RPS Exclusive: Team Fortress 2 Interview

By John Walker on October 1st, 2007 at 9:32 am.

In this first part of our two-part interview with Team Fortress 2 developers Robin Walker and Charlie Brown, we talk about the pathways from the modding community to working at Valve, the long development of TF2 and the changes it went through, Valve’s thoughts on parallel mod Fortress Forever, and how the art design plays such a major role in how we play the game. In Part Two we get into specifics over the nine classes, how it was only by being funny that they were able to finish the game, and, inevitably, talk about Peggle.

TF2 developers Robin Walker and Charlie Brown are an excellent double act. Robin Walker talks, lots. Charlie Brown talks rarely. But despite this disparity, they gel neatly together, finishing each other’s sentences (it’s just that Charlie finishes with a word, and Robin with another couple of paragraphs). Both represent an aspect of the ways Valve is different from any other gaming company I know of. Robin Walker, an original member of the Australian Team Fortress development team, still talks about himself as if he were a modder. He seems almost oblivious to his elevated position. Charlie Brown discusses coding in the way a quietly modest father might mention his pride for his son. Both talk about game development in terms of the player’s needs and desires. They still sound like gamers, perhaps in a large part because they, like every developer at Valve is required to, stay in constant communication with the people who play their games. And they seem to be enjoying themselves.

1

I began by asking Robin Walker how it was that the Team Fortress guys came to be working at Valve back in 1997. They were in demand at the time, their Quake-based mod attracting a lot of attention, with interest from Activision amongst others. But then Valve got in touch.

Robin Walker: Valve were interested in getting us to develop Team Fortress as a mod for Half-Life. They were a year away from releasing Half-Life 1. The big difference between Valve and everyone else was most people would email us and say, “Hey, what are you guys up to?” and we’d tell them, and they’d say, “Oh, that’s really interesting…” and we’d talk back and forth. With Valve, they sent us an email, we replied, and their first response was, “Here’s the plane tickets, get on the plane. Let’s go, no wasting time.”

RPS: And you got right to work?

RW: We had this laundry list of features we had that we wished we could have done in Quake. So we spent the first couple of months making Half-Life into a platform that was good to mod. We did that for a couple of months as contractors, and then Valve bought our company out, and we’ve been here ever since.

RPS: And it’s been a long time. What have you been doing since then?

RW: Oh, nothing.

RPS: Well.

RW: Well, we worked on TF2 a lot. We tried three or four different version of things we called TF2. And we all worked on Half-Life 2 and Episode One. Valve’s a small enough company that everyone works on everything. So it hasn’t been all TF2.

engineer

RPS: Did you ever feel you were trapped in a Duke Nukem Forever world of perpetually reinventing an idea?

RW: Not really. The arc of TF2 is something that’s probably familiar to a lot of amateur developers or designers. When we got here the first thing we built was overly complex, very hard core, almost impenetrable to anyone who wasn’t familiar with FPSs in general. And as we found as we played it, wasn’t more fun because of it. I think one of the things we’ve learned as designers over the time we’ve been here is to better preserve our ideas while still making them more understandable. We’re personally very proud that TF2 is the best product we’ve produced at doing this, where we don’t think we’ve sacrificed any of the depths or complexity that we wanted, but at the same time players can sit down in front of it and have fun without really understanding half of what’s going on. Most things that happen tend to be visually understandable at face value.

If I looked back at various designs in the different versions of TF2, then I think that’s the thing that moved the most. We were always doing interesting classes, interesting weapons, but I think the thing we succeeded at the most, that we were failing at the most, was that nugget of acceptability relative to depth.

RPS: That acceptability really struck me, prompting to write about how welcomed in I felt by the game. In contrast to this, I once had a two hour lesson in Counter-Strike and didn’t learn anything, other than it was incredibly hard.

