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Game Maker Without a Rule Book
September 9, 2012 4:53 PM   Subscribe

"Behold the future of video games. Or at least the future as envisioned by a bunch of gamers, programmers, tinkers and dreamers at the Valve Corporation here. This is the uncorporate company that brought us the Half-Life series, the hugely influential first-person shooter game. The Valve guys aren’t done yet. Founded 16 years ago by a couple of refugees from Microsoft, Valve makes games that wild-eyed fans play until their thumbs hurt and dawn jabs through the curtains. But what really makes Valve stand out is its foresight on technology."

"A DRIVING force behind Valve’s most far-out hardware project, wearable computing, is being led by Michael Abrash, a veteran of technology and game companies who helped Valve get off the ground in the 1990s by licensing its important game software from his employer at the time, Id Software. To Mr. Abrash, glasses that project games in front of players’ eyes are an obvious next step from today’s versions of wearable computers, smartphones and tablets."
...
"Valve has been pursued over the years by Electronic Arts, which would very likely have valued Valve at well over $1 billion had the talks progressed that far, said two people with knowledge of the discussion who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private. ... Mr. Newell said that there was a better chance that Valve would “disintegrate,” its independent-minded workers scattering, than that it would ever be sold."
posted by SpacemanStix (51 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's an interesting read, vague on new stuff, but a good overview of the history.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:07 PM on September 9, 2012


It seems to me like Valve only works because they're the best way to buy games online and they get a 30% cut of not only all game sales but all add-on content as well. That's no small feat (plenty of companies have screwed up the simple act of selling games online) but it certainly amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Based solely on profitability and releases per year Value is scarcely a videogame company anymore. Really they're online marketplace that dabbles in making games (and now, hardware). It seems really weird to make an article about all these side projects and nontraditional organization structure while barely touch on what actually allows them to keep the lights on.
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:19 PM on September 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Mr. Moore of Electronic Arts doubts that wearable-computing projects championed by the likes of Mr. Newell and Sergey Brin of Google will connect with the mainstream. “It’s appealing to them because they live in that outer fringe of I.Q. and money,” he says.

Ok, so we can scratch the "outer fringe" of money part because Electronic Arts is hardly a pauper which leaves us with the I.Q. chunk. So, let's review,

Mr. Moore of Electronic Arts said "It's appealing to them because they live in that outer fringe of I.Q." Translation, "They only had that idea because they're smart."

Ouch, Mr. Moore, I think you might hurt their feelings.
posted by sendai sleep master at 5:28 PM on September 9, 2012 [18 favorites]


Based solely on profitability and releases per year Value is scarcely a videogame company anymore.

Perhaps, but based on the awesomeness of their games, they're a pretty fine videogame company.
posted by davejay at 5:32 PM on September 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Them" I believe refers to millionaire/billionaire tech geniuses. I actually agree with Mr. Moore, it's going to be hard to bring that tech down to mass market levels (and interest).
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:33 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Valve makes games that wild-eyed fans play until their thumbs hurt

Valve is primarily a computer game company. Thumb pain is a symptom of console gaming. Blech.
posted by Justinian at 5:34 PM on September 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


WASD forever! (also, I suck with a controller)
posted by the_artificer at 5:39 PM on September 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Mr. Moore of Electronic Arts said "It's appealing to them because they live in that outer fringe of I.Q." Translation, "They only had that idea because they're smart."

Not quite. They're appealing to those on the outer fringe of I.Q. and money. In other words, people who are smart, and people who are rich.

Not bad demographics to chase, perhaps.
posted by JHarris at 5:41 PM on September 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Valve is primarily a computer game company. Thumb pain is a symptom of console gaming. Blech.

There are a lot of jumping puzzles in Half Life, and I have jump mapped to the space bar.

But I know what you meant.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:49 PM on September 9, 2012




man, do we really need any more connectivity and computers in stuff
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 5:54 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Valve is a small video game company with limited resources that figured out how to bust out of the boom and bust cycle of infrequent A List releases with an online marketplace that's now booming and may bust (who knows?).

These hardware developments are insurance against "who knows?', just as Steam was insurance against long development windows.
posted by notyou at 6:04 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Valve undoubtedly has some very smart people at its helm. They're ahead of the game in so many ways - the Steam store is one of them. Monetising free to play games is another - I'm particularly awestruck by their plan for monetising DOTA2 - they decided that they would let users create skins and sell them to other users, and just take a cut of the transactions.

