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Did too many Half-Life 3s kill Half-Life 3?

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How to discuss an anonymous story about a flat company

Valve

The existence of Half-Life 3 has been rumored and joked about for so long that it exists more as a punchline than an actual hope at this point. A report from Game Informer based on an interview with an anonymous source doesn’t add much new information to the conversation, but it does offer a plausible reason we haven’t seen the game.

Every grain of salt imaginable should be taken when thinking about the words of this source, but their version of Half-Life 3’s development cycle, or lack thereof, makes sense based on what we know about Valve.

So let’s dig in.

Why there is no Half-Life 3 (allegedly)

Game Informer’s unnamed source begins by bringing up the reality that Valve has never said a Half-Life 3 was in development. The entire thing is basically an assumption on the part of the gaming public at large. That being said ...

“One of the things that’s interesting about how Valve works is it’s not out of the question for any given person to just try stuff, whether that is conversations or actually spending their time creating something,” the anonymous source explains. “That could range from someone writing a treatment or crafting concept art to tinkering around with code. Any given person who does that stuff can kind of internalize why they are doing it, and sometimes there are people doing similar things and those things come together.”

This doesn’t seem to make much sense, because most developers the size of Valve hire people in order to make specific games. If you’re making a Shootyman game, you hire someone with a lot of experience in the Shootyman genre. You plan what games you’d like to make, and you staff up or let employees go based on how those projects progress or the market’s reaction to them.

Valve does not do this, according to its handbook.

“Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions (more on that later),” the company’s handbook states. “Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels). Strong projects are ones in which people can see demonstrated value; they staff up easily. This means there are any number of internal recruiting efforts constantly under way. If you’re working here, that means you’re good at your job. People are going to want you to work with them on their projects, and they’ll try hard to get you to do so. But the decision is going to be up to you. (In fact, at times you’re going to wish for the luxury of having just one person telling you what they think you should do, rather than hundreds.)”

The desks at Valve are famously wheeled, which means you just unplug from your outlet and wheel your workspace to whatever project you want to work on. Want to get a good artist working on your thing? You better be able to convince them that your thing is worth their time. Depending on your skills and social abilities, this might sound either very freeing or very scary.

Valve’s official directions for moving your desk
Valve

But it means that, according to this anonymous source, there have actually been lots of potential Half-Life 3s in development.

“Over the years, you’ve probably had many dozens of people within the studio as early as probably 2005 working on things that they would imagine from themselves as Half-Life 3 or Half-Life: Episode 3,” the person states. “If you talk to people there, you’re going to get mutually exclusive information about the project from them, and for each of those people, it is correct, but will be different for the next person you talk to. Those two individuals may have been working with the same project in mind, but never linked up internally to connect the pieces before it was scrapped or they moved on to a different project.”

This is how you’re supposed to decide what to work on, according to Valve’s handbook:

  • Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?
  • Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?
  • Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?
  • What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?

And that’s ostensibly it, outside of certain people’s opinions likely carrying varying amounts of weight depending on their track record and real or imagined position at the company.

“Undoubtedly what happened is a lot of things were changing for Valve,” the source says, talking about Valve’s position years ago. “Orange Box launched and did its thing. People who care about Team Fortress were doing their thing. You had people trying to get something going with Counter-Strike again. You got people that are playing other games, and that led to Dota 2. You have the Steam platform itself. Left for Dead. Portal 2. The hardware teams. You have a whole bunch of pet and big projects going on. All of that is getting more gravity than this third episode of Half-Life. There’s something with that third episode that isn’t sitting right with Gabe and other people at Valve. Ultimately it just starves to death. The people that tried to give it life find themselves better off working on other projects.”

If you’re hired at Valve, of course one of the first things you’re going to do is ask about Half-Life, and it’s very possible no one has been able to convince enough people to leave their current projects or experiments to take a serious run at creating the next chapter in one of the most popular gaming series of all time. It’s a dream job, but it’s also going to remain perfect as long as it’s an ideal and not an actual game. Who would want to take that perfection away by actually making the damned thing?

Besides, the Half-Life 3 everyone imagines is a narrative, single-player game. That’s never going to make as much money as trying to create the next Dota 2, or other games that exist as services.

“There’s no secret decision-making cabal,” the handbook says. “No matter what project, you’re already invited. All you have to do is either (1) Start working on it, or (2) Start talking to all the people who you think might be working on it already and find out how to best be valuable. You will be welcomed — there is no approval process or red tape involved. Quite the opposite — it’s your job to insert yourself wherever you think you should be.”