RW: That was something we spent a heck of a lot of time on. All game developers will talk to you about the importance of that first thirty minutes, or hour, whether it’s a single or multiplayer game. The challenge with multiplayer is our inability to control the circumstances. You may join the server with 32 other snipers, or you might join a server where the admin doesn’t like the way we’ve made the game and he’s going to change a bunch of things, and so on – there’s a lot of areas out of our control. But we’ve really spent a lot of time on trying to make sure wherever we could that in visual and sound areas of the game it was up-front about what was going on. The obvious place where that occurred was in the visuals. We really built an art direction that was totally formed for the game. This was one of the advantages of the development taking so long. We really understood our game, so we knew the areas that the art direction had to be able to solve. I have a gun that shoots people and heals them, I have a guy that takes three times as much damage as this other guy…

Charlie Brown: Speed differences.

RW: Yeah, the incredible speed differences between two guys. We have nine different classes and it’s incredibly crucial that when one of them comes around the corner, you immediately know which one it is. And even if you don’t even know what the classes are, the shape and the way he moves should give you a sense of what he’s like, or what he does.

CB: Or that he’s different.

RW: Yeah, that he’s different than you. We were able to sit down and say, this has to be a world that encompasses these things. It was pretty obvious early on that the stylisation was going to help us a lot, but we wanted to try a bunch and find what worked. Even finding fictionalised background settings that aren’t important to players, but help us find a notion of the world we’re in, so that when you come to create the Spy’s cloaking device, you have an understanding of what this should be. Is it a large backpack he wears? Or is it a watch? Or is it a glowing neon stick?

CB: The art style solved so many problems. Things as simple as the Death Cam, letting people know what it was that happened to them, where it came from, so the next time they’re not taken by surprise. It’s one of the worst things in the world to walk out into a space, get nailed from somewhere, have no idea why, respawn and then have it happen again thirty seconds later.

RW: You’re not going to learn anything that way, you’re not going to get any better.

CB: There was no big one thing, but a thousand of little things came together.

RW: We’ve been building multiplayer games now for so long that we have an understanding of the first set of problems that any play-tester runs into. In any multiplayer game you play, there’s this batch of problems you always run into, and we made sure we addressed every one of those in TF2. You can regard any multiplayer game as a constant optimisation problem for players – they’re getting in and they’re going to try something, and they’re going to need to be told whether it worked or it didn’t. And then they’ll try something else, and they’ll need to be told again. And the more explicit and successful the game is at showing the cause and effect of any of your actions, the better you’re able to learn.

heavy

[I should probably mention that I was still in the room. It’s actually a real joy to be able to sit back and listen as two people enthuse so eloquently about their game. Robin continues.]

RW: Something to give you a sense of how much we work on this would be the weeks of work that go into the blood effect when you shoot someone. It does all these crazy levels of work. It scales differently – it doesn’t scale over distance like everything else does. It orientates itself perpendicular to the character you’re hitting, and deliberately moves outside the silhouette. So it sprays away from the character even if you shoot from the front. This is distance based. It doesn’t care too much when you’re up close to a character and it’s big on screen, but when you shoot from a distance it sprays to the side.

CB: It’s way more saturated, and a unique colour.

RW: The sound that the game plays attenuates differently so you’ll hear it at a greater distance. What we found was there was no magic bullet. It took fifty small things, and to be honest, it’s not perfect. But we are limited. When a player is focused they get a tunnel vision that’s so extreme that they’re literally focused at their crosshair level. But they’re looking past the HUD. You can’t put anything on the HUD at that point. Even if you put something on the crosshair, they don’t see it. They’re looking at the character they’re shooting at.

This is all to explain how much work goes into the basics. Questions like, is my weapon hurting that character? Or am I hitting that guy? are so fundamental to the game’s effectiveness at talking to you about how effective your have been. If you screw that up, it doesn’t matter how many wonderful features we have at the meta-game level. I think this was a part of the problem we had with older versions of TF2. It doesn’t matter if you have this Commander class, and he has this magical strategy layer on top. When it gets down to it, if you screw up the way the game talks to you, it’s no good.

RPS: So has this all worked out as you hoped, going into the beta?

RW: We were… I don’t know if shock is quite the word, but definitely close to shock at how successful the beta has been in terms of response. We were never expecting to…

RPS: Take Steam down?

CB: That was one.