(monetising it was a problem because they're poured untold millions of dollars on its development, and their primary competitors are all free to play)

Even though it's still in beta - the level of refinement and polish that Valve has put into this game is unbelievable - I have played games for over 20 years and have honestly never seen a game on this level. Probably an indication of what a studio can achieve when they basically have (1) brilliant people, (2) unlimited budget and (3) no investors forcing you to release it before it's "ready".
posted by xdvesper at 6:04 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Valve makes games that wild-eyed fans play until their thumbs hurt

Valve is primarily a computer game company. Thumb pain is a symptom of console gaming. Blech.


But don't you see? It's like a heroin junkie having to find new places to stick the needle; some people play to the point that they have to press WASD with both thumbs and move the mouse with their face.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:06 PM on September 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


It seems to me like Valve only works because they're the best way to buy games online and they get a 30% cut of not only all game sales but all add-on content as well. That's no small feat (plenty of companies have screwed up the simple act of selling games online) but it certainly amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

I'm curious where you got the 30% number because the figure is protected by NDA. I think it must vary by publisher and 30% seems really high. I think you might be getting Valve confused with Apple.
posted by zixyer at 6:19 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article, and all the hype, paints Valve as a heavenly place to work. And it might be. Yet just a few days ago, an ex-Valve engineer said the company had a lot of actual turnover, and I suddenly realized I knew three ex-Valve folks. So perhaps it's not all that heavenly for all kinds of people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:33 PM on September 9, 2012


I found this comment to be pretty interesting:

“I get freaked out any time one person leaves,” says Mr. Newell, a bearded bear of a man with John Lennon-style glasses. “It seems like a bug in the system.”

At the very least, I'd like the idea of working at a place that was actively concerned about something like this, especially when money becomes less of an issue.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:37 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Valve undoubtedly has some very smart people at its helm.

If their employee manual is to be believed, they're all at its helm.
posted by Jpfed at 6:39 PM on September 9, 2012


If their employee manual is to be believed, they're all at its helm.

I work with 10 levels of management. I can assure you that those with the title of manager/director/vice president/senior partner/god boss have very little to do with actual leadership... despite what they may think.
posted by underflow at 6:58 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


So Valve was designed as a company that would attract the sort of people capable of taking the initial creative step, leave them free to do creative work, and make them want to stay. Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.

Now, I can tell you that, deep down, you don’t really believe that last sentence.

posted by Huck500 at 7:02 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm curious where you got the 30% number because the figure is protected by NDA. I think it must vary by publisher and 30% seems really high. I think you might be getting Valve confused with Apple.

While I have no direct knowledge of any kind regarding what is typical for major publishers - the figures quoted by many, many rather inebriated independent developers in the monthly Boston Indies meetups hover around a common 30% cut for AppStore, Steam, and XBLA/XBLIG.

The oft-repeated "common knowledge", basically, is that all digital distribution channels take roughly in that same neighborhood and you can raise/lower it somewhat by selecting different channel-specific marketing/visibility packages. These are not, again, first-hand or even sober datapoints.
posted by Ryvar at 7:05 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article, and all the hype, paints Valve as a heavenly place to work. And it might be. Yet just a few days ago, an ex-Valve engineer said the company had a lot of actual turnover, and I suddenly realized I knew three ex-Valve folks. So perhaps it's not all that heavenly for all kinds of people.

The whole industry has a very high turnover rate, even at excellent companies, so I wouldn't say that speaks poorly of them. On the other hand, I did an informal interview with Valve a while ago and it was the single worst interview experience I've ever had. I felt like I was in a dominance ritual with the alpha male testing to see if I was strong enough to run with the pack. Every time their hierarchy system gets brought up and everyone else pictures calm discussions around a table, I inevitably start picturing rabid wolves.

But it doesn't need to be a worker's paradise anymore than the next company to appreciate the positive effect they have on the medium - especially once all this research comes to fruition.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 8:12 PM on September 9, 2012


If wearable computing results in glasses that give me Adblock Everywhere i'm all over it.
posted by onya at 8:16 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]



“We would say to Microsoft, we understand all these frustrations about the challenges to your business,” he said. “But trying to copy Apple will accelerate, not slow, Microsoft’s decline.”

