Half-Life: Alyx’s Developers On VR’s “Chicken And Egg” Problem

The critically acclaimed Half-Life series making a return nearly 13 years later as the virtual reality-exclusive Half-Life: Alyx was a shock to some fans. The VR medium is still a bit of a niche market in 2020, whereas Half-Life appeals to a wider audience. There are plenty of VR headsets available to buy now, but there’s still the issue of affordability, accessibility, and the type of open space requirements and commitment that only serious VR consumers may be willing to accommodate. And then there’s the issue that Valve level designer Dario Casali refers to as VR’s “chicken and egg” situation.

In an interview with GameSpot, Casali broke down some of Valve’s priorities when it comes to developing for VR, and how its choice to make Half-Life: Alyx a VR exclusive plays into that strategy.

“[When] we were working on the Vive and The Lab, we really believed in the VR platform,” Casali told GameSpot. “We looked around and noticed that a lot of the content that was available for [VR] was not as we would traditionally see as AAA, completely full games… how we would traditionally define a Half-Life product.”

For Casali, it comes down to two things: hardware and software. “We thought to push this platform, we need to have accessible hardware, but we also need to have the software that people want to buy the hardware for,” Casali explained. “And it’s this awkward chicken and egg situation.”

Before Half-Life: Alyx’s conception, Valve began experimenting with a few of its IPs to find what was the best fit for VR. Casali noted that Portal was more of an “academic exercise” in discovering VR’s limitations, such as motion sickness.

Portal 2 (2011) -- According to Half-Life: Alyx's developers, Portal + VR = motion sickness.
Portal 2 (2011) — According to Half-Life: Alyx’s developers, Portal + VR = motion sickness.

“Portal is fantastic for a third of the way, stepping through portals and stuff,” Casali said. “But as soon as you start flinging yourself through portals…”

Valve even prototyped a Left 4 Dead-themed “exhibition area” with some iconic enemies, like a Smoker and a Tank. (Though despite rumors, Valve is not currently working on a next-gen Left 4 Dead game.)

“I was on Left 4 Dead for eight years, and I couldn’t stand in the room with those things,” programmer Kerry Davis said. “It was horrifying!”

But it was ultimately a 20-minute demo developed with old Half-Life 2 assets that clicked.

“We knew we wanted to make something compelling, and that something compelling became Half-Life,” Casali said. “The theory is that we create something that people can experience and really, really enjoy and feel like, ‘You know what? If I go back to flatscreen games, I’m going to really miss this element. I really want to come back to VR and I really want to experience this in VR.'”

While the need for more high-quality “AAA” level experiences in VR is something Valve is striving for with Half-Life: Alyx, Casali still acknowledged the issue of hardware.

“The other part of the chicken and the egg is that the hardware has to become more accessible,” Casali said. “I think it’s a matter of time. It’ll become more accessible, and then it’s just about the software. So we’re trying to push that side of it at the moment.”

Half-Life: Alyx is out now. Check out the best VR headsets to play it on and don’t forget to read our full review of the game. We also have a guide to Half-Life: Alyx’s accessibility options, including how to play it seated, a weapons guide, and a puzzle guide to get you started.

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