Gabe Newell is about to make a promise. It's 11am on an overcast morning in Bellevue, Washington, and Newell, the impresario behind Valve, lumbers into the company's starkly decorated 10th-floor conference room. He pulls out an Aeron chair, plops himself down, and runs his stubby hands through his reddish-brown hair.
"OK," he says, taking a deep breath. "During any project there comes a time to draw a line in the sand and put a stick in the ground and say, 'This is it. We're ready,'" he says. "That moment, I'm happy to say, is right now. We finally know when this game is going to be done."
The game he's referring to is Half-Life 2, the sequel to Half-Life, one of the best-selling PC first-person shooters of all time. For years gamers have impatiently waited for definitive news on the sequel. Now Gabe is ready to announce a release date. As Newell talks about the game's imminent completion he speaks with such conviction that you half expect him to give you the exact minute and second the game will be released. He sounds that sure of himself.
Before he divulges the date, however, he pauses. He pulls off his smudged glasses and gently runs an index finger over his right eyelid. "Sorry, I was up really late last night," he explains. Understandable, you think to yourself--it's never easy pulling all-nighters to finish a game.
Unfortunately, Newell's fatigue is the result of something else entirely. "I was up until 3:30am last night watching the first night of bombing in Iraq on CNN," he explains.
Today is March 21, 2003--the start of the second war in Iraq, which is a fitting parallel to the battle Newell is about to start with the announcement of Half-Life 2 and its release date. Like the second American offensive in Iraq, Newell's battle will begin today with a shock-and-awe campaign of spectacular visual firepower--the first demo of the game. Unfortunately, the parallels don't stop there. From the perspective of many fans, Newell's battle to release Half-Life 2 will also end up being a campaign filled with misinformation. And at times there will seem to be no exit strategy for Newell, no clear sense of when victory--the release of the game--will be achieved.
But none of that is evident to Gabe today. No, today is a day of great resolve--a carefully calculated announcement of Half-Life 2 and a public declaration that the game is about to enter the final stretch of development. "We didn't want to do the whole 'when it's done' thing," Newell explains in his preamble. "The reason we are announcing the game today is because we now know when it will be done."
OK, so when will it be done?
"The reason we are announcing [Half-Life 2] today is because we now know when it will be done."-- Gabe Newell in March 2003
"We're going to launch the product at E3 and we're going to ship it on September 30, 2003," Newell empathically states. Knowing what you know now, you want to coach Newell to not be so sure of himself. He could say "September" and no one would complain. Even "fall" or "when it's done" would probably fly. But no, that's far too imprecise for Gabe. Today he wants to make a promise to the fans, to open the eyes of expectation. Half-Life 2 will be coming on September 30, 2003. Not "hopefully" or "maybe" September 30. It will be coming September 30.
Of course, Half-Life 2 didn't arrive on September 30. In fact, it wasn't anywhere close to being done on that date. Today Newell admits the statements he made in March 2003 have haunted him every day for the past 18 months. He was embarrassed. He felt paralyzed. He didn't know how or when to explain what really happened.
Now he's ready to come clean.