Making The Orange Box: how 3 Valve games became 1

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The Orange Box is one of the strangest quirks of gaming history. Never before had a developer released three brand new, entirely separate games at the same time in one package, and thanks to digital distribution, it probably won’t happen again. What makes The Orange Box truly remarkable though is that it contained two of the most-anticipated games of 2007, and what proved to be the biggest surprise hit of the year (some might argue ever).

The company was Valve and the games were Half Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal.

Bundling them together under the unassuming title of ‘The Orange Box’ would seem like commercial suicide to most marketing execs and yet it proved the complete opposite. How did this happen? What possessed Valve to put these three games, each of which would have been a huge release in its own right, in the same package? (and let’s not forget that Half Life 2 and Episode One were included as well).

As it turns out, The Orange Box began as an experiment in work psychology. “In our prior history, we’d never shipped more than a single product at a time, and we’d never shipped multiple platforms simultaneously,” says Valve’s Robin Walker. This sequential approach to releases was down to the company’s atypical structure, where designers are encouraged to create and work on the projects of their choosing, rather than being told what to do.

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A side-effect of this is that designers can also drift between projects, which would happen frequently when a specific project neared completion. “As a project started to head for the finish line, it created such a gravitational pull that it would pull people from other projects to help.” Walker explains. “Not because they had to, but because they could see that an hour or two spent on an almost finished game was significantly more efficient than the same time spent on a game that was still a long way from shipping.”

After Episode One, however, the situation changed. Episode Two, Team Fortress 2 and Portal all hit their final phases at roughly the same time. This meant the organic pulling-together that occurred previously couldn’t happen in the same way, as Valve collectively couldn’t decide what order the games should be released in. In theory the company could have assigned people to specific tasks, but that’s not the Valve way. “So we started to think about the idea of putting them all in the same box. If we did that, and succeeded in making everyone think of their job as shipping all three titles in a singular shipping event, then maybe they’d apply their efforts across them as a whole.”

Once this idea was out in the open, Valve realised that it might solve other issues the company had been struggling with. Although the games included in the Orange Box are very different, they complemented each other well, each offering something that the other two games lacked. “TF2 had no singleplayer component, and Episode 2 had no multiplayer. Portal seemed like an entirely new kind of creature, one that challenged us to figure out how to convince players to buy a comedy wrapped inside a first-person puzzle game,” Walker points out. Pricing was also an issue. “[Not one of the three seemed] like a title that we should charge full price for, and our experience with Episode One taught us that retailers had real difficulty selling a low priced box containing a new, high quality game,” Walker says. “With each of these issues being helped by the existence of the other two games in the same box, it seemed like a thing worth trying.”

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As a way of distributing the workload evenly across the three projects without nailing people to their desks, The Orange Box was successful. “If one of the games was going to make our release target, but the other two weren’t, it didn’t make much sense for people to continue working on that first one. So it worked as a method of getting us all to think of ourselves as part of a single large team,” Walker says. But it also affected the process of shipping a game in several unanticipated ways. For starters, it confused the hell out of the retailers, as there was a general assumption that one new box meant one new game, whereas multipacks were reserved for “bundles of old titles or bundles of low quality ones.”

“Another obvious one was what to call the damn thing,” Walker adds. “It was really hard to find a title that made it clear what was in it, and that it wasn’t a shoddy bundle. We even toyed with the idea of having three different boxes, each including all the games, but named after just one of them.” In the end, Valve went with the Orange Box because of the colour’s prior association with Half Life, having been the colour of the box of the very first game, and also the colour of Gordon Freeman’s HEV suit.

Even advertising the Orange Box proved more difficult than Valve had anticipated. This was particularly the case with TV advertising, where Valve needed to advertise one box containing three completely different games, all in half a minute. “Designing a TV spot that tries to explain what a video game is and why someone should buy it is a tricky problem when you only have thirty seconds, and you start by immediately losing some of it to entry/exit title screens. I don’t think we’d realized how much harder it was going to be when we tried to use those same thirty seconds for three new titles instead of one.”

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Despite these unanticipated issues (which Walker emphasises were “entirely self-adopted pain”), Valve never doubted the core appeal of the box itself. “We felt like each game would satisfy such a different desire on the part of players that they would all be able to find their place and audience,” Walker explains. What Valve didn’t anticipate was just how diverse that appeal would prove to be. Many assumptions made both by Valve and third parties about how the Orange Box would sell, who would buy it and who would play which games, proved to be wildly inaccurate.

