Page 7: Zombie Basketball
By mid-2001, Valve had been working on Half-Life 2 for almost two years in complete secrecy. And what did it have to show for all its hard work? Not much. There was a rough script, a bunch of concept art, and tons of experimentation being performed with the technology. Now it was time for the team to try to blend all that technology together--the characters, the physics, and the new Source engine.
The first big breakthrough came when the physics started working inside the game environment. All of a sudden, static game levels became virtual playgrounds where the team could create objects with mass and have forces act on them. Some of the designers even developed a minigame called Zombie Basketball, where they used a physics-manipulator gun to throw zombies through hoops and get them to land in trash bins. "We got the physics working and started saying, 'Wow, we can do anything in this game!'" Laidlaw remembers. "But then we came to the painful realization about what that was going to mean for the design. It was going to be a nightmare to give players so much freedom."
Still, designers like Guthrie thought that allowing players to manipulate objects would help the designers invent new gameplay paradigms. "I imagined throwing saw blades to cut enemies in half, tossing a paint can against a wall and seeing it splatter," he says. "It was going to add another whole layer to the gameplay. It was going to give us what we needed to differentiate this game from Half-Life."
Another point of differentiation was Birdwell's character technology. Rumors began swirling around the industry that the characters looked as good as those in the Final Fantasy movie, The Spirits Within. Valve recruited Bill Fletcher, a Disney animator, to bring the characters to life. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who used to play poker at Newell's apartment, even requested an in-person demo.
Suddenly there seemed to be a lot of positive momentum on the project. So Valve decided to try something ambitious during the summer of 2001: The designers started working on a test sequence that would highlight all the new technology. The concept was to simulate a street war between rioting citizens and the Metrocops sent to contain them. Such a sequence would test the engine's ability to create a vast, believable world and lifelike characters. There would be APCs and tanks rolling down the streets. Citizens would throw Molotov cocktails at the vehicles, which would then gloriously explode, thanks to the physics engine. Other characters would start looting stores and yell, "Get your free TVs!" There was even a hand-to-hand fighting system so the Metrocops and citizens could get into fistfights.
No one actually thought the level would make it into the final game. "It was really just an early attempt at getting something--anything--in the game that used non-player characters and physics," Guthrie remembers. Still, the street-war sequence showed tremendous promise. So much promise that, after seeing the sequence, Newell asked the team to prepare a "proof of concept" reel for the actual game. The reel would contain about a dozen different snippets of gameplay. If it looked good, Half-Life 2 would be given the green light for full-scale production. In late 2001, the team started work on the reel, hoping to finish it in early 2002 and then unveil the game at E3 2002.
But soon the team would discover the challenges of working with new and unstable technology. Half-Life 2 was about to hit its first major speed bump. And the geniuses at Valve were about to get a frightening reality check.