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By John Glanville
High priest of nerdom John Glanville brings you the inside track on the future of gaming from this year’s Gamescom convention in Cologne.
The biggest Gamescom story so far is, funnily enough, one of failures and vapourware: in particular, the ongoing wait for Half-Life 3 (Regular readers will notice that I have a certain fondness for the franchise). For a few brief but significant minutes, the “list of announcements at Gamescom” document held the words “Valve – Half Life 3”. Naturally, everyone near a computer and with a passing familiarity with videogames did a doubletake, then proceeded to write incensed forum posts about how, obviously, they’d been working up to it/there’s no way it could be real (delete as appropriate). Obviously, someone has messed up: while Valve are infamously into the “alternate reality game” launch method, simply giving the answers away in a prospectus is not the sort of thing that their usual ARG designer is known for.For a man who announced his new job with the aid of a Hungarian numbers station, a simple PDF is uncharacteristically lazy.
So what about the prospect of Half-Life 3 can so incense the modern PC gamer? Why did I write a column capitalising on it? Will it ever actually come out? For starters, we should head for the beginning: very late 1997, and the release of the original Half-Life: even this, Valve’s first real game, was late by a year – it had been scrapped almost entirely in 1996 and rebuilt. A reputation for both a commitment to shipping complete, excellent games, and for missing deadlines like journalists miss meals, happily combined to produce a game which was and is beloved by the critical establishment. Then … silence. Counter-strike, a mod, was released and promptly bought out by Valve; the team was hired. The same happened to the teams and games behind Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic: promising talent released something, were hired, and ostensibly continued supporting their previous work. In the meantime, Valve later admitted, projects ‘churned’ in the background: occasional showings and leaks of things like ‘Team Fortress 2001’ (as it would become known) and an early Half-Life 2 alpha test only helped to prove to the playing public that Valve were at work on Good Things, as if Willy Wonka had periodically shown the world his sweets-in-progress. In 2004, with almost no warning: Half-Life 2, and a promise that in the future, they’d try to be less prone to waiting years to release a game. Episode 1 would follow in the autumn of 2005 with a promise of six-monthly instalments; Episode 2 arrived in spring 2007, admittedly with two other games in tow. Nevertheless, each was a 9/10 game or better: almost perfect. Valve justified their lackadaisical attitude to release dates, with a commitment to release quality.Notoriously, Valve slap a release date of “when it’s done” on just about anything they announce, or make Apple-esque announcements which declare a product or update out today or tomorrow. Even then, they’ve been known to slip on releases.
All of this adds up to a fanbase which has faith that if they wait long enough, the game they want will materialise eventually; it doesn’t help that recently, Valve have taken numerous moves which seem to point to either a period of expansion in a desire to kickstart (or finish) something big, or a radical shift in the makeup of the company; on top, Gabe Newell gave a now-notorious interview mostly on ‘Ricochet 2’, allegorically assumed to be Half-Life 3. Everyone is beginning to run out of jokes about how Valve can never make anything with a “3” in the title. Analysts are starting to point to a “now or never” situation with current-gen technology and direction. With the era of the traditional FPS seemingly almost over, the wait for a conclusion to the trilogy is assumed to have a cutoff. The rumour mill, and the fear that sits alongside it, isn’t one that the end product won’t measure up: it’s that the end product won’t get a chance to arrive.