Mark Martin, a spokesman for Microsoft, declined to comment.
Golden.
posted by Evernix at 8:28 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to go on about how highly I think of Valve and their business practices again because that would be unseemly.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:14 PM on September 9, 2012


But I will say that they've been releasing one to two games per year for years, many of them instant classics -- TF2, L4D and L4D2, Portal and Portal 2 to name some from the last 4 or 5 years -- which is just fine for a studio their size, I'd say. Hell, when the break between Doom 3 and Rage from id (whose earlier games I loved without reserve) was... what, 7 years?... and neither of them were any damned good, it makes me appreciate Valve all the more as a game developer.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:17 PM on September 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Sorry for the personal derail, but I'm curious Cool Papa Bell and subject_verb_remainder, if you could expound more on whether the "heavenly" description of Valve as a place to work is mostly/not remotely true from your first/second hand knowledge. Everything I read, and even the Gabe Newell quote in this thread about turnover being a "bug in the system", suggests it really "gets" what a lack of formal hierarchy can unleash.

I am so, so unhappy where I am now (Expedia) with its feudal structure and Freudian appeals to daddy Directors and VPs and sheer terror on the part of rank and file as well execs to ever innovate home grown tools and solutions that don't have the CYA safety of external, expensive boxed products. And as it happens, Valve is like two blocks from their headquarters. If what Valve does is actually like the ideal of self-driven "work where you think there's a need, which fit your skills", it might be perfect for me. I've written some awesome tooling where I work, but I feel I spend all my time "managing up" to convince some Director to use my solutions- which his own employees love, and want- because they can't use it until Benelovent Father has signed off. It saddens and sickens me, and I can't still be here in 2013.
posted by hincandenza at 9:26 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Valve only works because they're the best way to buy games online

No. While I'm sure Steam is currently a huge money maker for Valve, they have been so far ahead of the curve for so long that I'm convinced they would be doing just fine without it. Valve's first big game was Half-Life. This was a game that revolutionized the first person genre. Not only was the single player game a huge leap forward with scripted events, a real story, and a level of finesse not found in other games, but they were the first to capitalize on the modding community with the release of their Hammer editor spawning games such as Counter-Strike and Day Of Defeat. While id Software may have developed the multiplayer and engine technology with Quake, it was Valve who polished it and introduced it to the mainstream. If you look at their subsequent releases, such as Half-Life 2, Portal, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2, and now Dota 2, they have consistently produced high quality games that are extremely fun to play. They developed Steam because they needed a better way to patch their games and deliver a coherent online experience, such as anti-cheat. They offered other companies the contract to build this client, including Microsoft and Real, but were turned down. So they build it themselves, and released it with CS 1.6 in 2003. Later they started distributing other games, particularly indie titles who had no other way to get mainstream exposure. Of course, it became so popular because there were no other decent alternatives that it is now The Platform for online pc gaming.

It's not only the games though, it's their approach to their products which is so different from other companies. For instance, I loved Team Fortress 2 and played it from the time it was originally released with the Orange Box in 2007. Valve apparently loved this game too, and continued to release additions to the game over the next few years. New maps, new game modes, bots, bug fixes, a crafting system, and a myriad of interface and gameplay improvements, not to mention new weapons and out of game events and cinematics for the different classes. For free. But by 2010, they had made 120 update patches to the game, and they weren't done yet. New games had come and gone, and server population had began to dwindle. Did they abandon their game though, or release an expensive map-pack? No. They made the game free-to-play and introduced an in-game microtransaction store with seamless Steam integration to buy weapons and cosmetics. They created a system to allow the community to contribute item designs and submit them to the store, and share in the profits if they were chosen. So five years after release, this is a game with even more people playing than did at release, and a very happy community. They continue to add and improve on the game, a while back they added a movie-making feature and just recently they added a co-op mode. I paid ~$20 for this game in the original Orange Box, and because I have played over 2000 hours I was more than happy to buy some funny hats and gimmickry from their store.

And don't even get me started on Dota 2.
posted by sophist at 10:54 PM on September 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


WASD forever!

Oh yeah? Try this: ASDF, with S mapped to backwards and D mapped to frontwards. Give yourself one hour with it, then you can thank me.
posted by davejay at 1:43 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah? Try this: ASDF, with S mapped to backwards and D mapped to frontwards. Give yourself one hour with it, then you can thank me.
Gross. It's like bizzaro vi.
posted by LiteOpera at 3:02 AM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Based solely on profitability and releases per year Value is scarcely a videogame company anymore. Really they're online marketplace that dabbles in making games (and now, hardware). It seems really weird to make an article about all these side projects and nontraditional organization structure while barely touch on what actually allows them to keep the lights on.

