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Valve's Faliszek: Team Self-Determination Drives Left 4 Dead 2 DLC Strategy

Despite its reputation for neverending development cycles, Valve now releases content more regularly than it ever has -- but writer Chet Faliszek tells Gamasutra the company still eschews top-down management.
Valve is legendary for its sprawling development cycles and serial delays, so much so that the company's public development wiki has an entry for so-called "Valve Time." It's one of the side effects of the company's production mentality, which eschews top-down management in favor of team-driven initiative. In reality, the Seattle-area developer has largely left behind its legacy of releasing a single game once in a blue moon. Since 2007, the studio has released at least one game per year, including the new franchises Left 4 Dead and Portal, the long-awated sequel Team Fortress 2, and the latest entry in the Half-Life 2 sub-series of now-regrettably-named "episodes." But Valve writer Chet Faliszek, whose current project is "The Passing" DLC for Left 4 Dead 2, says this newer, more prolific Valve hasn't appeared in spite of the company's traditional self-driven practices -- it has developed because of them. "The structure of our company [means] we're really autonomous," Faliszek told Gamasutra, "and if there are enough people who want to do something, we do it. We wanted to do Left 4 Dead 2. It's not [marketing director] Doug [Lombardi] or [president] Gabe [Newell] or [COO] Scott Lynch sitting on top saying, 'This is what we must do.'" When the team decided it could ship Left 4 Dead 2 a year after the first game -- an unprecedented level of speed for a full-scale Valve sequel -- it was a self-determined goal, Faliszek said. "It lets us make the choices more," he explained. "Our payoff for being able to do Left 4 Dead 2 so quickly really was about how passionate the team was about doing it, and how we had a singular goal and vision -- this shared vision. That team was assembled by essentially looking around [the company] for people and talking with them. 'What would you want to do in that world? How would you want to go?' and finding that everybody was just focused." "If you have that, you can work really fast and be really focused about it," he said. "[Lead designer] Tom Leonard really was the one who said, 'We can do this in a year. I want to try this structured scheduling we don't normally do.'" "It could have gone wrong," he admitted. "We don't really talk about that, but there were three different times when we could have pulled the plug on Left 4 Dead 2, and we said, 'No.' That was iteration hitting all the points right. Every time we hit a mark, we were better off than we thought we would be.” That same self-guiding principle has applied to the downloadable content strategy for all of Valve's games. The Passing, set to release for Left 4 Dead 2 on PC and Xbox 360 next month, tells the story of a meeting between the four survivors of Left 4 Dead 2 and their counterparts from Left 4 Dead. Valve plans to follow that up a month later with DLC for the original game, which further fleshes out how the original survivors made it to the Southern locales of L4D2. "To us, the game's not done, ever -- and we're given that leeway," Faliszek said. "I really love the Left 4 Dead world, and I want to [stay] in the Left 4 Dead world. We get to extend that out. Last year, we updated Counter-Strike: Source because someone at Valve was interested in doing that. We really like the games and the worlds we stay in, and we want to keep expanding out. There's whole mapped-out stuff for Left 4 Dead 2 that we want to still go into, so we're not done yet." Faliszek acknowledged that there are reasons for the "Valve Time" reputation -- but that experience remains valuable in shaping the way the company operates today. "The company works the way it works now because those guys never left," Faliszek said, referring to longtime Valve employees like key Half-Life 2 series developer David Speyrer and Team Fortress co-creator Robin Walker. "They may have had some problems then, and they learned from that. They help us newer guys -- I've been there for five years, but I still feel like a new guy -- get better and work better and think of things in a better way. People don't normally leave Valve; so having that continuity really helps us learn and helps us understand what we're doing." Still, he added, "I think the 'Valve Time' thing is a leftover from the Half-Life world, because I've been very careful with my dates and times in Left 4 Dead."

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