Sunday, 1 December 2019

SF&F Questions: Will We Ever See HALF-LIFE 3?

The Basics
The Half-Life series of video games is one of the most influential, critically-acclaimed and biggest-selling in history. More than 30 million copies of the two core games in the series have been sold, and many millions more of the various expansions, DLC and the popular Portal series of spin-off games. However, the core storyline begun in the original Half-Life (1998) stalled in Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007), which ended on a massive cliffhanger. In the twelve years (and counting) to date, that cliffhanger has not been resolved.

Concept art for Half-Life 2: Episode Three from around 2008.

The Story So Far
Ex-Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington set up Valve Corporation in 1996. They began development of their first video games, an all-out, first-person action title called Quiver and a moody, story-driven science fiction epic entitled Prospero. After a few months in development they realised they didn't have enough manpower to develop both games, so combined them into a new title: Half-Life.

Released in late 1998, Half-Life was almost immediately acclaimed the greatest video game ever made (at least on PC) and sold millions of copies. Expansions followed, Opposing Force in 1999 (which launched the career of Gearbox Software) and Blue Shift in 2000. Valve and their fans in the modding scene developed a number of spin-offs from the engine, including the popular multiplayer games Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, before beginning work on a full sequel.

When Half-Life 2 was released in November 2004, it was not only also immediately acclaimed the greatest PC game ever made, it was also hugely controversial for requiring online activation and validation on Valve's propriety online store, called "Steam." A lot of people were furious with Valve for this move, but the overwhelming critical acclaim given to the game saw them give in and join the services. Half-Life 2 also sold millions of copies, as did its expansions Episode One (2006) and Episode Two (2007) and a related spin-off game, Portal (2007).

Half-Life 2: Episode Two ended on a massive cliffhanger, with a major character dead and the fate of the rest of the characters in severe jeopardy. Valve assured fans they were working on Episode Three. However, several years passed in which little news was released. In the meantime Valve continued making well-regarded games, including Team Fortress 2 (2007), Left 4 Dead (2008), Left 4 Dead 2 (2009), Portal 2 (2011) and Dota 2 (2013).

Also during this time period Steam went through a massive explosion of popularity, becoming the default online PC games portal and making Valve billions of dollars in pure profit. As of this year, there are more than 90 million regular Steam customers and over one billion accounts in existence.

The Half-Life franchise's main protagonists, Gordon Freeman (left) and Alyx Vance (right).

So what happened to Half-Life 3?
Shortly after the release of Half-Life 2 in 2004, Valve confirmed it was working on three "episodes," each one of which would be about one-third the length of Half-Life 2. The idea was that the episodes would form a full sequel to Half-Life 2, and delivering them incrementally would mean that fans would not have to endure another six-year wait such as that which fell between the first two games. Episode One and Episode Two duly followed (split by an eighteen-month gap) in 2006 and 2007, with Episode Three estimated for arrival in mid-2009.

Valve's public statements about the episode were brief and not particularly useful, although they confirmed that the game would pick up on story elements left dangling from Episode Two, particularly the revelation that Dr. Mossman had discovered a key to defeating the Combine on board an old freighter lost in the Arctic, the Borealis. In 2011 the game Portal 2 featured some tie-ins to Episode Three, including the player discovering the drydock the Borealis was launched from. There were also some hints that Episode Three might unite the Half-Life and Portal franchises in some fashion.

By 2012 the Internet had officially grown bored of the wait and a huge number of memes about the missing game had been amassed. Valve boss Gabe Newell made a brief (if coded) comment that the game was in development but said little else about it. Over the following four years there was again little sign of life in the franchise, except a few comments and apparently internal T-shirts at Valve which suggested that Half-Life 2: Episode Three was dead and the story would only continue in a full Half-Life 3 itself.

In 2016, Marc Laidlaw, the main writer on all of the Half-Life games, quit Valve unexpectedly. A year later, he revealed the working outline of Episode Three and how the story would have unfolded (it would have ended on another cliffhanger, if of a lesser magnitude). It was also confirmed around this time that Valve had not seriously been working on Half-Life 3 or Episode Three for many years. This battery of news, following the news that other Half-Life alumni had quit Valve over the years, seemed to confirm to the Internet that Half-Life was finally dead.

Until this week, when Valve unexpectedly announced a full-length, brand-new Half-Life game which wasn't a sequel to Episode Two. Instead, Half-Life: Alyx is an "interquel" set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and will be a VR exclusive. It's the latest, unexpected twist in a story that constantly defies explanation.