Google is an online search company but articles about that are boring so they don't show up here. The cool fringe stuff that they do is interesting. The same is true of Valve.
posted by VTX at 9:08 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's worth noting that this article has what I believe to be the first actual image of Valve's rumored AR/VR headset. There's been a lot of speculation that Valve would eventually move into hardware space. I'm delighted at the idea that they could do so by essentially selling a fancy hat.
posted by Uncle Ira at 9:14 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think one of the biggest moves Valve has made recently is integrating the Steam Workshop to the massively popular PC version of Skyrim. At once, they linked an AAA title irrevocably to to Steam, brought in the mod community, and provided a mechanism for promoting, hosting and updating the mods for free.

It's a small thing with no direct income for them, but if you look at how active the mod community remains with Morrowind and Oblivion they've essentially bought themselves eight or ten years of goodwill with a very dedicated group of core gamers.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:20 AM on September 10, 2012


I also love Valve's games and the Steam platform. People often joke that they can't count to 3, given the long wait for episode 3, or hl 3, or other third installments.

Can you imagine though... a year or two (or three) span of time that sees the following releases:

- Half Life 3
- Counter Strike 3
- Left 4 Dead 3
- Team Fortress 3
- DOTA 3
- Portal 3

Seriously, they are setting themselves up to kick a lot of ass and take a lot of names...
posted by utsutsu at 11:02 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


i'm just happy there's a game company out there that doesn't work super-hard to make me hate them.
posted by RTQP at 1:56 PM on September 10, 2012


Gross. It's like bizzaro vi.

Oddly, I use vi, but I never use those particular keys. The ASDF thing was a suggestion from someone else because I was cramping up moving between W and S. You should really try it before you knock it. (and if after an hour you still hate it, knock away.)
posted by davejay at 1:57 PM on September 10, 2012


Valve is primarily a computer game company.

Pretty much all of their releases for the past several years have been PC and console.

Haven't seen sales breakdown, but most people I know play them on consoles (like every other game, since console gaming is so dominant over PC gaming).
posted by wildcrdj at 5:00 PM on September 10, 2012


Guess the console / PC thing is mixed for them, with Portal 2 selling better on PC but Left4Dead selling better on consoles, for example.

Of course, between Big Picture and rumors of a Steam Box, Valve is hedging their bets all over the place.

While their distribution stuff has been focused on PCs (for obvious reasons), it seems to me they are rightly focused on games as games and consider platform secondary. For a company with their resources, releasing cross-platform is the right thing to do.

(I don't get all the Steam hype, but I'm not a PC gamer so I'm not their target audience)
posted by wildcrdj at 5:29 PM on September 10, 2012


I would love for the next step in their Big Picture rollout to be a LAN based streaming client that could plug into my Roku (or Xbox via smartglass, while I'm engaging in wishful thinking). That way I can have my games run on my PC in my computer room, but displayed on the TV in the media room or bedroom. Pretty much play my Steam library Onlive/Gaikai style, but with LAN latencies and running on my own hardware.
posted by Uncle Ira at 5:34 PM on September 10, 2012


console gaming is so dominant over PC gaming

That's a myth, or at least an outdated view, I'm happy to say as a dedicated PC gamer. Here's a handy infographic from last year.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:40 PM on September 10, 2012


, or at least an outdated view,

Looks like the latter, yeah. Haven't paid much attention but if that graph is right it looks like revenue has swapped.

As long as console (or similar) gaming continues to exist I'm happy. Similar could include controller-focused PC gaming, but keyboard-and-mouse is too painful (in the physical sense) for me and makes most PC games unplayable (sure, you could theoretically use a controller in a PC shooter, but you won't be in fair competition the way you would on a console).
posted by wildcrdj at 5:48 PM on September 10, 2012


I think Valve and Steam have played a huge part in the recent renaissance of PC gaming, particularly in getting indie games exposure, which has been an incredible boon to independant developers. It really is a great time to be a PC gamer, and I reckon this Big Picture thing might just tip the balance even further. Over at MefightClub, RolandofEld was just asking this week about advice on getting him and his buddies who like to hang out and play together off of console gaming on to PC, and the Big Picture mode that Steam just started beta on today is just the thing.