RW: [laughs]. Yeah, that was one thing. But also to dominate online spaces so effectively. We watch various places online to find out how we’re doing. Are we screwing up? That’s what we want to know. We get a lot of feedback on email, and forums, and comments online, and we gather as much of that as we can. The response to TF2 was more toward the positive than we were expecting. Anyone who’s shipped anything online will know you’re going to get a bunch of people who hate it, and a bunch of people who like it. And hopefully you have more people liking it than hating it. We were definitely expecting more complaints, I guess. [Laughs]. There were so many X factors. Like what were people expecting after ten years? I can’t remember half the stuff we were talking about and doing when we started TF2, so what’s the average TF2 fan at this point expecting it to be?!

scout

RPS: Obviously whenever anything’s popular online, there’s a terrifying die-hard community. Have you had feedback from them? Have you managed to win them over?

RW: We’ve talked to them throughout the development. A year ago, after we announced the new visuals, a bunch of those guys talked to us over email. The sort of game they’re playing in Team Fortress Classic today is not the sort of game that 99 percent of TFC fans were playing then. I think they understood they weren’t our core for the types of people we were trying to get to play this. They’ve honed their skills to this razor-sharp degree that means if any of us were to go and play them, I’m sure they’d utterly destroy us. I hope those guys are having fun with TF2. I’ve had emails from some of them saying, “I was totally against this project. There was no way I was going to like it. But you’ve won me over.” So I hope those guys enjoy it. And if they don’t? Well, Fortress Forever’s really good! They can play that.

RPS: What do you think of Fortress Forever?

RW: I think they did a great job. We swapped emails, we tried to give those guys a bit of help. And hopefully we’ll get them up on into a Steam Friday update.

CB: They definitely did a lot of work. A lot of maps ported.

RW: I know how hard it is to get a bunch of people spread around the internet to finish anything. Let alone a product that’s good. I think those guys should be really proud of what they’ve managed to pull off. Personally, I hope they build something else now, and hopefully it’s their own. They’ve got a really good team.

RPS: Their timing couldn’t be much less fortunate, could it?

RW: That was purely accidental! As I say, we swapped emails with those guys. I’ve swapped emails with some of the developers, and I think we’ve all been embarrassed about the way all of our fans assume that we must hate each other or something. I wish we’d organised ourselves a little better. Everyone’s working, so no one’s paying a lot of attention to what anyone else is doing. But right out of the gate, I think they’re the biggest non-Valve mod, with the most players. They’re beating Gary’s Mod. I know that’s not traditionally a multiplayer game but it has a lot of players playing online at any point. They’ve done really well.

medic

RPS: Shifting subjects, how does TF2 fit in with the design philosophy at Valve?

CB: I’d say it fits in pretty well. One of the things, technically, that we really wanted to do with the project was bring a lot of the knowledge that we had in the single player space into the multiplayer space. Like pacing, and things like that, which we spent a lot of time on in the single-player experience. Our multiplayer games haven’t really had that kind of pacing. TFC, its pacing while consistent, was flat. It wasn’t spiking as far as having a bunch of highs and lows, or building to a final crescendo. We wanted to capture that and bring it to multiplayer as best we could. Which was some of the ideology behind trying to avoid stalemates. We’ve put things in to try and break these moments, like invulnerability. Those ten seconds of invulnerability are really good at breaking this up, and changing the pace of the game. Everyone’s focused on fighting each other in a specific little battle, all of a sudden everybody is focused on a particular event.

RW: It’s a big spike in pacing for both the guys who went invulnerable – like, “Ooh! Charge!” – and it’s a big spike for the defenders. When an invuln crew comes in, you know you have to stay alive for ten seconds, and then you can push back. Defence, as Charlie says, is traditionally very stable. Guys come in, they push and you hold them. In defence, in fact, the goal is stability. Invulnerability breaks that. It’s, BAM, big moment for both offence and defence, and someone’s going to come out a winner and someone’s going to come out a loser. At the end of it, holding off an invulnerability charge is a big spike on the defence’s side. For the offence, it’s a big rallying cry. It’s a very explicit part of the crafting of the pacing.

CB: It follows through into general standings. We want the game to end on a higher moment. We don’t want it to just fizzle out. With our previous multiplayer games you can sit there for forty-five minutes just butting heads. Time runs out and you’ve finished the game with no real resolution. It’s not really satisfying for anybody. So, this notion of a stalemate was taken to another extreme with the Sudden Death mode. There is that kind of resolution one way or the other.

