Since late 2002, Turtle Rock Studios has been working closely with Valve as a contractor-developer for Valve's Counter-Strike series. Originally hired to design bots for the FPS, the independent firm would soon be tasked with creating content and handling bigger development duties for the team-play shooter franchise, which included Counter-Strike: Xbox, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, and Counter-Strike: Source.
Turtle Rock was founded by Michael Booth, whose prior credits include having created Nox and doing technical direction on the Command & Conquer series. Because of all the acclaimed work that his company has done for Valve, the 13-member Turtle Rock team got to create its own original title, Left 4 Dead. This zombie shooter, featuring online team-play mechanics, is planned for release later this year.
In part one of our exclusive interview, Booth discusses working with Valve, the benefits of Steam and the challenges of online gaming - visit GamesIndustry.biz next week for part two.
Q: GamesIndustry.biz: What advantages has your relationship with Valve provided you with as an independent developer?
Michael Booth: Our business relationship with Valve has been a huge win for us and goes far beyond being an engine licensee or distribution partner. I think most people who work with Valve would say the same thing.
For Turtle Rock and many other developers, creating a game is a 24-7 proposition for at least a couple of years. As a company that started out as a small studio not too long ago, Valve understands this and has not only made its game development staff available to us throughout our project, but its business and marketing personnel as well.
However, even if you have the best game ever, you still need a way to get the word out and garner interest in it. By utilising Steam, and the community of millions who connect to it each month, we have a huge advantage right out of the gate in supporting and marketing our product, both before and after launch.
Q: From a developer's standpoint, how would you rate the Steam platform?
I rate Steam very highly. As with everything Valve does, their emphasis is on making sure the end-user's experience is a good one, and continuously iterating on the design to improve the platform.
Since they are fundamentally game developers themselves, you don't get that "ivory tower" crap you so often run into other places where someone's "grand vision" gets politely shoved down your throat.
If something isn't working and you have a better idea, they listen and often implement it. If something is working well, they still ask how it could be made better. It's the same iterative creative process they use to create their games, and we at Turtle Rock to create ours.
As for the nuts-and-bolts of Steam as a distribution platform, no one does it better. It's a relatively simple process to ready your game for basic Steam distribution. Couple that with their heavy duty bandwidth capabilities and worldwide reach and you have a pretty sweet setup for game distribution.
That said, Steam offers more than digital distribution. It has a number of useful services available for developers to leverage such as server browsers, matchmaking technology, friend lists, instant messaging, and other cool stuff they are cooking up for future releases. Plus, these services are not restricted to just the Steam versions of our games.
With all of these components integrated into one solution, we are able to focus on creating our game and not worry about taking on the huge risk of developing these solutions from scratch or cobbling together a bunch of disparate pieces of technology.
With Steam I know I've got all of these services covered and I know that they can support a huge audience, given the success of Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source.
Q: What about from a money-making standpoint? Is online distribution becoming a better way to sell game product than retail stores?
As I mentioned earlier, Steam is much more than a downloader: It is an online community as well as a back end for anti-piracy, server browsing, auto-updating, and so on. This array of services offered through Steam makes our products better, regardless of where they are purchased.
For us, that's the important part: Using Steam means I sell more products overall. More at retail - promotion to a big audience - and more by introducing a new distribution channel to those that buy at retail.
Q: In what areas do you feel Steam could still use improvement, whether technically or from a business standpoint?
Right now Steam is pretty efficient when it comes to delivering games and updates to end users. It's easy to use and unobtrusive. The business feature I'm waiting for is "one click" impulse buying.
Q: What kind of challenges do developers face these days when developing an online team-play game? Is competition getting tougher as the market becomes crowded with titles?
One challenge is to be innovative with your game design -- to bring something new to the table. There are several excellent franchises out there that have several team-play game variants well covered. So if you're just going to do yet another deathmatch or capture the flag game, think again.
For some reason, a lot of single-player games think they can just throw together a basic online deathmatch using their game assets and call it done. That is just wasting dev time and game credibility to put a "play online" bullet point on their box.
Q: Online multiplayer games look set to dominate the near-future of the gaming industry, especially with this new generation of consoles. Would you agree?
Online multiplayer has always been what drives me as a game designer. The computational and graphical power of today's PCs and consoles combined with broadband Internet connections offers insanely cool possibilities. We have just begun to scratch the surface, and there is a lot of design inertia from prior unconnected decades of game design that we are still shaking off.
While there will certainly always be a market for well crafted single-player experiences, we at Turtle Rock Studios are focused on the immense possibilities of the online universe.
Michael Booth is the founder and CEO of Turtle Rock Studios. Interview by Howard Wen. To read part two of this feature, visit GamesIndustry.biz next week.