I think that for a certain demographic of players who like to sit on the sofa and play on a big screen, with other people maybe, the rich variety of games -- at incredibly attractive prices, if you're willing to wait for them to go on sale on Steam -- that can be had in addition to the usual AAA blockbusters will be very attractive indeed. It certainly is already attractive to small developers who can't or won't pay the ridiculous fees Microsoft imposes for patching or updating games that make it onto the Xbox download service.

Hopefully the trend of console-exclusive major games, which has already been waning, will disappear entirely.

Microsoft has so entirely botched their handing of Windows as a gaming platform (and from what I hear, are ruining the Xbox experience with advertising as well) -- and there are clear indications they'll be screwing it up even worse with Win8 -- is not entirely a bad thing. I kind of wish they hadn't dropped the ball, because credible competition to Steam would have meant, perhaps, that Steam would be even better than it is -- there are a lot of things that are still inexcusably clunky -- but so it goes.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:04 PM on September 10, 2012


Here's the thing I don't get about Big Picture: how does it handle the control issue? As I said in my comment above, while many PC games technically support controllers, most seem to either assume or require keyboard+mouse, at least for PvP games.

Also, is there credible anti-cheating stuff in PC games that don't require crazy rootkits?

Controls + online experience have kept me from doing the PC-on-a-TV-with-a-controller thing, and Big Picture doesn't seem to address any of that directly.

I suppose for like Half Life it doesn't matter: no multiplayer means you can use whatever controls you want (as long as they make it playable with a controller, but HL2 on 360 was great). But do all the indie developers support a leanback / no keyboard experience?

I'm sure Valve has thought about this stuff but all the coverage I've seen has been focused on them making the Steam UI itself work as a leanback experience, which is great, but useless if you can't actually play games that way.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:12 PM on September 10, 2012


If Valve sold stock I'd move my entire portfolio and a lot of my savings into it. They're one of the smartest tech companies, if not companies period, today.
posted by pashdown at 9:07 PM on September 10, 2012


Here's the thing I don't get about Big Picture: how does it handle the control issue? As I said in my comment above, while many PC games technically support controllers, most seem to either assume or require keyboard+mouse, at least for PvP games.

Presumably if you want to play games on your big screen with a controller you'll play ones that support controllers. I don't know if Valve-produced games do or not (I suspect modern ones do), but they're certainly not going to (nor would I expect them to) try and retrofit games from other developers that do not. That would be silly.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:18 PM on September 10, 2012


I love PC gaming too, but I don't think all those infographic numbers are right Stavros. For instance, their "best selling" console game for 2010 was NCAA Basketball with 692,00 copies?!? Wikipedia would like to differ, listing Call Of Duty: Black Ops (2010) at 12 MILLION copies. There are a few PC Games in that range though, such as Starcraft (#1) at 11 million, The Sims (20 million) and Half Life 2 (although asterisk notes cross platform sales). And other source do seem to corroborate the rise of PC revenue as opposed to consoles, when digital distribution and subscriptions are taken into account.
posted by sophist at 10:59 PM on September 10, 2012


That may be true (although CODBLOPS was a multiplatform release, so I suppose the 12 million units might be for all platforms). Maybe that NCAA Basketball thing was console only? I dunno. VGAChartz is a good data source, but doesn't include PC gaming, although this article predicts
DFC Intelligence has predicted that despite the current slow down in the video game market, software sales are expected to grow. Video game software sales was $52 billion in 2011 and DFC has predicted that sales will increase to $70 billion in 2017. PC revenue will have a 39 percent market share, game consoles with 36 percent and mobile devices with 25 percent.
which seems in line with the data from the infographic.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:42 PM on September 10, 2012


That best selling game stat is for July 2010 only. Seems like an awfully cherry-picked data point, since the summer months are usually all but bereft of major console releases, while Starcraft 2 was arguably the biggest PC title of that year.
posted by phl at 8:02 AM on September 11, 2012


Hopefully the trend of console-exclusive major games, which has already been waning, will disappear entirely.

Not while Nintendo's still selling hardware, probably. It's possible, I suppose, for them to pull a Sega, but it seems grossly unlikely at this point.
posted by JHarris at 12:41 PM on September 11, 2012


Nintendo's at best a niche player these days, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:50 PM on September 11, 2012


No, I wouldn't count them out. Although not a bastion of mainstream gaming and in retrospect many of its games were uninteresting to my eyes, the Wii still sold better than either of their competitors. It doesn't look good for them in the near future, but they have a habit of pulling out unexpected wildcards.
posted by JHarris at 6:33 PM on September 11, 2012


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