A pre-release screenshot for Half-Life: Alyx, a new VR game.

So why on Earth has Valve never just made Half-Life 3?
This is the hundred million dollar question. On the surface, Half-Life 3 would have been a licence to print money. The franchise has sold tens of millions of copies and made hundreds of millions of dollars in profit (maybe more). They had momentum from making Half-Life 2 and the two episodes and a team in place ready to roll on.

The reasons why Valve lost that momentum now seem more obvious in retrospect. Steam was a much bigger, much wilder success than anyone ever expected. Valve take home around $4 billion in profit a year from just running a games store, which rather handily eliminates any question over their financial security. Valve are currently the most profitable-per-employee company in the United States and have rejected offers to be bought out by both Electronic Arts and Microsoft, each offer allegedly northwards of $20 billion.

In addition, Valve seemed to struggle with the idea of a central mechanic to hook Half-Life 3 around. Half-Life was built around the all-encompassing idea of a realistic 3D environment; Half-Life 2 was built around physics and the ability to manipulate everything in the world via the Gravity Gun. What new tech Valve could use to direct Half-Life 3 seems to have been something they struggled with for some time; the "Episodes" format even seems to have been a way for them to try to get around that by not requiring a new mechanic for the smaller games, but that didn't work out either.

There's also the risk of diminishing returns and impossible expectations: Half-Life and Half-Life 2 were both deemed the greatest game of all time on release, but by the time of Episode Two's release, the critical acclaim had ebbed away somewhat and the expansion got only middling reviews, with most of the acclaim going on its contemporary spin-off release instead, Portal. One of the reasons for pulling Episode Three is likely that the Source Engine technology it was relying on was going to be too old hat in 2009 (when it was originally due for release) and Valve didn't want to overhaul the engine to the extent required to make it more of a cutting-edge release (although they eventually did for Portal 2 two years later). This inspired the move from Episode Three to Half-Life 3, but the project never seemed to get off the ground, probably due to this issue over not having a central new mechanic. Valve seem to have developed a perfectionist streak and the determination that Half-Life 3 could not be released unless it was guaranteed to re-make the wheel again, which is a huge (and likely impossible) task to set yourself.

The other issue with not making Half-Life 3 is one of age. This year Half-Life turned 21 years old. Half-Life 2 celebrated its 15th anniversary a fortnight ago. An entire generation of gamers has grown up who are completely unfamiliar with the franchise, which is a problem for Valve.

Another pre-release screenshot for Half-Life: Alyx, due for release in March 2020.

Does Half-Life: Alyx put Half-Life 3 back in play?
In a word, yes. Half-Life: Alyx appears to be a gimmick, another attempt to push VR technology on a sceptical gaming audience. But it should be remembered that in order to make Alyx, Valve have had to completely revamp their engine technology and their art. As the game is set in City 17, it will feature new, HD and 4K assets and textures of locations we have already seen in previous games, as well as new lighting technology, better water and so on.

These are all elements that can be fed back into not just a Half-Life 3 but also a Half-Life 2 Remastered. Remasters are all the rage and Half-Life 2 has benefited from minor tech upgrades over the years, but it hasn't had the full remaster treatment yet. With the technology developed for Alyx, it should be relatively simple for Valve to completely remaster Half-Life 2 and its two expansions, all ready for re-release on the next generation of PC and console hardware. And of course, if you can do that then you're most of the way to building expectations for a Half-Life 3.

We saw this recently when Gearbox Software acquired the Homeworld licence, released Homeworld Remastered and then a stand-alone prequel game, Deserts of Kharak, and then based on their success have started work on Homeworld 3. And that franchise was (and remains) very obscure compared to Half-Life.


Valve have not so far made a Half-Life 3 due to a combination of having total financial security from their Steam service instead; not having found a central technology or mechanic to hook the game around; declining interest in the franchise as it gets older; and utterly unachievable expectations set by the fanbase which only get worse with every year.

However, Valve creating and releasing Half-Life: Alyx suggests that they have overcome some of these objections and also developed technology and assets that could be used to make Half-Life 3. This doesn't mean it'll happen, but it puts the idea back in play as a serious possibility for the first time in many years. Of course, if Alyx is an unexpected success it does raise the possibility that Half-Life 3 itself may a VR game. And that would be an interesting situation to watch unfold.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good stuff as always, Wert! Thank You!
Valve may have decided to go for HL3 since Steam finally has competition via Epic. They need exclusive content to attract gamers.