Portal 2: Just the beginning?

It’s been a few days now since the launch of Portal 2. Looking back at the events leading up to the release I can’t help myself but awe at the skill and imagination of the Valve team. First came Portal (1) – an amazing game, introducing completely new gameplay mechanics to the FPS genre. It spawned cult following, multiple memes (The cake is a lie anyone?) and made countless players fall in love with a gray box with a pink heart painted on it. On March 1st, 2010 the first ARG was launched, eventually leading to the announcement of Portal 2.

The second ARG, running between April 1-18, 2011 sent users on a crazy scavenger hunt throughout 13 indie games (as well as real life locations) in search for the new clues about the sequel. The event culminated in a GLaDOS@home event where thousands of players contributed to releasing the game early. Finally came the game itself. I am not going to dwell on how good Portal 2 is – there are dozens of reviews all over the Internet that evaluate the game in-depth. All I’m gonna say is: if you haven’t done so yet, get it, play it. It’s well worth it. Hell, it is probably one of the greatest gaming experiences I had in a long time.

But is that it? The game is launched, single player and co-op campaigns are played through… I believe not. In this article I am going to speculate on what I believe is yet to come. Please, keep in mind that I am writing it assuming you have finished the game and therefore all matter of spoilers are to be found in the following paragraphs. If you haven’t played Portal 2 yet, do yourself a favor and do it first. If you don’t mind, however, hear out what I think is coming soon.

Before I start, I’d like to remind you once more that the following is a pure speculation, based on some clues and my interpretation of things found throughout the game. The developer did not announce any of the following features either directly or through leaks or hidden messages. The theory does make sense, and if I am right, we are all in for an awesome ride. If not, well, then it will remain just a wishful thinking.

So there it is: I believe that in the near future Portal 2 will receive a massive update including an easy-to-use level editor allowing players to create and access user-made levels for the co-op (2 player) campaign. The feature will most likely be announced at E3. Let’s have a look at the evidence that lead me to this conclusion.


Portal 2: Robot Enrichment

The inclusion of Robot Enrichment center (A place where you can purchase additional accessories and gestures for your avatar) created a massive outcry from some of the players. Many accused Valve of trying to over-capitalize on the game with day one paid DLC. There’s even been a coordinated effort towards lowering Portal 2 Metacritic score as a “payback” for this feature. Where others saw the ugly face of capitalism however, I’ve seen a clue towards the future of the franchise.

Let’s think about it for a moment. Currently the co-op campaign is a finite experience. It spans six courses, each featuring multiple test chambers and will last you (and your partner in science) anywhere between 7-10 hours to complete. If you are absolutely in love with the game, you may play it again. Perhaps maybe even a third time. After a while though, it loses its charm. The joy of playing Portal is solving the puzzles. Once you know the solution to the chamber, the enjoyment diminishes rather quickly. Sure, you can create your own challenges, trying to beat the level in a record time, use less portals – but honestly speaking, there isn’t really that much replay value beyond perhaps 1 or 2 extra playthroughs.

At the same time we have the game offer the player quite expensive extras for their avatar. If I was to fully outfit my robot with a new paint job, a hat, a flag, funny eyeglasses and a full set of extra gestures it would cost me a grand total of $32. That’s over half of the price of the game itself (Portal 2 sells on Steam for $50). Quite excessive price for a bunch of useless items for a game I will play no longer than 30 hours total, isn’t it? That’s either some really bad marketing sense, or we are only seeing a little part of a bigger, yet unannounced picture.

Let’s look further. Each player’s backpack spans 6 pages, offering a grand total of 300 item slots. Even if I was to purchase every single item offered by the store at the moment, I would not be able to fill it up. There’s also trading area, currently not active (coming soon). By the time trading becomes available most of the players would have finished playing and re-playing co-op levels. Why would Valve go into such effort creating all the props, shop and trading if they weren’t expecting the users to be playing the game beyond the estimated 30 hours? In the current state it really makes no sense whatsoever.

The natural conclusion we can all arrive at is: DLC levels are coming. That could solve the entire mystery, but I think there is more to be found here. Let me elaborate.

In-game avatar customization can be found in another Valve title: Team Fortress 2. Over nearly four years since the release, the game received unprecedented amount of updates and free DLC packs. New maps, game modes, avatar customization options and weapons have been steadily added to the title, extending its playability way beyond the typical lifespan of an FPS. The gameplay of Team Fortress 2 however, is a completely different experience. With 9 different player classes and up to 32 players in a match a single map provides infinite number of ways in which a match may evolve. Releasing an update with just 2 or 3 new maps guarantees endless hours of new gameplay for the users.

Portal 2 is a different kind of game. A new map can be played a few times, but as I noted earlier – once the solution is known, it loses its appeal rather quickly. In order to keep users playing, Valve will have to supply them with a constant stream of new test chambers to play through, and I honestly doubt they do have the manpower to keep creating them in-house. If we look at TF2′s example again, the latest updates typically feature maps created both by Valve itself as well as user-made ones. Valve in fact actively encourages and promotes user-generated content and even allows players to donate money to the modders / map makers through the purchases of the in-game virtual items.

Currently mods and maps for all games using Valve’s Source engine need to be created using Hammer editor (a part of Source SDK). The program is quite robust, but has a fairly steep learning curve and definitely is not targeted towards an average player, but rather towards serious indie developers. Original Portal supported user-created maps, but due to the intricacies of content creation in Hammer, only a handful of mods and maps were created and even fewer were actually known to the general public. Provided I am correct with the assumption that Valve expects a massive influx of new levels into the game, they will need to offer players a simpler solution for creating new content.