RW: We’re still working on the Sudden Death. I think, if anything, that sometimes stalemates more than we’d actually like too. So we have a couple of ideas for things that should make that even more rewarding for the teams.

RPS: In time for release?

RW: TF2’s a multiplayer project, and that means it’s not going to be “done”. We’re just going to keep working on it. Same as Counter-Strike had a lot of revisions over the years. With TF2 we intend to do the same. We’ve been releasing updates mostly focusing on fixes…

CB: Stability issues.

RW: We’re not marking the end of the beta, or the ship day, as a day that anything really changes. As a customer, you’ll be used to this. We already have various features we want to get out there, and we’ve got plans for the stat system.

new beginnings

Join us for Part Two of our interview with Robin Walker and Charlie Brown. Find out which are their own favourite classes, and which they avoid, learn more about their insatiable love of Peggle, and find out how it was the decision to be funny that finally brought us TF2 after a ten year wait. (And make sure to check back tomorrow for a special bonus surprise.) And – hell! – if you’re here and have a hankering for all things TF2, you may enjoy our now complete Go Team! feature.

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37 Comments »

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  1. Synoptase says:

    Nice piece of interview you got there. Very intersting! These guys took their time and seem to really know what they’re doing…
    I like Charlie Brown. He’s kinda like that famous comic strip (not the loser part), a strong determination :)

    Cheers

  2. Martin Coxall says:

    Nice work.

    I keep trying to think of something to add, but I can’t. Warnock’s Dilemma seems to be in force here. If somebody doesn’t say something soon, I think Mr Walker will melt.

    Ah well.

    http://digg.com/pc_games/RPS_Exclusive_Team_Fortress_2_Interview/

    Digg it?

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    We highly approve of anyone digging our stuff. Man.

    KG

  4. Nurdbot says:

    Hehe, class. Glad the TF2 and FF devs get along so well (The FF mod is BRILLIANT). Maybe VALVE should hire the FF guys and make them both work together for TF3 eh?

  5. muscrat says:

    If memory serves me correct one of the original Quake TF creators – im not sure if it is Robin Walker – wirtes for the Aussie PC Powerplay magazine (damn awesome magazine).

    And I dont know if it Robin Walker, but I think the same guy might be the head of the Games and Interactivity course at Swinburne Univeristy…..

  6. Carey says:

    Ah the Aussie PC Power Play magazine, I think RPS’s very own Jim R might be doing something for them soon.

    Top interview John (though it seems you had didn’t exactly have to get them talking:) ).

  7. Freelancepolice says:

    Excellent work on the interview guys, very interesting and a nice insight

  8. mOOzilla says:

    Pitty I cannot give Valve my money as I still cannot access my Steam account.

    How about fixing it Valve?

  9. Sepharo says:

    m00 is on a cross-board “can’t-access-my-steam-account” informational tour.

    Why do you keep asking Valve to fix your Steam account on message boards they probably don’t read?

    I assume you’ve emailed them and have either not gotten a response or have reached an impasse. The next step is to ask for your money back and/or move on.

  10. powpow says:

    “Join us later this week for Part Two of our interview”

    Can’t you just post it now, if we promise to visit later in the week anyway to read it again? It’s worse than a neighbours cliffhanger! Informational blackmail or something, that’s what it is!

  11. Martin Coxall says:

    You are slashdotted. Neat.

    Poor webserver gonna be chops.

  12. regnarts says:

    What a nice interview!!! It let me know more about the developers… Can’t wait to read the Park Two of the interview!!

  13. Tomer says:

    I was waiting long time for an interview of such sort about TF2, and i’m looking forward to the 2nd part.

    BTW, the original creators of TF were Robin Walker and Jhon Cook (also works for Valve). I’ve heard there was a 3rd guy, but I don’t know his name.

  14. MaW says:

    They definitely did what they set out to do – TF2 is accessible and FUN. I suck at online team-based multiplayer, but I’m actually being useful sometimes in TF2 games. I love how I can log in as a medic and start following a Heavy around and really feel like I’m increasing his effectiveness.

    That’s assuming the person playing the Heavy doesn’t keep completely wasting invuln moments though.

