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Half-Life 2 devs explore when developers should ignore playtester feedback

A reprinted 2005 interview explores the complicated process of playtesting and listening to feedback without losing the cinematic and narrative-focused impact of a game.

"It’s about learning to have faith in the whole arc of the thing. We’re pacing it, holding back for the payoff.”

- Laidlaw offers advice on listening to playtesting feedback

PC Gamer has published an interview with a couple of key members from the Half-Life 2 development team (Marc Laidlaw and Bill Van Buren) that traces back the influential game’s development and some of its then-groundbreaking moments.

The interview itself is pulled from a 2005 issue of PC Gamer UK, so it’s a bit of a throwback in its own right, but it’s one that offers an insightful look into both how Half-Life 2 came to be and how methods and tech have evolved in the decade-plus since. 

One such snippet pulled from the third page of the interview covers the complicated process of playtesting through more cinematic and narrative-focused bits, and knowing how to separate what makes for a good playtest from what makes for a good game.

As an example of this, Laidlaw recalls how an early introduction to combat sat well with initial play-testers, but the development team felt that it lessened the emotional hits of the game’s early moments. Withholding those first combat moments until after witnessing the brutality of an in-game enemy, he says, made it so what “you were doing was a response to that—not that you were just a killing machine.”

“People would have been happy just to be given a crowbar in Kleiner’s lab, so they could go around smashing glassware. But they wouldn’t have had the moment where Barney drops it to you,” Laidlaw offers as another example. "And a lot of people love that moment."

"We would have had great play-tests if Alyx had given you the crowbar as you enter the lab. But holding it back, holding it back... Players won’t say 'Don’t give it to me, yet.' It’s about learning to have faith in the whole arc of the thing. We’re pacing it, holding back for the payoff.”

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