Normally, Gabe Newell prides himself on being an integral part of the design team at Valve. On Half-Life 2, he even came up with the idea of making Dr. Breen, the main antagonist, the same character as the administrator from Black Mesa in Half-Life. But in early 2002 Newell let the rest of the team take the lead on the development of the game. He wanted to make sure he maintained an unbiased perspective on the proof-of-concept reel. That way, he would be able to accurately judge how the press and fans would respond to their first look at the game. So for months he turned a blind eye to the game's development. That didn't mean, however, that Newell was about to head off on vacation.
Instead, he began working on other projects, like Steam, Valve's ambitious online distribution platform. Newell unveiled the platform at the Game Developers Conference in March 2002. Onstage, Newell positioned himself as a new-age Robin Hood who wanted to take from the greedy publishers what independent game developers deserved: a larger piece of the revenue pie. Newell told the crowd that, under the current system, most developers make only about $7 for each game they sell. But an online distribution platform like Steam--which cuts out the middleman and delivers a game directly to the consumer's desktop--could net developers more than $30 per copy. Newell announced that, while Valve still planned to ship its future games to retail, it would also start releasing games over Steam.
Back at Valve, the team was putting the finishing touches on the noninteractive proof-of-concept reel. As soon as Newell returned from the GDC, he was ready to see what the team had accomplished. Everyone knew the reel wasn't perfect, but they had made tremendous strides in a short amount of time. The characters, physics, and game engine all seemed to be working together for the first time. The team put on their game faces and summoned Newell into the conference room.
As the reel started, Newell carefully watched the screen. The employees nervously watched Newell's face for any reaction--even a faint smile. The first few segments showed how the physics would work inside the gameworld. Other segments showed off environments, like the Borealis. But the linchpin of the demo was a nearly 20-minute scene that took place in the science lab of Dr. Kleiner--the bald-pated scientist who appeared with Gordon and Alyx in the demonstration. The dialogue-heavy sequence was an attempt to show the strides Valve had made with in-game storytelling and emotion.
Then the reel faded to black. That was it. Everyone eagerly awaited Newell's reaction.