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Interview with Marc Laidlaw - April 5th, 2006

Questions by Reid Kimball


It was at the Game Developer Conference 2006 when I introduced myself to Gabe Newell of Valve Software and thanked him for adding closed captioning to Half-Life 2. He said I should contact someone else who was responsible for suggesting they include closed captioning. When I asked that person about it, she said it was Marc Laidlaw that should be thanked and after talking with him he didn't feel comfortable taking full credit. As you will read below, it was a company wide initiative that everyone agreed was important to their goal of making a great game. Marc Laidlaw was kind enough to talk about the company's organizational structure, using closed captioning on TV's, fan reaction to the lack of captions in Half-Life 1, the inclusion of captions in Half-Life 2 and more.


1. How is the company culture at Valve setup that when the idea of closed captioning HL2 is presented, everyone is on board right away? I've spoken with other developers of some extremely popular IPs that are played by millions of people and yet they only give excuses as to why they can't provide closed captions. What about Valve allows you all to skip past the excuses and spring to action? Is there an overall philosophy that everyone subscribes to at Valve that affects any decision for your games?

In this case, after Half-Life shipped I started getting a trickle of letters from deaf gamers pointing out that scenes reliant on audio were completely incomprehensible to them, and I felt terrible--especially because I had seen plenty of games with text captions at that point (usually in the service of conversation trees). I went to Jay Stelly, one of our chief programmers, and he explained that it was not at all a hard problem to solve and that it made sense to solve it right away for HL2. At that point, I was simply thinking of subtitles. This idea lay dormant but unforgotten for a long time; the code that allowed it was put in place fairly early on but we didn't have finished dialog, so we didn't push on it very much. When we had enough dialog to start really using the feature, Ken Birdwell pointed out that there was no reason not to do a full closed caption system to cover all the major sound effects. This made total sense in the gamespace, since sound cues are extremely important in games. We have a somewhat flat organizational structure, so there is nothing in the way of me talking to Jay or Ken or Gabe; and it's the sort of thing we all felt right away would be a huge benefit to some portion of our audience. The expense of doing it was very small and there was no negative aspect, so it never occurred to us not to do it. The embarrassing thing is that it never occurred to us until after we had shipped the first Half-Life.

2. Can you recall if there was defining moment that made people realize not adding closed captions to HL was a missed opportunity?

As soon as I got letters from deaf players of Half-Life, I realized we'd blown it. I put together a script of all the key lines in the game, along with scene descriptions so they could orient themselves and follow along, and emailed that to everyone who wrote and asked for it. But this required the gamers to be proactive. I knew that there were many more gamers who wouldn't bother to write, and therefore I didn't have a good way of getting the read-along script into their hands.

3. As you know subtitles caption the dialog, while closed captions provide both dialog and sound effects. Since Half-Life 1 didn't have subtitles, why didn't you only add subtitles to HL2 and be done with it? What was the motivation to go a step further and caption the sound effects?

See above: That was Ken Birdwell, pointing out that since we had a robust system in place for doing subtitles, we might as well extend it to captions as well. Ken watches TV with CC on just so he doesn't miss things (I have started doing this as well, when I need to watch with the sound down, or when dialog is heavy on accents). Actually, my own hearing is not what it used to be. There could well be a day when I rely on captions to play games.

4. Did Valve receive a lot of angry email about the lack of subtitles in Half-Life 1? Were you able to see immediately there was a huge demand for subtitles and or closed captions? Or was there not much demand, but you decided to add them anyway?

No, not angry, just puzzled and disappointed. I got a handful of letters, probably fewer than ten, but as I mentioned, I knew that many, many more gamers would not bother to write.

5. After HL2 shipped, what was the response to the addition of not only subtitles but closed captions. Did many people comment on the fact that sound effects were captioned?

Well, deaf gamers were extremely vocal in letting us know how happy they were about it, and how they hoped this would drive the industry to be a bit more aggressive in this regard. It's not a hard problem to solve. Every sound in the game is an event; it's not like they happen's not like we're trying to provide captions to reality, happening in real-time. Every event that fires can be associated with a text entry that prints onto of the screen. It's really not a hard problem to solve. But, of course, as a company, you have to give it some kind of priority--which means putting it on someone's schedule, and making sure it happens.

Did you get email from people that were perfectly capable of hearing, but still appreciated the subtitles/closed captions?

I didn't, personally. But a lot of us still play with captions on. In an intense battle, the captions create a kind of cool staccato textual poetry to go along with the action. It's a very good simulation of the sonic experience.

Do you feel developing the closed captioning system for the Source engine has been worth the time and effort?

No question.

Do you have any advice for someone who is having difficulty gathering support for adding closed captions to a game at their development studio (small or large)?

I guess you could contact some deaf gamers and ask them to write letters to the owner. I'm surprised to hear this is such an issue. TV does this as a matter of course. It seems as if it should be a nonissue for the game industry, just as it is for the rest of the entertainment industry.

As a writer, is it difficult to transfer your written work into the game for use as a subtitle/closed caption? Have tools made this easier for you? Would you have opted to hand create text files of captions if the tools didn't exist?

Text is entered into the engine at the point where we're generating phonemes for characters. Then the writer's job is just to clean it up...we try not to abridge any dialog, just make sure that phonetic spellings are converted back to standard spellings. (Note that the captions are localized for all languages...and this is also how our phoneme system works, and why our characters speak in sync with all the languages we ship.) Tools do exist to gather all the text together in one place for editing and polishing. Since everything has to pass through some sort of tool to get into the game, there's no need to do every part of it by hand.

Are there any plans to modify how the closed captions are presented in future HL episodes or other games? Or do you consider the CC system to be complete and final?

All our systems continue to be polished and improved with time and based on playtest feedback and customer input. We had several deaf playtesters who helped us out when we were trying to get the caption system working; their comments were invaluable. So, going forward, I'm sure we'll continue to tweak the system.

Thanks goes to Valve Software and Marc Laidlaw for discussing closed captioning in HL2 and games in general.