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Left 4 Dead was “broken,” former Valve and Half-Life dev says

The original Left 4 Dead was “such a broken thing that nobody wanted to touch it,” a former Valve, Half-Life, and L4D2 dev explains.

Left 4 Dead broken: A former soldier smoking a cigarette, Bill from Valve FPS game Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – co-op shooters ever made. From its revolutionary ‘Director’ AI that personally tailors the ebb and flow of each game around you, to its wonderfully vivid cast of survivors, all characterized by the trademark Valve wit and economy of writing, even today, L4D feels more modern than many of its FPS contemporaries. As Half-Life turns 25 years old, one former Valve developer, whose credits include Portal, Half-Life 2, and CSGO, discusses the creation of Left 4 Dead, explaining how, despite its wonderful, seamless playing experience, beneath the hood it was “such a broken thing.”

A full 15 years old now, Left 4 Dead remains one of the greatest FPS games of all time. Frightening, funny, and defined by organic, spontaneous moments unique to every playthrough, as much as we all want Half-Life 3, Left 4 Dead 3 would be extremely welcome, too. A long-time writer and developer at Valve, Chet Faliszek worked on L4D, Left 4 Dead 2, and essentially every other game that pushed the Bellevue-based Steam creator to the forefront of the medium. Looking back on Left 4 Dead’s creation, Faliszek recalls a conversation with Valve’s co-founder Gabe Newell, who wondered why players would switch to L4D when Counter-Strike, also a team-based shooter, was already riding high.

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“Gabe just asked me very seriously, ‘Why don’t I just play Counter-Strike instead? That’s working.’ And I thought he was joking. Like, ha, ha, ha. But then he made me watch him play it. He made me sit in his office and watch and play it. He says, ‘No, seriously, this is every single one of your customers, asking this question right now. What do you tell them?’ Like, f***. Good question.”

Speaking to Game Developer, Faliszek also discusses the famous Hunter enemy, the hooded, agile infected that can jump down on you out of nowhere, and rapidly tear you to shreds while you’re unable to fight back. The only way to survive a Hunter attack is if one of your teammates kills it for you. Faliszek recalls a conversation with a Valve animator.

“I remember at one point an animator at Valve telling me that we would never ship the Hunter,” Faliszek says, “because nobody will ever put up with something that can just jump on them and take them down, and you have no way to get it off. ‘You need to have a quick time event! You need to do something.’ And I’m like, ‘Nope! Nope! we’re gonna ship that. I’ll bet you money.’”

Left 4 Dead broken: A monster in a hoodie, the Hunter from Valve FPS game Left 4 Dead

Faliszek also discusses the work of Valve’s engineers and programmers, who worked tirelessly to achieve Left 4 Dead’s performance targets. It was essential that the game could support up to 30 infected on screen at any one time – thanks to the work of a significant number of Valve developers, L4D hit this mark before its November 17, 2008 release date. Faliszek says that the Left 4 Dead engine, as it existed at the game’s launch, necessitated the development of Left 4 Dead 2.

“I don’t think outside people can appreciate how broken the Left 4 Dead engine was, but still shipped,” Faliszek says. “It loaded each map two or three times in the background. Left 4 Dead was such a broken thing that nobody wanted to touch it. That game iterated so quickly that if it meant breaking something horrible, where you had to load a map two or three times but you could playtest it today, we did it.

“That meant at some point, you had to pay for that debt. There was no way you were going to support mods for Left 4 Dead in the same way we did for Left 4 Dead 2 without a big reset. That [mod support] had to be on Left 4 Dead 2. Left 4 Dead 1 would not have supported that. It would have been crashy, crashy, crashy.”

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Faliszek left Valve in 2017 and is now preparing to launch The Anacrusis, a new co-op shooter for up to eight players, out of Steam Early Access. Arriving on Tuesday, December 5, The Anacrusis is created by Faliszek and the team Stray Bombay. Capturing a 1970s sci-fi aesthetic, it challenges you and your friends to survive against hordes of aliens, controlled and directed by a sophisticated AI ‘Driver.’

If you miss Left 4 Dead, check out some of the other best co-op games you can play right now. Alternatively, the best multiplayer games can help bring back that classic zombie-shooting joy.

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