On November 19, 1998, a game that I had been waiting to play for over a year was finally released. It was called Half-Life. It turned out to be not just a groundbreaking first-person shooter but it was also the first product from a developer, Valve Software (later shortened to just Valve), that would later become one of the biggest and most influential companies in the PC game industry.
Valve released a 25th-anniversary version of Half-Life on Friday, and you can claim it for free on Steam until Monday, November 20. It not only has some new content like some extra multiplayer maps, but it also has some content that was either cut from the game or released in other forms and was not readily available until now. Even if you have played Half-Life in the past, or perhaps the fan-created Source 2 engine-based recreation of the game, Black Mesa, getting this new update is worth it.
Valve also released a new 1-hour documentary that features a lot of Valve’s current and former employees talking about the creation of Half-Life. Among other things, it talks about Valve’s formation in 1996 by two ex-Microsoft employees, Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington. In this archived Computerandvideogames.com interview, Newell notes that he joined Microsoft back in the early 1980s, when it was a much smaller company that it eventually became.
Newell worked as the producer on the first three versions of Windows and ended up becoming one of the first Microsoft millioniares. When id Software released Doom, and its shareware version was installed on tons of PCs in the early 1990s, Newell was so impressed, that he contacted id Software’s John Carmack and volunteered to port Doom to Windows for free.
Newell then wrote:
During the course of Quake development, a friend of mine at Microsoft moved to id to work with John [Carmack] on Quake – he was one of Carmack’s programming heroes. So he’d gone from Microsoft to id and the two of them said to myself and Mike Harrington, another Microsoft employee, ‘Hey, you guys should stop working at Microsoft and start a games company’.
We went down there, must have been the summer of 1996, and bounced around some ideas with John and he said ‘Great, here’s the source code to Quake, go build a game’.
Mike and I looked and each other and said, ‘Well I guess we’re going to start a games company now’. That’s how we got started.
Newell and Harrington assembled their development team in their offices in Kirkland, Washington, and began developing Half-Life. It also secured a publisher for the game, Sierra Online. In May 1997, when the Electronic Entertainment Expo was held in Atlanta, Georgia, I managed to get a press pass and an invite to Sierra’s E3 event where the publisher showed off Half-Life to the public for the first time.
I remember being blown away by the very different art style and look that Half-Life had compared to a lot of other first-person shooters that had been released at that time. The creatures, like the Bullsquid and the Barnacle, looked unlike any other enemies in FPS titles, and Valve’s use of skeleton animation made them move in new and strange ways. I knew back then that this would be a game that would be a new landmark in the FPS genre.
The plan was for Valve and Sierra to release Half-Life in November 1997, but as chronicled in Geoff Keighley’s excellent GameSpot feature The Final Hours of Half-Life, Valve took a step back in September 1997 as it felt that the game was not actually fun to play. The game’s release was postponed and a lot of work was dumped to try to make Half-Life a more entertaining game.
In short, that postponement worked, and when Valve released Half-Life 25 years ago today, it became a massive critical and sales hit. I remember installing the game on my Gateway Pentium PC and being sucked into the game’s storyline. This game didn’t feel like just a series of interconnected levels but a real setting where, as second-level scientist Gordon Freeman, I was fighting for my life after the experiment at Black Mesa turned into a disaster.
The creatures and humans I had to deal with had advanced AI (for the time) that made them harder to defeat, and the overall story of the invasion from Xen was engaging. I also put in hours and hours of time playing in its multiplayer mode.
Half-Life is still considered to be among the greatest video games of all time. It’s also mostly a PC game released for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The only console port that was released was for the PlayStation 2 several years later (a Sega Dreamcast port was canceled only a few weeks before it was planned to launch). Perhaps with this new 25th-anniversary version, Valve might want to consider releasing it for modern-day consoles.
The success of Half-Life was also only the tip of the spear when it came to Valve’s success. Over the next 25 years, it would not only develop and release a series of highly successful games, but its launch of the Steam digital PC game store would basically save the entire PC game industry in the mid-2000s. More recently, the launch of the Steam Deck showed that portable PC gaming could also be successful. That’s not bad for a company formed by two ex-Microsoft team members with no prior gaming experience.