Friday, 29 April 2011

The Road to Valve

PROLOGUE
On a sleepy Tuesday evening in March, Jens noticed that someone on our forum had found not only the location of his apartment, but also had the photos from Google street-view, and photos from the inside, as provided by real estate agents. I guess there really is no right way to deal with such delicate matters, so Jens did what anyone of us would have
done; post the link in the company chat. I can’t for sure remember what we made of this proposed stalker, for only moments later Thomas posted his entry:
“Valve is wondering if we wanna come to the Portal 2 Launch Party in Seattle, but since neither Jens or I can go, we wanted to see if anyone here would be interested.”
Maybe the creepy stalker turned out to be just a regular fan with a love of fine Swedish architecture, or he found some other semi-celebrity to murder. Anyhow, it’s good that Jens is still with us, as his unfortunate departure would not only have caused some retroactive guilt, but also put a serious damper on our excitement about the upcoming trip to Seattle.
Out of the six people working at Frictional Games, three was going. Marc felt under the weather and chose to join Jens and Thomas to hold down the fort while Mikael (that’s me!), Luis, and Marcus, prepared for the journey.

Mikael, Luis, Marcus
SATURDAY
Less than a month later I stood in line to catch my connecting flight out of Frankfurt headed for Seattle. It should be noted that Frictional Games don’t have an office, so I would be meeting Marcus and Luis for the first time on the trip. Marcus would join me in Frankfurt, while Luis was flying in via Paris.
At first everything went smooth, I even had time to change my seat, seeing as Marcus and I hadn’t been seated together. Of course, I mixed up the rows and got a seat even further away. Marcus texted me: “I’m not gonna make the flight!” That’s bad news, I thought, as I was ushered aboard the plane. People crammed themselves into the plane and still no sight of Marcus. Then I got a text from Marcus: “I made it!” I wiggled myself into a weird stand, turned around, and caught a glimpse of his waving hand a few rows back. Looks like we won’t be seeing each other until Seattle.

STILL SATURDAY
As the plane landed I said farewell to the farmer from Oregon, who I had badgered for information about Seattle, and waited for Marcus to emerge from the back rows. He smiled broadly and shook my hand.
“Mr. Marcus, I presume.”
"Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you."
Those weren’t the exact words, but I feel the Stanley-Livingstone greeting is appropriate considering the long wait.

Our Russian driver dropped us off outside our hotel in Bellevue, a neighboring city to Seattle, just across Lake Washington. While checking in, I made sure to ask about Seattle and the sights in Bellevue. The concierge swiftly pulled out a map and marked all the points-of-interest for me. I did not know it yet, but I would end up with quite a few of these maps at the end of our trip.
Luis showed up an hour later. Having found our third team member, it all seemed to come together. Luis natural suave worked well with the joviality of Marcus and my own phlegmatic disposition. After a quiet celebration of our triumph of getting there, we faced a new problem; we had basically been awake for 30+ hours and it wasn’t even noon yet.

We decided to stay in Bellevue that day and get some general shopping out of the way. The concierge pulled out another map and marked the stores of interest. We took in as much as we could of the American experience as we roamed streets and the mall near the hotel. We considered it a wild stab in the dark, but we decided to head for Game Stop and check if they had Amnesia in stock. Not only did we find a copy of Amnesia, but also the Penumbra Collection! Proud and a little full of ourselves, we went looking for food. The concierge pulled out another map, and started marking the restaurants. Despite her efforts, we ended up at Subway.
“Excuse me, I ordered a medium,” I said, shocked by the size of my drink.
“Yeah, that’s the medium,” the cashier rolled her eyes.
“But, what will the other guests drink?”
Marcus, Luis and I, eyed the huge medium cup with unease as we chowed down on our subs. The day continued and our lack of sleep became more and more apparent. Coffee didn’t help, especially not for Luis, who kept insisting on drinking hot chocolate. We made it to around 8:00 p.m. before we caved in.

SUNDAY
The next day happened to be the only day we really had time to do something before the whole Portal 2-mayhem started. We had to make this day count, but first some breakfast. We found our way to a diner called Palomino.
“Do you know what Palomino means in Spanish?” mused Luis as we waited for the food to be served. Marcus and I looked at each other with a we are going to regret this-look.
“What?” we dared.
“You know, it’s like, stains in your underpants.”
The waitress swooped down with our food.
“Everything in order?” she asked.
“Thanks, we’re good.”

“How do we get to Seattle?” I asked the concierge. She seemed confused at first, perhaps as there was no reason for her to give me a map, but told me that taxis were easy to find.
“So, taxi is the way to go, no busses or trains?”
“Oh, there are busses,” she shined and circled some areas on a map. “But, it is quite the long ride, maybe an hour. Taxis take twenty minutes or so.”
“Taxi it is,” I said while trying to figure out if I could leave the redundant map on the counter. I tried to evade her cheerful gaze, but failed. The concierge smiled and nodded approvingly as I took the map and pocketed it.

