position to be unassailable. Now that the proofs have been furnished, the case is very clear: Valve did indeed say that they were going to do those things. They did so on camera. These things were said by more than one person. In the six months that followed, Valve never attempted to correct or “clarify” what they had said in those interviews. And these things were said by people of importance, not anonymous insiders or low-ranking employees. Specifically, they were said by the VP of marketing, who should be savvy enough to know you can’t go around publicly talking about stuff you have written on your whiteboard unless you seriously plan on doing those things.
Valve said they were going to give away free stuff to people who bought the game. Fans understandably took it to heart. Now it looks like the free stuff has been rolled into a sequel. There is simply no way you can do something like this without losing face and pissing people off.
To be fair, I can see how this could happen. Unlike the protesters, I do not believe that these were lies told out of malice. This is the company that gave us the Orange Box. I don’t think it does the protesters any credit to accuse the notoriously generous Valve of naked greed and deliberate lies. This is much more likely a lack of competence, communication, and planning than an attempt to defraud their newly-cultivated L4D fanbase.
I’m a big fan of developers being open with the community, but this is a very good example of why so few companies do it. Fans invariably are going to ask about what you plan to do in the future, and once you make a statement about what you plan to do, you can’t ever change it without someone feeling cheated. Everything you say will be interpreted as a “promise”, even if you precede it with words like, “we’d like to” or “we’re talking about”. There are no takebacks in public relations, and so most companies keep shut until their plans are nearly complete.
(This is why engineers and artists are usually forbidden from talking to the press. Engineers love to think out loud and artists love to discuss their next big project, and usually neither has the talent for doing so without putting their employer on the hook for their musings. This is why I don’t talk about my day job here on my own site.)
My own guess as to what happened:
Valve began work on additional L4D content. Each change led naturally to others. Perhaps new infected models made area-based damage work better, which made melee weapons more feasible, which suggested new game play, which led to new special infected, which led to AI director tweaks, which led to dynamic weather, which called for new maps, which led to multiple-route maps, and so on, and on. If you listen to the developer commentaries in their games you’ll see this is how a lot of their ideas come about. They usually get one idea while playtesting another. It’s pretty easy to see how organic development like this would grow in unexpected directions.
Pretty soon they realized that all of these inter-related changes were simply too big (either technologically or financially) to be simply retrofitted into the original game. They decided to make it a sequel, and that decision was most likely made without giving thought to what had been said in an interview a year earlier. Oops.
You can be forgiven for forgetting you made a promise, but that doesn’t get you out of your obligation to fulfill it.
How it did not happen:
It’s October. Left 4 Dead is due out soon. Valve President Gabe Newell has summoned Doug and Chet to his office. Less than thirty seconds later they rush into the darkened room of marble and mahogany, panting slightly. (Last month he forbade them from using the executive elevator.)
“Gentlemen”, Newell growls once they have each given an appropriate bow, “We’re not making enough money.”
Doug’s mouth falls open. Mr. Newell doesn’t usually say stuff like this until he’s looking at the end-of-year reports. Doug looks nervously over to Chet, who seems to have better luck with pacifying Mr. Newell when he’s in one of his moods.
Chet swallows hard. The smoke from Mr. Newell’s cigar is stinging his eyes. Then he screws up his courage and says carefully, “Sure thing boss. What do you have in mind?”
Doug nods. Good answer.
Mr. Newell silently swings his high-back leather chair around and looks out over Bellevue. There is a long pause while a column of cigar smoke rises and gathers around him like a storm cloud. Chet and Doug shuffle nervously, afraid he might have forgotten about them again. Eventually he answers in a calm but mockingly polite voice, “What about that ‘Lots of Dead’ thing you’re working on?”
“You mean Left 4 Dead?”, Doug corrects him without thinking.
“Yeeees. That’s the one.” There is a long, menacing pause while the cloud thickens, “I want that game to sell three million copies. That’s one million copies for every year of development you’ve squandered on it.”
“Three million?”, Doug squeaks in a terrified voice. “How can we do that?”
The leather chair whirls around, spinning the smoke cloud into the shape of a hurricane. “You do your jobs!”, he roars. A meaty fist slams down on the desk, “You get out there and make people buy the damn thing. You get your stupid jibbering face on one of those idiot TV shows and tell them how great it’ll be. Beg if you must. Lie if you have to.”
Doug is cowering, but Chet retains his cool, “We could always promise them free updates later.”
Newell glowers at him silently.
“Er…”, Chet falters as he realizes he’s miscalculated somehow.
Doug jumps in, “We’re not suggesting we actually give them free updates.”
“Heavens no!”, Chet adds with a forced laugh, “I’m not a complete idiot.” He looks over nervously to Doug, wondering where this is going.
Newell seems to want to know the same thing. He raises his eyebrows and waits.
“Well”, Doug continues, “We could promise them free maps. Maybe new weapons, like we’re doing with Team Fortress 2.”
“Or new monsters!”, Chet practically shouts.
“Yes! Monsters!”, Doug agrees. “Maybe even new game modes or something. Anyway, that should get people to buy the game.”
“And then later”, Chet adds hopefully, “We could… not give them those things?”
Mr. Newell relaxes and smiles, “One of my great joys in this life is when I am able to get a couple of complete imbeciles to think for themselves.”
“Yes sir.”, says Chet.
“Thank you sir!”, Doug adds.
“Now get out of my office.”
Call me a raving fanboy, but I’m just not seeing it. The idea that Valve would – on purpose – promise something which they did not plan to deliver is ludicrous. To believe that, you would need to set aside everything we know about the company. Note that if Valve had never said anything about their future plans, then this entire controversy would have centered around the more mundane topics of how this sequel will affect multiplayer and if the content of the game warranted the pricetag of a full release.
The protesters are justified in holding Valve to their promise, but the charge of “LIAR$” makes no sense to me. Doug Lombardi had this to say to the critics:
I’ve made it abundantly clear in the past that I’m not crazy about the games-as-a-service model. I’d much rather just fork over money, get my game, and have that be the end of the transaction for both sides. But if we’re going to accept the service model then we’re going to end up with situations like this one, where a game being “done” is a nebulous idea and the only way customers have of gauging the value of the “service” is by listening carefully to what the developer says in public and using that to guide their purchasing decisions. If they buy a game based on the promise of future content, then they can rightly be outraged if you change your mind later. Welcome to service-based gaming, Valve.
Getting down to specifics, in the interview Lombardi promised:
- New characters
- New campaign[s]
- New weapon or a new monster to go with that campaign
- An SDK was promised “a few weeks after launch”. I assume that when the guy said “SDK” he was talking about the recently-released level editor. (The term SDK is supposed to refer to a Software Development Kit, but it gets really, really mushy when non-coders start using the term.)
Adding a weapon or monster is probably not that big a deal. They could simply take one of the existing Left 4 Dead 2 monsters or guns and shoehorn it into Left 4 Dead. But the “new campaign” promise is much more difficult. Campaigns represent a tremendous investment of hours in building, testing, and tuning. Adding a new campaign to the original means adding a new campaign for the existing characters and set in western PA. (All of their new stuff is for the Louisiana campaigns, which is built around the new characters and uses the new AI director. In order to keep this promise, they’re going to have to make a new “Bill, Francis, Louis, and Zoey” campaign from scratch. (Although they could recycle / re-work the new lighthouse level to serve as the finale.))
The ball is in Valve’s court. We’ll see what they do for Left 4 Dead.
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