Marc Laidlaw, a sci-fi writer most famous for his work on Half-Life and Half-Life 2, has recently left Valve. The news brought back the eternal question: will Half-Life 3 ever come out?
I hope not.
Valve is one of the most puzzling companies on the planet. Relatively tiny, it nevertheless rakes in huge gobs of cash every year. The second-top-selling PC game of all time, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, is Valve’s baby. Team Fortress 2 is their eternal cash cow, milked for all its worth with neverending updates for 99c virtual hats. Dota 2 has exploded onto the competitive scene in the last few years; it still can’t quite dethrone LOL, but it’s a massive massive game nonetheless. Steam, of course, is a behemoth, arguably the name in digital game markets, despite the best efforts of Green Man Gaming or Good Old Games. Nothing competes, not yet. Mobile markets are the only gaming market in Steam’s ballpark.
Half-Life was Valve’s first game. Back in 1996, they struggled to find backers for their overly-ambitious 1st-person-shooter project. They wanted to bring the genre back to the areas explored by DOOM. Gabe Newell, overlord of Valve, is quoted as saying it “felt like the industry was reducing the experiences to least common denominators.” Half-Life, he’s said, was their “reactionary response to the trivialization of the experience of the first person genre.”
Half-Life succeeded, and wildly. Back when AllGame still existed, their review summed up everything everyone said about Half-Life: “It isn’t everyday that you come across a game that totally revolutionizes an entire genre, but Half-Life has done just that.”
Seven years after the release of Half-Life, Half-Life 2 was finally released, after a long and troubled development project. Part of the development cycle was, of course, the creation of the Source Engine, as well as the integration of Steam. All PC users were required to hvae Steam installed in order to use Half-Life 2.
Now, Half-Life 2 was just as revolutionary as Half-Life. Reviewers went berserk, and with good reason. It was stylish, physically fascinating, and compelling; the story was engrossing and the mysteries were largely unsolved. It pushed first-person games yet again, raising the bar in a way few other games had or have done.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why Steam became so ubiquitous. It was required in order to play Half-Lif 2, and Half-Life 2 was – according to most reviews – game of the MILLENIA.
Since Half-Life 2, however, there’s been a bit of a slump. Two expansions were released – Episode One and Episode Two – and then nothing. Radio silence, for the most part. Half-Life 3 has been alluded to at times, but other games have come and gone. Portal and Portal 2 have been Valve’s only real push back into first-person singleplayer games. Half-Life 3 is the new Duke Nukem Forever; there is no news, only rumors.
I hope it never comes out.
Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are a pair of the greatest first-person games ever released. Period. They each revolutionized the genre in different ways; they pushed limits, broke barriers, et cetera et cetera. But could Valve do that again? I doubt it. I really do. I think the competition is too stiff now, and gaming is a completely different ballpark. I think it’s a little paradox, really; Half-Life 3 needs to be both a Half-Life game (first person horror/shooter on rails) AND innovative. There is, in my opinion, not much left to them in terms of innovation while still keeping it a Half-Life game. They’ve talked before about VR and how that could be the next wave, the next innovation in gaming. But honestly? I think the market is suggesting otherwise. Oculus was more expensive than people expected, and there really hasn’t been anything suggesting that VR is going to take off. This makes sense – it’s not just a new physics engine or a new visual style. It requires more from the consumer, so the market will shrink.
I don’t see a world in which Half-Life 3 is both on a VR system and a good game.
But there’s another reason. In the canyons of the internet, a call sometimes echoes: VALVE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. For years, Valve has been the untouchable golden boy of games. While EA was lambasted for their shite customer service, Valve got a free pass – despite a complete lack of customer service for the Steam market. The public image of Valve was that of the fun, quirky company; the Google of Games, so to speak.
But Valve is Not Our Friend.
Here’s a shot of the top records for current simultaneous players on Steam:
Take a look at that list. The number one game is DOTA 2, a Valve title. The number two title is CS:GO – another Valve game. Going down to the number five slot, we have L4D2 – Valve. Then, sitting pretty at number nine, we have TF2 – VALVE.
Of those games, DOTA 2, CS:GO, and TF2 all rely on microtransactions. Millions of them. There’s a great article on DOTA 2’s 2013 profits from VentureBeat. The article leads off with the line “Developers don’t need to make single-player first-person shooters starring nerdy silent protagonists if they’ve got something like Dota 2.” DOTA 2 is a free-to-play game, but generated $80 million for Valve in 2013. It’s grown since. That same year, 2013, Team Fortress 2 posted $139 million in profits. CS:GO, famously, was struggling along before Valve implemented microtransactions.
And that’s not even getting started on the golden calf that is Steam itself.
Valve – like any good company! – is making money. I am not one of those people who believes that microtransactions are killing games. If they are, it’s the fault of the consumer, not the producer. CS:GO proves that. And CS:GO also proves a more important point: Valve is both smart and ruthless. They are very good at making money from videogames. So why would they spend the money to create Half-Life 3? Why hire anyone to develop a game that cannot possibly meet the impossible expectations? And who’s to say HL3 wouldn’t be running on microtransactions?
I really don’t want Half-Life 3 to come out. Maybe five years ago, sure. But at this point, I don’t think it could live up to the hype. And there’s not much reason for Valve to make it. They’re really good at what they do – and I love their games that are on the market right now. I do. I took a year-long break from TF2, but recently hopped back on and it’s like I never left. (Well, mostly. There are some banana hats I don’t recognize).
The point is: I don’t think HL3 could possibly be both revolutionary and good at this point. I think Valve is doing fine with their current projects, and I’d rather see them work on those than feel pressured to finish Half-Life 3. The recent departure of Marc Laidlaw all but confirms it for me: Half-Life 3 is not coming out any time soon. And that’s fine.