Some form of Needle

The first stop was the Science Fiction Museum, which apparently doubled as a rock museum, i.e. musical rock, not geological rocks. Personally, I feel pairing up the nerds with the bullies is a bit cruel. Perhaps it’s a part of some form of outreach program, who knows? After a strangely brief visit (not our fault, it was small) to the museum, we took the elevator to the top of Seattle’s most famous building, the Space Needle. The elevator girl yawned through her informational speech, which I assume she had repeated thousands of times before. Length, width, volume, all that good stuff, if you ever find the need to build your own Space Needle. The view was spectacular, which sort of is the point with the place. On the way down the suicidally bored elevator girl asked if we had any questions. I’ll bite, I thought and asked:
“That strange building on the hill…”
“It’s a school.”
“A school? It’s so big,” I interrupted.
“It just looks big, it’s actually quite small.”
“Fascinating,” I closed the conversation, staring into her dead eyes. Just before I started to wave my hand in front of her, to see if she was still with us, the elevator went: “Ding!” The doors opened and the girl ushered us outside.

We made our way down to the waterfront, passed a marina and an aquarium, and continued to Pike Place. It was a public market with vendors selling various knick-knacks, souvenirs, and fish. After dodging our way passed people and crustaceans, we emerged on the other side and headed up into the city.

Marcus approved!

We strolled through the skyscraper area with an appropriate amount of awe, making us look impressed, but not too touristy, until.
“Hey, look at the bus!” called Marcus. Luis and I looked at the bus breaking for the traffic light up ahead. The ad splayed across the side read: Portal 2! Whatever remnants of cool we still possessed escaped us. It was a funny feeling, being proud for Valve’s sake. It was not like we had anything to do with the game itself, we still did our thing. We were still Frictional Games, yet we happily associated ourselves with the American giant. So we took some pictures.

Suddenly we noticed some people we recognized on the other side of the street. It was a group of indie-developers from Two Tribes.
“Are you guys coming tonight? All the indies are meeting,” they said.
“Right, at Joey’s, we’ll be there.”
“Is it true, that this is the first time you guys met?”
“Yeah. We don’t really have an office. Luis is not even in the same country.”
“That’s insane. You made Amnesia without ever meeting?”
“Yeah.”
“Weird.”
“Um, ok.”

After a brief encounter with Seattle’s chinatown, we made our way back across the lake, to Bellevue and the hotel. We were starving and a place called Pagliacci Pizza would have to do.
“Could you pull back on the cheese… like a lot?” asked Marcus. The waiter looked puzzled and simply said yes. American food, sure was bit excessive sometimes.
“I’m sure we are fine. As long as Pagliacci doesn’t mean something nasty in Spanish.”
Luis raised his eyebrow mischievously.
It really didn’t mean anything, and I knew it wouldn’t. Since Pagliacci is a very famous opera about a clown, who murders his wife and her lover on stage. Which sort of goes to tell, if you are picking out a restaurant name, depressing wins over nasty every time.
The food was actually really good, except for the beer which was like a strange mix between apple juice and a Budweiser.

The evening finally culminated at Joey’s where we got to meet the other indie-developers. It was a nice and welcoming group which quickly turned the night into a merry event.
“You guys did Amnesia, without even meeting – not once?!”
“Yeah.”
“Weeeeiiiird.”
“Um, ok.”

MONDAY
This day would be all about Valve and the release of Portal 2. I woke up giddy as a kid on Christmas Day. At least if that kid just happened to have been doing some heavy drinking the night before. I popped a painkiller and headed downstairs to the lobby. Now to figure out how to find Valve. I felt the concierge reaching for a map behind me as one of the other indies said: “Oh, we know where it is, just follow us.”

At Valve we were quickly ushered into a hallway where a cornucopia of food were presented to us as breakfast. Pastries, fruit, and coffee. It was enough to please even the most starving developers. On the other side of the hall was a table filled with Valve swag. Portal bags, signed copies of the game, t-shirts, companion cubes, the list goes on.
“Are these for the champions of the ARG?”
“There too many of them, they must be for us!”
The indies descended upon the free stuff, lifting it into the air, laughing maniacally as if receiving bounty from the gods. Slight embellishment, but we might as well had.

Time for the tour. It may come as a surprise to many, but game developer’s offices are quite conventional. I’m sure many have found out the hard way, but it simply isn’t that convenient to work inside a laser-tag course or a room fitted like a medieval castle. It usually comes down to some minor decoration – a headcrab, a turret, a gold crowbar, and so on. What did catch my attention was Gabe’s knife collection. The collection has an entire room dedicated for it and it is indeed filled with neatly displayed knives in all shapes and forms. I find it funny how readily we accept this oddity inside the offices of a successful company, while in someone’s home, we would instinctually stab the closest friend in hope his cries would distract the owner long enough to get the heck out of there.

