Previously I have said to friends on tragically sober rants, (happy St. Patty’s day), that the Half Life games were technological releases. The minutes long train ride in the beginning of Half Life 1 was essentially a showcase of all the cool visual effects. Half Life 2 was no different. The opening showed off the insane level of detail put into the facial animations. Later you see reflective water, halos of light streaming into a dark room, and it’s big feature: physics. The gravity gun MADE Half Life 2. Its physics puzzles, whether they were seesaw based, or just saw based, were the reason to pick up the game. Physics pretty much needed to be in any big title from then on. I am almost positive other games had physics and the ability to pick up stuff from the ground, but after picking up a bottle and throwing it at the oppressive head of a police state, it was clear physics was here to stay.
Behind what a typical player would notice there were numerous technological improvements in the engine of either game, the kind of improvements that make the engine itself a viable product. And they were successful. Half Life 1 was modded to oblivion, and the engine licensed out to developers. Half Life 2’s engine took that to another level. The engine was licensed out and Valve used it to create a wide variety of titles: a new Counter Strike, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, and another game changer, Portal.
Why would I make a big deal about the engine? Because I remember how big of a thing it used to be. When Easter Egg Productions was founded in 2004, with the intention of making video games, we looked into licensing the various engines of the time. The Source engine (Half Life 2) was a key contender. Any engine worth mentioning would cost somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to get. These engines were expensive pieces of software and big business. It was a different time, and the Half Life series was a flagship game for the coding power of Valve.
And times changed.
Now, it’s practically free to get a AAA game engine. Unity 3D shook things up with the free version of their engine, a fairly featured offering. In the last few years it has snowballed. Unreal 4 from Epic Games, another company that rose to power licensing their Unreal engine, offers its entire engine and development suite as a free download. All you need is to give them some percent of quarterly revenue over a few thousand dollars. That is a permissive license. In the past few months Amazon released Lumberyard, an engine based on the powerful CryTek engine, literally for free. Their caveat is that you need to use their online services, which, from what I understand, is pretty much the best deal as of writing.
So what is the problem here? What is holding back Half Life 3? Well for one all these other engines available for free probably cast a mighty indie shadow over Valve. Competing with free is difficult, which Valve definitely knows. So the engine itself wouldn’t fare very well with its old model, and the Source engine is comparatively less featured than these new options. The other big stumbling block is the lack of gimmicks to add. Half Life 1 had skeletal animation, and a heavily scripted story. Half Life 2 had detailed facial animations, and a freaking GRAVITY GUN. That was awesome. I honestly can’t think of what next big feature Valve could add in to HL3 as a showcase. In the past decade everyone has been milking the easy features. Parkour, jet packs, jet-pack assisted parkour, jumping into robots, massive open worlds, just so much has happened. Hell, even Duke Nukem Forever came out, President Obama was elected, and we killed Bin Laden. I’m pretty sure there are flying cars, but they are all covered in those Canadian Invisibility cloaks. So much has changed, and I’m going to tweet about it on my phone.
Virtual Reality was probably the last big technology that Valve would have leveraged into HL3. They are getting into it, but so is everyone else. Which is great, but we want Half Life 3.
Here is how I see a hypothetical Half Life 3 release. It will be on the heels of a multi million dollar update to the source engine. Not only will the engine be updated, but so will all of the tools. Valve would adopt a very liberal licensing agreement. Maybe something along of the lines of “You need to sell the game on Steam.” Which would give Valve the same cut of every game made with every other engine (because everything is sold on Steam), still filling their pockets. And Half Life 3 will be built with the new engine’s features in mind. Expansive terrain, full VR support, vehicles of all types. Expect a space battle with the combine where you throw singularity grenades to catapult yourself onto the enemy battleship, all while inside the event horizon of a black hole where relativity is shifting time itself. That entire game, and all of its assets will automatically import into the game engine editor, which in addition to having a powerful programming and coding API, will have an edit mode that is essentially Garry’s Mod with full VR support and hand detection. Ya know, just like Unreal 4.