“We’d been showing Portal to publishers and distributors in the months leading up to shipping, and we were often told that we’d made a game that would really appeal just to female gamers, or to people who weren’t into shooters, and so on. They felt we should target specific products to specific demographics, and that combining them into one was going to torpedo the whole affair,” Walker says. “After we shipped, we saw people of all kinds playing everything in the Orange Box, and they didn’t break down along those kinds of simplistic lines. Portal players spent a lot of their other gaming time in Counter-Strike, and TF2 attracted players from all across the gaming spectrum. Both attracted many new players in the process.”

The complex way the Orange Box was bought and played opened Valve’s eyes to the nuances of the market, and acted as a catalyst for how it operates Steam today, collecting statistics on who plays what games for how long, and tailoring the service around those stats. “The Orange Box applied pressure on the communication channels through which we talked to players about our games, and the distribution channels through which they bought them. That pressure highlighted the ways in which those channels were affecting the kinds of decisions and games we could make,” Walker says.

Although The Orange Box was created as a problem-solving experiment, putting it together was nevertheless tough on Valve, as it meant dealing with a lot of unique problems that weren’t strictly to do with game design. “The process itself had the pretty immediate effect of us saying ‘yeesh, let’s not try and do that again!’ Walker says. “But overall I think it ended up furthering our belief that we needed to get to a place where we could do whatever we wanted with our games, without having to worry about factors other than what players would think.” Indeed, perhaps the most significant legacy of the Orange Box is it helped Valve envision a future in which there are no boxes at all.

23 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    RPS hitting hard with timely articles.

    But really, Orange Box was a good buy. Portal was excellent, as everyone knows full well, and Ep 2 and TF2 were fine too I suppose.

    Pity about Episode 3 though. I guess Valve did get their future where they produced no boxes at all. Other than loot boxes, maybe.

    • puppybeard says:

      Yeah similar enough, I was excited by HL2:Episode 2, and I loved it, but Portal was such a joyous bolt from the blue.

      I never really got into TF2 though. Maybe because it was on console in a house full of lads. It was the same year Modern Warfare was out, and that multiplayer was far more exciting (to our eyes, at the time), and more amenable to passing the controller as well.

      All in all though, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single purchase with so much fun and refreshment inside.

  2. Bahumat says:

    I think it is telling that of the three games, a decade later, Half Life 2 seems the least important game of the three.

    A decade on and I’m still firing up Team Fortress 2, and I’ll happily play another round of Portal at least annually as well.

    • fish99 says:

      Personally I never played TF2 and would rather have HL3 or HL2:EP3 than Portal 3 or TF3. Any series that hasn’t had a game for so long is going to feel irrelevant, whether that’s HL, TF, L4D, heck even Portal 2 was 6 years ago now.

      The sad thing about remembering Orange Box was it was a time when Valve still made lots of games.

  3. DeepSpace69 says:

    Awesome article. I was trying to explain to wife the other day how odd and amazing the Orange Box was, now I can just link her to words better written than I can manage.

    I still have my Orange Box with the DVD inside. In a world of digital media, it is the only physical PC game that I own. Feels wrong to get rid of it, somehow.

  4. UnholySmoke says:

    My girlfriend got me the special edition in a big tin box with the HL2 logo t-shirt inside. I knew she was a keeper. Married now with our second sprog on the way. Three of my top ten games (counting HL2 as one big game) in a single box. They literally do not make them like this any more.

    • Dugular says:

      I have that exact tin box you described, but it was the Half-Life 2 Collectors Edition. With just Half-Life 2 (And CS: Source and Half-Life: Source).

      Unless they did a similar one for The Orange Box that I’m unaware of?

  5. Lobotomist says:

    Probably highest worth per money ever. I think you fail to mention that at the time Orange Box CD cost mere 20$ !

