Christine Phelan: “Valve Want Our Only Concern To Be Making Great Games”
Few companies possess the aura of mystery and intrigue that surrounds acclaimed game developer Valve Software – but perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
After all, Valve is an outfit that has been responsible for some of gaming’s most celebrated and iconic experiences, from the Half-Life titles to the Portal games; not to mention influential innovations such as digital distribution platform Steam.
Having moved to the firm to work on eagerly-awaited new title Dota 2, leading animator Christine Phelan is only too happy to confirm its unique charms.
“Valve is certainly different from any studio I’ve ever worked for,” she says. “It’s both exciting and, to a degree, intimidating to be here – I am surrounded by some of my game and film-making heroes and the opportunities to learn from them are really exciting.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new, though that excitement is tempered by the need to perform up to their capabilities and expectations. But this is also great because I am constantly growing and improving as an artist.
“Valve really gives a shit about us as employees – there is really no other way to put it. They treat us really well, and want our only concern to be making great games.”
Phelan is speaking to FMV Magazine following her recent appearance at Bradford Animation Festival in the UK, where she delivered a talk about her experiences in the industry generally, and her work on Dota 2 specifically.
A fully-fledged successor to the popular Defence Of The Ancients mod for Warcraft III, Dota 2 is an online multiplayer action-RTS where competing teams vie against one another to destroy the enemy’s ‘ancient’ – or base. With players making use of controllable heroes and defensive towers, the game is a highly collaborative experience where moment-to-moment decision making is key.
Unsurprisingly given the extraordinary popularity of the original mod, Dota 2 has enjoyed a phenomenally active Beta phase, while its full release is highly-anticipated.
“As a team our biggest challenge was making sure that the game is true to what fans wanted and expected based on Dota 1,” says Phelan, “but also helping it progress beyond that experience.
“I think the ease of access will be huge in comparison to what Dota 1 had, both in the sense of how easy it is to just hop into matchmaking and find a game with equally-skilled players, and ultimately how we handle our new player experience. The biggest challenge for me as a new player was knowing what the hell was going on – there was an immense learning curve to deal with, and if you hadn’t attended Dota University for your Masters in Jungling you were boned. We’re aiming to solve that as much as possible.”
As far as her experience during the development process goes, the animator claims she has thoroughly enjoyed working on a ‘live’ game for the first time.
“Being in closed beta and communicating directly with players was a new experience for me,” she explains. “Most of my previous work has been for consoles – we would work for a bunch of years on a product, playtest it amongst ourselves, eventually ship it, and then it’s out there for better or for worse. With Dota 2 being actively played by people who have the ability to provide feedback (and boy do players love to give us feedback), it’s been interesting to see how the product has evolved because of their input, rather than us just designing within our own box.”
In addition, Phelan is clearly enthusiastic over just how interesting and diverse the work on Dota 2 has been, compared to previous games she has worked on.
“Every single character in Dota 2 is unique, and they provide excitingly different animation opportunities,” she says. “My experience at some of my previous jobs was working with characters who had incremental differences to them – this big beefy dude has slightly bigger shoulder pads, or a bigger gun, and that was it. On Dota 2 I’ve animated two-headed dragons, prancey deer ladies, blue bipedal spear-wielding cats, and whatever the hell Faceless Void is, among others. It’s hard to get bored when you’re switching gears so often.”
Having originally started out as an animator in the television industry, Phelan found herself strongly drawn to the gaming medium a number of years ago – and hasn’t looked back since.
“There was something fascinating about these living worlds that you could spend as much time as you wanted exploring; places that seemed to exist even when you put your controller down,” she recalls. “I wanted to make that happen. Whether it was the massive world of Ocarina of Time or that first time a patrolling soldier saw my footprints in the snow in Metal Gear Solid and I realized “OH SHIT HE JUST SAW ME” … those things blew my mind when I was younger – and I wanted to create those feelings for others.”
She worked on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed at LucasArts, and then moved to Double Fine Productions where she took on games such as Brutal Legend.
“I think Brütal Legend has been my favorite project so far. The world and the characters were just so wild, creative, and engaging – what’s NOT to love about a massive heavy metal world and the creatures and people who inhabit it? Working on something ‘funny’ is much more my speed than your typical angsty frowny-faced, shaved-head, dour hero with a sketchy past. I like to laugh when I am playing games, and I like to laugh when I am working on them.”
Jokingly describing her move to Valve as down to “luck and wicked sorcery”, Phelan explains that it was the sheer quality of the company’s output that initially reeled her in, before the overall philosophy and outlook of the firm convinced her to make it her new professional home.
“Team Fortress 2 was probably the biggest attraction factor for me,” she recalls. “Half-Life, Left4Dead and Portal were icing on the cake, but the characters, look, and style of Team Fortress 2 just punched me right in my little animator gut. That kind of school yard punch you get from a little boy that likes you but doesn’t know how to tell you. Similar to hair pulling and rock throwing.
“Then once I got to know more about the company – its goals and its emphasis on employee empowerment – I didn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s the balance of art, gameplay, and respect for its employees that I found most attractive and unique among studios in the industry.”
It certainly seems as though Phelan’s experiences in the industry have been overwhelmingly positive thus far. And she’s not afraid to express her disgruntlement when FMV – referring to recent allegations that the video game industry is too male-dominated and even sexist – asks whether she has faced any particular challenges or obstacles in her career due to her gender.
“Aaaah, I really hate this question!” she replies. “I think asking it only serves to highlight the fact that I am a minority in my industry, and there are so many more interesting questions that could be asked instead!
“There are a ton of dudes in the games industry, yes – it’s a bit of a pickle jar. I have never, however, been treated as anything but a team member and an equal by my coworkers and it’s a major disservice to them that folks automatically assume they will treat me differently because I am a woman. At the end of the day I am the work I produce, not a pair of boobs. It’s individuals who may or may not be sexist, and those are folks who reside in the broader ‘asshole’ category that applies to all things, not just games.
“I think the only challenge, if it can be called one, is that people assume I am challenged because I am a woman in this industry. I am a game developer first, and my gender has nothing to do with it.”
Looking to the future, Phelan is certainly full of optimism and high-hopes. Having finally begun working on her beloved Team Fortress 2 (“it only took me since 2007, but I am finally on the project and I am super stoked!”), she’s also got her eye on a certain dream project that many gamers are dying to get an insight into.
“My dream project? Well, I’d love to work on Half-Life 3 some day…”
Dota 2 will be released as a free-to-play title sometime in the coming months.