Lunch was a massive joint effort and the small army of developers sieged a local restaurant to cure their hunger. Across the table sat John from Steam. We talked about this and that, also happened to mention our strange experience with American beer at the pizza place.
“There is some really good beer here, you just need to know where to find them,” he said and we thought little more about it.

Seat hogging indies

Everyone gathered inside a conference room for an ARG post-mortem meeting. The few chairs filled up quickly, so people ended up leaning on the walls or sitting on the floor. The place was packed, but it was a nice feeling. It felt like going to a convention, with a lot of positive and smiling people. As everyone started to share their experience with the ARG, my eyes opened up to what really had been happening. It is difficult to explain, but I felt that we might have been working too much on pleasing our fans and not the fans of Portal 2. I started to doubt our efforts, but I would soon be swayed.
“Jeep, when would you say you first felt like the ARG was really taking off?” asked one of the indies. It should be explained that Jeep is a man working at Valve. Not only did he spearhead the ARG, but he is also one of the original creators of Portal. Whatever he has to say, it counts for something, at least in this situation.
Jeep sat on the floor in a lotus position, serene like a buddhist monk.
“I think it was when I first saw the glyphs in Amnesia,” he answered after a moment of forethought.
My spirit lifted, we were in the clear. I looked over at Marcus and Luis and we shared a silent Hell yeah!-moment.

We headed back to the hotel to drop off our free stuff and suddenly found ourselves in the lobby again. Valve had planned dinner at a place called Purple. No one of the nearby indies knew where it was, but it was supposed to be close by.
“Do not fret, for I know a way,” I said confidently, “Concierge! We require a route to Purple!”
“Ooh, I found it on my iPhone,” noted another indie.
“Please be quiet, I’m trying to bring this whole map thing to a deserving finale.”
The concierge produced a final map for my collection and circled the hotel and the restaurant called Purple. It was a great moment of camaraderie. I felt a high-five coming on.
“I can see you guys are having a moment, but we really need to get going,” said one of the indies.
“Fine.”

"It's alive!"

After we shared a fancy dinner at Purple we made our way back to the office for the release party. The place had been transformed into a club with people dancing and drinking. We grabbed a few beers and sat down in the lounge area. Then John, the Steam guy, popped up.
“Hey, guys, I heard you wanted to try some fine American brew.”
John had brought with him some real beer and started to fill our glasses. It was truly a heartwarming experience. We were just three guys among a huge pile of indies and he really made us feel welcomed.
“Is it true you guys never met while making Amnesia?” he asked.
“We know – it’s weird,” we sighed in unison.
“I was gonna go with impressive, but yeah, I guess it is kinda weird.”

Luis with some guy named Chet

The evening turned out really well. As the ARG finished, Portal 2 was launched with an actual switch thrown by the Champions of the ARG. After more beer and cake (no lie), we were ready to head back to the hotel. As we were leaving, Chet Faliszek, writer at Valve, approached us.
“I just wanted to say, I really like what you did with Amnesia.”
“Really? You like our work? Are we even allowed to speak to you?”
“Of course, we’re peers. You made a great game, we made a great game. Simple as that.”
There was nothing more to be said or done. We were humbled by the great experience of visiting Valve and with good humor returned home the next day.


13 comments:

  1. Goodness me! This truly warmed the cockles of my heart! Thank you for sharing the story of your trip, I really enjoyed it! YAY! Whhheeeeeeee!!

    Did you put sugar in your story?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very very cool write up, how awesome :D

    Also, cool shirt Luis.. http://www.frictionalgames.com/forum/attachment.php?aid=1117 :P

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very happy to read how things going well for you. I was really impressed when I learned you created Amnesia without meeting! Good work! I can't wait for the next game.

    ReplyDelete
  4. So you guys did Amnesia, without ever meeting?!

    JK, amazing writeup, keep 'em coming!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great account, seems like a really good time. All the other nerds on the internet are now really jealous of you all.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Fantastically written, and seems like you had a great time. :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I hope that jens is alright and all. I can't even begin to imaginethe fear of knowing that someone with unknown motives managed to find the place you live at.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Nice read. I really enjoyed reading it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Could we get a new "* months since release" post? It's been an great way to see how you're progressing and what sales your up to. Btw, loved Penumbra, Amnesa and Justine! looking forward to your future games!

    Cheers, Chezz

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hurry and make another game. I want to buy it.

    A haunted house game would be sweet. Or a slasher in a campground, like friday the 13th jason voorheese theme. I'll buy any game you guys make. Amnesia scared the crap out of me from start to finsh :P !!!!!!!

    Marquis DeBlodey

    ReplyDelete
  11. What American beers did you try?!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I hope that's Pathogen Studios someday =) I'm still too terrified to play Amnesia (Had it since release >.>) but I know it is great!

    ReplyDelete
  13. That's actually really terrifying... Jens was the only person in the game you were forced to kill with your own hands.

    ReplyDelete

SiteMeter