Valve Software Interview : Marc Laidlaw


posted 10/27/2003 by John Yan
other articles by John Yan
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This interview was originally posted on September, 25 1998. It took a little digging, but I found the original interview and I thought our readers would enjoy seeing how Marc responded to questions before the first Half-Life was out.

John Yan: Hi Marc, glad you could take time out of your busy schedule to do this interview.. Tell us a little bit about yourself.. What you do.. How long have you been in this business? Was it something you always wanted to do? What did you do before this?

Marc Laidlaw: My background (aside from the boring dayjob parts) is that of writer. I started writing when I was a kid, started selling professionally around 1978, with stories in Omni Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and plenty of other science fiction, horror and fantasy magazines and anthologies. I sold my first novel around 1984-it was called DAD'S NUKE and was basically a satiric response to cyberpunk. (I have a story in MIRRORSHADES, the quintessential cyberpunk anthology.)

My next novels were, in order, NEON LOTUS, KALIFORNIA, THE ORCHID EATER, and THE 37TH MANDALA. I also wrote a tie-in novel for the fantastic Japanese CD-ROM, GADGET, which was called THE THIRD FORCE: A NOVEL OF GADGET. By the time I wrote THE THIRD FORCE, I was starting to come heavily under the influence of computer games. I'd been hooked by Myst, and felt viscerally challenged to get into the field. I started writing game reviews for Wired Magazine, became known as the "game" guy there, and was offered an assignment to visit id Software and try to capture the corporate culture there. That turned into "The Egos at Id," which was a Wired cover story, and which tried to describe some of the process by which Quake was created. In the process of developing a huge respect for id, I also developed something of a creative relationship, and I was given the opportunity to write (anonymously) The Book of id, which was packaged with the id Anthology. My interest in games just kept growing and growing. In the same period when I was studying id, I was offered the Gadget assignment, went to Tokyo to meet the incredibly talented gang of surrealists at Synergy (which is now, incidentally, working with David Lynch on his game WOODCUTTERS FROM FIERY SHIPS), and wrote THE THIRD FORCE.

I just couldn't help getting sucked into the world of computer games-storygames-whatever you want to call them. In the process of writing the Book of id, I really got most interested in the creation of 3D maps-and Tim Willets turned me on to all the resources available on the Internet for budding level designers. I started building Quake maps (the only one I finished is called shoggoth.bsp, and you can find it in the usual sites on the Internet, although I can hardly bear to look at it now). When John Romero heard that I wanted to build levels and write for games, he offered me a position at ION Storm-an incredibly flattering offer, which I considered long and hard before deciding that I really didn't want to move to Dallas. But I'd heard whispering about this place that was starting up in the Seattle area, and I've always loved the Northwest best. My interest in level design led me to Worldcraft, which led me to Ben Morris, who led me to Valve. And when I first came up to see what they were doing, and met the team at Valve, everything just clicked. I can't say it's something I always wanted to do, because when I was in that formative state (my early teens), I was just reading tons and tons of horror and science fiction and fantasy, and when I wasn't reading it I was writing it.

Computer games didn't exist when I was at that "what I want to be when I grow up" stage. If I were a teen right now, I would almost certainly be obsessed with computer games the way I was obsessed with books. For most of the people I work with, games occupied the state in their adolescence that books occupied in mine. They talk about the games they played, the impact games had on them, key moments in their favorite games. I didn't play most of these games, myself, but I certainly understand the obsession and enthusiasm for stuff that is considered non-mainstream, unhealthy, junky...whatever. Plenty of my favorite books were originally published as pulps, and no one points to the work of H.P. Lovecraft for its moral value.

John Yan: Do you miss writing novels?

Marc Laidlaw: Writing is undeniably a huge part of my identity. However, I have always tended to let a bit of time pass between my big writing projects-partially because my really novel-worthy ideas are few and far between, and partially because I like to recharge and reinvent myself every time out. I tried like hell to be a chain-writer, and write one book after another, but I have never managed to pull that off. Even though my writing idol, Philip K. Dick, slapped them out with astonishing frequency, and I'm as big a fan of his slapdash insanity as I am of an iron-clad Cormac McCarthy paragraph. I have a lot of new learning going on right now; every portion of my brain is being utilized (perhaps even drained dry) on a daily basis. In my old job as legal secretary, I used to feel basically soulless and wasted 9 or 10 hours a day, and I'd wait for a little free time to actually use my imagination at the worn-out end of the day. And then I'd find I had nothing new to write about, no new experiences, nothing but the office job drudgery. So I really hope and expect that this all-involving experience of creating something truly new will pay off in my writing as well, when I get back to it. When I started my article about id, I thought that maybe someday I could use the research as the basis for a novel about the computer game industry...and that's still pretty much my plan. It's scary to think about starting another novel after this long away from the blank page, but it's also exciting. I have always written very very quickly once I get started. It's finding that starting place that is so difficult. There's no forcing it.

John Yan: What did you do as a legal secretary? What led you to that?

Marc Laidlaw: "Legal secretary" is simply the job that paid the most with the marketable business skills I had: i.e., the ability to type quickly, follow directions and maintain a sense of humor under horrible stress. I ended up working as a patent secretary, which was slightly less stressful than litigation, but ultimately pretty tedious.

On of our programmers, Yahn Bernier, was actually working as a patent lawyer not long ago; and one can hear sighs of relief coming from his office on an hourly basis. The jobs I had were simply the most effective way I could find of feeding my family.

John Yan: Have all the novels you written been in the science fiction genre? Would you like to write a novel one day with a different focus?

Marc Laidlaw: DAD'S NUKE is satiric science fiction. NEON LOTUS is futuristic Tibetan science fantasy. KALIFORNIA is satiric s.f. THE ORCHID EATER is a thriller about a psychotic eunuch. THE 37TH MANDALA is supernatural horror about a New Age charlatan, in the mode of Lovecraft. THE THIRD FORCE is just plain surreal-an excuse to play a bunch of my favorite Phil Dick riffs. All my novels differ fairly widely from one another. I like to write in all different styles, and cycle through a few favorite tones of voice (horrific, satiric, etc.).
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