3 lessons learned from Half-Life

Almost everyone working on Aviary is an obsessive gamer. Besides for offering us a convenient (and violent) way to deflate, we also find a lot of inspiration in the underlying design. That's how I justify it to my wife, anyway.

Valve Software

Two games we are currently obsessed with are Team Fortress 2 and Portal, both created by Valve Software (most famous for its Half-Life series).

Valve's success as a software company stems from their philosophy of not compromising their story narrative for the sake of interactive gaming elements. Ironically enough, by forcing their game developers to work within more difficult parameters, they end up building better interactive elements as well!

Robin Walker, Valve employee and creator of Team Fortress 2 puts it best in the in-game commentary:

Holding ourselves to strong design principals can often force us to come up with better solutions than taking the easy route.

Lesson Learned: Limitations generate creative solutions.

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2 is a game where users can choose between becoming one of nine different characters, each with unique abilities and limitations. Players will adopt different characters so that their team will be balanced properly. Having 9 different types of players running around on a field is plenty confusing. Teammates would have a hard time identifying and working with each other and finding certain characters they need (for example, a medic to recharge their health). That's not a problem in TF2 though, because Valve took the novel approach of designing the characters to be physical caricatures of their abilities, instantly recognizable by their silhouettes. Confusion is completely minimized.

Andrea Wicklund, another Valve employee, says:

The more your art direction can use well-understood visual representations the less work you have to do to explain you game elements.

Lesson Learned: Good design lies in the shapes.

How to apply it: Make sure your applications interactive elements (i.e. button icons) are all identifiable by their shapes alone. Exaggerated shapes are easier for people to identify and understand. Here's a great reference point.


Portal is a first-person shooter game where users are given an obstacle course and a single weapon: a gun that shoots portals. A user can open two portals simultaneously, and walking through one makes the user exit the other. The brilliance of Portal is in understanding that physics continues to operate normally in the background and must be used in helping navigate the obstacle course. For example, shoot one portal in the ceiling above you and one portal in the floor below you and you will begin to fall straight down between the portals (ad infinitum), increasing speed as you hurtle towards terminal velocity... pretty useful if you are trying to generate speed to hurtle yourself to a previously unreachable platform!

What's amazing about Portal is that there are no true enemies or weapons in this first person shooter. It's nothing more than a mental challenge that defies you to solve puzzles by throwing away everything that feels right to you about physical interaction with the world. It is a completely new form of interaction with a previously existing genre of gaming.

Lesson Learned: Innovation can be found in minor refactoring.

In layman's terms: You don't need to reinvent the wheel to produce something completely novel.]]