Portal 2: Wheatley Test Chamber 00

Now here is where you may accuse me of overextending my theory, but since it is all one big speculation, I don’t see why not. The two screenshots (above and below this paragraph) show two of the test chambers designed by Wheatley in Chapter 8: The Itch. Note the giant “test” written on the walls of both of the chambers. Of course the running joke in the game is that Wheatley is a “dumb moron” and cannot come up with his own test chamber designs. But there is, possibly, something more to it.


Portal 2: Wheatley Test Chamber 01

If you have ever downloaded extra user-created levels for the original Portal, you probably stumbled upon at least few chambers that bore the very same mark of inaptitude. Someone would plan to modify an existing level, mark it as test (often in a very similar fashion), completely fail at the task but still release it to the public. I have played multiple user-created levels in Portal 1 looking exactly like Wheatley’s creations – simple, uninspired, with a giant word “test” written on the wall. Hell, I possibly even created one (but never released it).

It is a possibility that these two chambers of the single player campaign are not just a joke on the Wheatley’s poor A.I. but rather a reference to the poor user-generated content that was created for Portal (1) and will undoubtedly be present should an easy level editor be released for Portal 2.

Why not announce such a major feature before the launch, you may ask. Well, look at Starcraft 2. Months before the release, Blizzard Entertainment announced that the game will feature a map/mod shop where the users will be able to upload and even sell and purchase new content for the game. As the launch grew closer, the announcement was made that the shop will not be available at the shipping time but included in a free update shortly afterwards. It’s been nearly a year since the release of StarCraft 2 and that feature has yet to be implemented. Many players hold it against Blizzard to promise such a feature and then take such a long time implementing it, a lot of them feeling they have been lured to purchase an incomplete product.

Valve is known for its fantastic interaction with the community and I seriously doubt they would risk antagonizing their fans by making them wait for such a feature. It makes much more sense to keep it unannounced and then release it when it is ready. They might have been planning to have it ready at launch (keep in mind that the original release of Portal 2 was planned for late 2010) and decided to delay it in order to implement it. When the April launch drew near and “map editor and marketplace” were still not ready, they might have decided to let the game out and keep the extra features for a post-launch release.

Finally, keep in mind that Valve was very clear about Portal 2 supporting user-created content. One of the marketing points for the game was the fact that both PC, Mac, PS3 and Xbox360 versions will have access to this content (while the editing tools will only be available for PC). We know it is coming, we just don’t know what form will it take.

When should we expect the announcement? May 1st (International Workers Day) would be a pretty cool time to release it, but I seriously doubt it will be so soon. My guess is that we will hear the official announcement at E3, detailing the editor features and the rest will be up to infamous Valve Time

…so let me summarize my thoughts in a nice, simple bullet-point list:

  • We do know DLC is coming and user-generated content will be supported on all platforms
  • The inclusion of the Robot Enrichment center hints at Valve’s expectations towards longevity of Portal 2
  • In order to support longevity, Portal 2 will need constant stream of new test chambers
  • Developing new maps in-house would not be efficient for Valve
  • Editing maps in Hammer is not for everyone and will not generate large influx of new levels
  • Many other games have proven user-generated content helps extend lifespan of the title (Little Big Planet, Super Meat Boy, Team Fortress 2, Mod Nation Racers, Starcraft)
  • People need easy tools to create massive amounts of content
  • The design of Portal 2 test chambers is very modular already
  • Ergo (in my humble opinion) we will soon hear the announcement of a non-Hammer level editor and map marketplace for Portal 2

That’s my 2000-word 3 cents on the subject. Hope you enjoyed the read. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Update:
At the time I wrote the above article I haven’t yet completed the co-op campaign. Now that I have it seems even more certain that Valve is planning to deliver us the means to create a lot of new content. While my guess about new, easy editor is still just that – “a guess”, I don’t really see any other way to seed multitude of new levels on a scale envisioned by the final co-op animatic.


Portal 2: All the new test subjects

In the final animatic, the two bots (Atlas and P-Body) to the delight of GLaDOS, open a vault filled with thousands of new test subjects. It clearly indicates that the real multiplayer experience is going to come. It is not clear if it will be a part of Portal 2 update, a totally new Portal 3? Hell, it may even be a Portal MMO ;)

My bet though is on the theory above – thousands of users creating and playing thousands of new levels, and I don’t really see it happening any other way than providing the players with simple tools for creating new content. There, you have me on the record. Come E3 either congratulate me on my extremely accurate prediction and hire me as a presidential advisor, or come back here to mock me. Just keep in mind – if I am right, we all win.

That is unless Valve surprises us again with something nobody thought of!

Update (October 19th, 2011)
Well, it seems that while I was way off on the timing (though I attempted to compensate for valve time), my speculations were pretty close to Valve’s plans. In the recent update to the iPad and Steam App The Final Hours of Portal 2, Geoff Keighley added a new chapter entitled Unlikely Architects. In there he describes the process of developing new DLC content for Portal, as well as provides us with a sneak peek at the new user friendly level editor, currently in development.


Geoff Keighley: An exclusive look at Portal 2′s simplified level editor

According to Keighley, “In this new program it will be as easy to create a test chamber as it is to build a small level in LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft.”. Hell yea. We can’t wait!

Update (April 27th, 2012)
So apparently I had it all right except for the year. As confirmed by the recent trailer (below), the easy level maker is coming to portal in May… 2012.

 

  

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