    However, this was a clever strategy that made Steam a thing. And once again showed that greed may give you more money now, but generosity pays thousand times more in long term…

  6. phuzz says:

    I remember the dilemma of trying to decide which to play first. I’d been hearing some good things about Portal, I seem to remember there’d been a few trailers, and maybe the odd interview that was starting to make me think it might be more than just the filler game in the bundle. Team Fortress 2 looked like the sort of multiplayer game that I might actually enjoy (it was), but Episode 2 was the clear front runner because, come on, it’s HalfLife!
    If I remember right I’d pre-ordered, and it unlocked in the morning when I was at work. By the time I’d got home there’d been enough on the internet that I realised that I’d have to play Portal first, which I did in one straight play through, and ever since then it’s had a place in my heart.
    Sure, Ep2 and TF2 were both amazing games, and if Portal had turned out to be a dump game to round out the pack, then we’d still be fondly remembering the Orange Box, but somehow, out of nowhere, this little game just stole the show.

  7. Halk says:

    And the only game that didn’t turn into a joke was Portal… Half-Life has been reduced to a meme years ago and Team Fortress 2 is just a mutated monstrosity of its former self.

    • Fincher says:

      It’s very easy to call out TF2 as a mutated monstrosity, but at least it’s a mutated monstrosity that is alive. It is also a mutated monstrosity that largely defined how post-launch support for a multiplayer game would be handled for the foreseeable future.

      TF2 has lived for 10 years and still has a healthy playerbase. How many multiplayer FPS games could boast that accomplishment 10 years ago? I guess that list might be limited to just Quake.

      Personally, I think there was a time from 2011 to 2016 when I was really angry about what happened to TF2. But I picked it up again in 2016 in preparation for Overwatch. Been having a blast since and have barely touched Overwatch.

  8. jeppic says:

    I completely forget why I bought the box, I think I had spare cash and had heard some things about Portal and Half Life.

    I remember trying to figure out if there was a copy without TF2, as I had no use for online multiplayer, as I preferred casual methodical gaming.

    Installed and booted up TF2 on a whim. I’ve probably spent more hours in that game than any other game period…

  9. Kollega says:

    And now, for a perspective from a second/third-world country. When I bought The Orange Box, it was something like 7000 in local currency. That, according to my memory, was around 45 dollars at the conversion rate back then. To compare, an ordinary game was something like 2000 or 3000, and even that was a luxury price for licensed copies – the pirated ones went for something like 600 or 700. But I only had a pirate copy of HL2 and/or Ep1, if memory serves, and I felt that getting five games was good value for money – even for such a high price. And in the short run, I was definitely right.

    And I’m still pissed off that Team Fortress 2 – my favourite game in the bunch – was basically taken away from me and replaced with a mockery of everything that was good about it. Because the amounts of squandered potential for great stories and great experiences, that were all thrown aside for the sake of hat-peddling, I can’t even begin to calculate. That might be well how Half-Life 2 fans feel nowadays.

  10. skyst says:

    Portal. The little puzzle game tacked on to The Orange Box. I went in mostly blind, having played quite a bit of HL1, Opposing Force and TF1 years earlier. Not a huge fan of puzzle games, I almost didn’t play it after getting through Half Life and messing around with Team Fortress 2.

    But I gave it a shot! After initially finding it more fun than expected, I started finding these carefully hidden side rooms that revealed a tragic story of someone living here, amongst the puzzles. I realized that there was more going on in the game than I ever could have expected.

    What a wonderfully creepy and exciting ride that was! I couldn’t recommend PORTAL enough to everyone I met with an interest in PC gaming. Not HL2. Not TF2. Portal!

  11. benkc says:

    Interesting article!

    Reading the comments here, it seems my situation was unusual. I’d watched a few developer videos about Portal leading up to its release, and that was the game I was most excited about. Finally getting my hands on all the Half Life Twos was just a bonus. Played all the way through Portal on release night, and then a second playthrough that weekend. It was only after that that I started in on the half-life twos.

    Never really got into TF2. Tried it out a couple times, but it never really clicked. I pretty much put competitive FPS games behind me after I finished college.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    I think more to the point, it helped them envision a future where they don’t release their own games at all. Like one gigantic, body-draining orange orgasm.

  13. floogles says:

    I was just thinking the other day that the gaben memes have slowly disappeared. My assumption was that people have started to give up hope about not just half life, but about the things that valve represented in the gaming industry not having a place to come out anymore.

    I’m sad about it, because I believed in them too.

  14. PersonThatPlaysGames says:

    Portal was such a good game, it was really smart at the time to put it in a mix of games that were not entirely “full length” also enjoyed the other games.

    Maybe they’ve spent years making a new engine with unity like tools and want to see if they could use HL3 to sell it and never finished…

    The name did baffle store clerks “Orange box? you want what?”

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