    The worst thing about TF2? The number of people who try and give voice commands that are utterly unintelligible. Did they test their microphones??

  15. Masterdog says:

    @Tomer – it was Ian Caughley(sp?), who I believe didn’t follow the other two to Valve.

  16. Natural Selector says:

    Wow, I didn’t know that Valve realized the importance of mods even before the release of Half Life 1. I always thought they started the whole we-support-the-modding-community thing after the rise of Counter Strike.
    Nice Screenshots by the way!

  17. DJSatane says:

    When will Valve fix issues and put friendly fire back in TF2? This is important for competitive community.

  18. dejanzie says:

    Great interview, you really listened carefully to what they had to say with a lotta love for the game.

    Is nice!

  19. DJSatane says:

    Why remove FF option altogether? Leagues and laddres want to use it, I am not talking about pubs, but competitive gaming. In competitive gaming lets say 6v6 or 8v8 friendly fire is naturally on in all online fps to date… It rewards team work and skill. If you just spam at any player moving in without worrying about him being a teammate it’s called noobfest and not intense competition. In addition, FF ON allows for a spy to sneak in and cause chaos having sentry kill a friendly or a scout moving in fast across causing collateral damage, that was a rush of adrenaline and part of tactics ever since quake world team fortress matches.

    Valve removing FF just because some people cried about getting shot on pub servers is terrible decision.

  20. Watcher95 says:

    Oh gawd, stop whining about the FF being off.

    If you like it so much , design and program a game that has it just the way YOU like it.

  21. John Walker says:

    This has been covered elsewhere, but the FF was never intended to be there in the first place.

    It was accidentally left in as an option in the beta, and then removed. The reason for this is huge and simple: they didn’t design the game to have FF, and it being on made the game break. It isn’t about people complaining – it’s about their never having balanced the classes for FF, nor designed the maps, bug-tested, play-tested or set any aspect of the game to work with it.

  22. Paul says:

    Wheres Brotherhood of arms? this tf2 sux

  23. Matt says:

    Team Fortress 2 is a game with amazing visuals but shallow gameplay. At first glance, especially by casual gamers unfamiliar with Team Fortress, it appears to have depth. Reviewers love it, as with their seven hours with the game they see bright colors and pretend like they can gauge balance. It’s a game that gives a great first impression, and that was very carefully engineered with user research and strong design.

    The trouble with the game is its long-term appeal. Why should I keep playing a game I’ve mastered after an hour of playing? With most classes dumbed down to one specific role, with very few ways to accomplish it (exceptions being Engineer and Spy who can be played with some creativity) an average gamer is able to master his class almost immediately. The end result is gameplay that doesn’t offer anything to gamers that enjoy improving or learning.

    Add in poorly designed features like Critical Hits (let bad gamers get a kill, even when they don’t deserve it) and the overzealous Overtime system and you have a game that’s going to draw in a lot of people and turn them off quickly.

    TF2 will be abandoned in a month or two, as there’s not enough depth to keep anyone coming back, especially the core gamers who stick with a game to master it. There’s nothing to master, so there’s no reason to stick around.

    Great job with the initial impression of the game, but a massive failure for a deep and involving game that creates a strong community.

    • Skabooga says:

      Hey, person, I’m the ghost of PC Gaming future, and I’ve just traveled back in time to tell you that your prognosticational abilities are terrible, as Kieron hints at below.

    • chinook says:

      Oh wow.

      “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

      “TF2 will be abandoned in a month or two, as there’s not enough depth to keep anyone coming back. ” — Matt, clueless message board commenter, 2007.

  24. Kieron Gillen says:

    Two things I find interesting about TF veteran’s complaints about TF2 is their ability to precognitively know how the future will play out.

    KG

  25. Zing! says:

    Sidebar link to this article on your site is brokey-broke (extra h at start of URL): hhttp://www.rockpapershotgun.com/index.php?tag=tf2interview

  26. kevin says:

    9 whole years of development and this is the best that valve can come up with? I have been waiting for tf2 since QWTF, and this is it? I do not know whether to laugh or cry.

  27. Jim Rossignol says:

    Cheer up, Kevin. It’s a fun time!

  28. Player says:

    TF is the best game of the world.