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Originally published April 17, 2011 at 12:00 PM | Page modified April 18, 2011 at 9:45 AM

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Brier Dudley

Backstory to blockbuster game 'Portal 2' is a real Cinderella tale

People say video games are becoming more like movies, with rich characters and engaging plots. But you can't make up a story as good as the one behind "Portal 2," the blockbuster puzzle game going on sale Tuesday.

Seattle Times staff columnist

People say video games are becoming more like movies, with rich characters and engaging plots.

But you can't make up a story as good as the one behind "Portal 2," the blockbuster puzzle game going on sale Tuesday.

It may be the best game — and the funniest — ever released by Valve, a 270-employee Bellevue company that's become one of the most respected names in the industry since it was founded in 1996 by two Microsoft veterans.

The rise of Valve is a great story, but that's not the one I'm talking about today.

Even better is the Cinderella story behind "Portal."

It's an inspiration for a generation of game developers — artists, writers and programmers — who wonder if they'll ever break into the romantic but intensely competitive business of making games. Or for anyone who wonders if they'll ever find their dream job.

It begins six years ago at DigiPen Institute of Technology, a private game-development college in Redmond.

During DigiPen's annual career fair, a group of seven students were showing a quirky project called "Narbacular Drop."

The game wasn't shiny, but it had a unique mechanic. Players worked their way through a dungeon full of traps by placing portals in walls, ceilings and floors, creating new passages through the maze.

That caught the eye of Valve developer Robin Walker, one of the industry types at the event.

Walker gave the students some advice, and they followed up with an email, asking if he had more ideas because they were going to enter the game in a contest.

"He said, 'Why don't you just come to Valve, do a presentation of your game and have a bunch of people look at it. They can give you different perspectives on what they think,' " recalled Jeep Barnett, 27, a programmer on the project.

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The invitation was a thrill to the team, which expected it to be a highlight of their senior year.

It was a sweet reward for Barnett. He came from Montana to attend DigiPen, but his student-loan company went bankrupt just before he started. He ended up spending two years working as a janitor in Kent, cleaning a spice factory, and waxing floors at a Fred Meyer store until he could afford to get started.

At Valve, Walker had talked up the students' game and a crowd was there for the team's demonstration.

In the room was this story's fairy godmother, Gabe Newell, Valve's brawny, bespectacled president.

After the demo, Newell asked the students if they'd like to build the game for Valve, and he hired the whole team at once.

"We were blown away," Barnett said. "We were like, we'll get a tour of Valve, they'll laugh at us, but at least we'll get some good advice out of it. We weren't expecting a job offer. We just didn't even know what to say — we were pretty much speechless."

Newell said he's actually the lucky one because Valve found a great team that built something different the company couldn't have produced on its own.

"It was innovative, and they had actually carried the concept through," he said in an interview at Valve's offices, on five floors of a high rise next to Bellevue City Hall. "I think for me the 'aha' moment was seeing how physics interacted with this changed world geometry, so essentially you're punching holes in space, you're creating this sort of non-Euclidean geometry, which is this really non-trivial problem."

Newell was especially impressed the students tackled the challenging physics of the game and "embraced some of the hard problems in a way that made it that much more interesting."

Too good to lose

This is too good to lose, he thought.

"The thing that sort of terrified me as a fan of the industry was that unless somebody did something, this team was going to break up, right?" he said. "It's sort of like, you go and listen to the Beatles for the first time in Hamburg, Germany, and they say, 'Oh, yeah, now we have to go to our jobs and be plumbers and electricians and stuff like that. You go, 'Oh my God, you guys have to stick together, you can't all go in separate directions.' "

It often takes years of collaboration to produce something really special, he said.

"Usually you have to spend a decade working together before you start to really understand how each other thinks and where you're stimulating and additive to each other, rather than just saying 'yeah, but' all the time or nitpicking each other to death," he explained.

Seeing the "magic" the team created and knowing it likely would split up after graduation, Newell said, "was the stimulus to us saying, 'We've got to figure out how to keep you guys together and give you the opportunity to ship something.' "

The hires also helped Newell in his ongoing effort to re-create the culture he loved at Microsoft in the very early days, when it was a small company full of smart people excited and passionate about building great software.

"That's what we have to maintain to be successful," he said.

Trust in youth

The newcomers were young. One, artist Realm Lovejoy, was kicked out of a Valve launch party at a bar because she was only 20 at the time.

Still, Valve trusted them to build "Portal," with help from other employees and especially writer Erik Wolpaw. They updated the story from a princess in a dungeon to a woman completing puzzles to escape a creepy science facility.

Valve released "Portal" as a sort of experiment, bundling it with a collection of larger games that went on sale in 2007.

It was a short game but a surprise hit, drawing raves from critics such as GameSpy, which called it "one of the most unique, funny and satisfying games of 2007." It won more than 30 "Game of the Year" awards from different publications.

DigiPen didn't ask for royalties but ended up with an amazing story to tell potential students, recruiters and game companies mulling whether to open offices in the Seattle area.

"The 'Portal' story is pretty unique in the sense that they hired the entire team, they brought them back and they made the game — not only made the game, but they had the success they did," said Raymond Yan, a Nintendo veteran and DigiPen's chief operating officer in Redmond.

Back to DigiPen

The story keeps going.

While the "Narbacular Drop" team — minus two who left Valve — worked on "Portal 2," Valve went back to DigiPen and hired another group of students who had developed an unusual tag game.

Their work is a key feature in the new game. It gives players the ability to apply a gel that changes the characteristics of a surface, making it bouncy like a trampoline, for instance.

Unlike the first edition, "Portal 2" is a full-blown, triple A game with a multiplayer, cooperative mode, more comedy and a cinematic treatment. It's launching globally for the PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Mac computers.

Newell's not the kind to throw out fluffy launch quotes, but he said, "I think 'Portal 2' is the best game we've done as a company."

At least until he finds another diamond in the rough.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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