Valve has problems.
It’s been a long time since that opinion was even close to controversial, but before we start going into the myriad of reasons why Valve needs to get its crap together, I want to take a step back in our time machine and look back on a period when my saying that would have been akin to gamer blasphemy. There was, indeed, a time when Valve could do no wrong. A time… called the early 2000’s.
But let’s start a bit before that. Valve was founded by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington on August 24th, 1996: two former Microsoft employees who saw the potential in video games and had a passion for advancing the long-neglected realm of PC gaming. Remember, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, PC gaming was considered dead, or at least dying, and consoles were considered king. Ol’ Gabe and Mike had a mind to put a stop to that, and released Half-Life in 1998, the world’s first introduction to the studio. And what an introduction it was: Half-Life was not only a stellar FPS, it had an enormous amount of freedom, a shocking amount of trust in the user to follow along with a convoluted but slowly-paced plot, creative level design… it was pretty much the whole package, and even at the time, publications were praising it as the next big thing. Alone, it wasn’t enough to revitalize PC gaming, but it did change the gaming world forever.
Gearbox, as well, would catapult itself to success off Half-Life, as they became responsible for making the expansions (Opposing Force, Blue Shift, and Decay) as well as porting the game to the PS2. But that’s not important right now.
But while one great game can certainly get people’s attention, you need more to get the kind of love Valve would later receive. And after finishing their own, unique in-house engine, called Source, they released a bunch of games that would secure a legacy that they still can’t shake (despite their best efforts). We’re talking Team Fortress. Portal. Left 4 Dead. Counter-Strike. And all their sequels and expansions. This was the golden age of Valve, when they were the bastions of PC gaming and a reliable source of high-quality games. Gabe Newell even elevated himself to something of a messiah figure in the eyes of the gaming public, one of those brilliant creators who can “do no wrong”.
But wrong they did, in 2003, with the release of Steam.
Now, in the early days of Steam, it was an inoffensive marketplace that would later become mandatory for Valve games – not a bad price to pay, considering. And in 2005 with Rag Doll Kung Fu, Steam sold its very-first third-party game on their platform, giving it a little bit more value to the people who decided to have it on their PC.
But things changed in 2007.
Because in 2007, Valve released the enormously popular Orange Box, a packaged deal of Portal, Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2. It was, and perhaps still is, the best packaged deal in gaming history, and so lots and lots of people swarmed to Steam. And as more people swarmed to Steam, more studios – namely id Software, Eidos Interactive, and Capcom – decided they also wanted their games on that marketplace. Bigger games wound up on the marketplace, which meant more people were downloading Steam, which meant even bigger studios started selling games on the marketplace, and basically overnight, Steam transformed from just another game client to the number one digital online marketplace and a near must-have for any PC gamer.
In some respects, you can thank Steam for being the catalyst that would revitalize the PC gaming world and turn it into the currently dominant force in the gaming industry. But it came at a terrible price: Valve’s soul. Because as the new publishers flooded in and Valve started making more and more money for producing less and less games… well…
That’s what brings us to the first problem.
There’s nothing to like about the models most businesses use. Low-level employees are overworked and underpaid, while executives get enormous paychecks and golden parachutes that protect them if they should mismanage. But for all the flaws of the modern business structure, one thing is undeniable: it’s effective. Because even if the CEO has a crappy, self-destructive goal, they still have the means to steer the company to focus on that objective. They point, everyone looks.
Valve tries to do something different: when you get hired at Valve, you don’t get your own office, a job title, or even much in the way of direction. You’re just set loose in the workspace and are expected to do something – anything – to earn your paycheck. Considering their reputation, this might seem like the logical extreme of all those famous tech-workspaces Google and Facebook is known for, and there’s certainly something to be said for the value of this system in times of trouble. Most people are naturally inclined to be productive with their days, and since they only hire people who must have some degree of passion for what they do, it means that people would have the freedom to pursue new ideas that could possibly turn around a bad situation, while giving them the option to opt into a less stressful role if they feel they’re getting overworked. This way, the right people are almost always doing the right job (a job they want to be doing) that can produce the best products. It worked for L4D 2 and Portal 2, after all.
But when you apply that system to a company that doesn’t have the fire under its feet – say, because now it makes most of its money just by keeping some servers up and hosting seasonal sales – something changes. Things like innovation and exploration stop being necessary due to a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. The need to release a product drops, so while people can start on one project, there’s no enormous push to actually finish it: after all, no matter if it’s released this week or next decade, Steam will still have plenty of money. And, most importantly of all: job security. If you innovate and things go well – that’s great! But since there are no promotions or the like, all you can really expect is a pat on the back. But if you innovate and you cost the company money, you’re out. It’s just not worth the risk.
So when you mix that with the well-documented “high school” mindset within the company, you get a bunch of employees who are rewarded for doing nothing and pushed for doing anything. Which is why Valve releases almost no games anymore and why they try to automate Steam as much as possible: if a human has to monitor the games coming into the system, not only is that hard work, it leaves them accountable. But if a team makes it automated, or relies on the community? No hands are bloodied.
But Valve wouldn’t be in the news if it was still doing nothing. Because what really drew people’s attention back to their scummy ways was actually the discourse surrounding Artifact, the pay-to-play TGI Valve released this week. And that’s when we saw a side of Valve we hadn’t seen before now: just straight-up greed. It’s one thing for Valve to not release games, it’s another for them to release a game with such a crooked monetization system that even a blind monkey could see how messed up it is. It’s a sin Valve had been innocent of until now, and many people are left wondering: where the hell did this come from?
Obviously, I can’t answer that with any authority. And I wouldn’t go so far as to blame their “flat management structure” on all their problems. But when I consider all the factors above, I can’t help but think that Artifact isn’t really a “game”, so much, as it is a “test”. A test to see if these kind of monetization schemes could possibly be profitable in some larger product. So a small team of developers within the company cobbled it together, something cheap and relatively easy with the high potential of payoff, and let it loose on the world to see if they can use it on any of the bigger, riskier projects that might actually endanger their job security if it shouldn’t go well. If it does, great: they can go forward with Half-Life Battle Royale with cash-based life system or something. And if it doesn’t, then this relatively harmless money-making scheme can go in the same trash bin as the Mod Marketplace and Valve can continue generating free money.
Of course, that’s assuming Valve even still makes big games anymore. Why risk making a big game, after all, if Valve wants to preserve its near-flawless record and doesn’t want fans to get renewed hope that they might one day return to the thing that made them famous in the first place?
So yes. Valve has problems. Problems that they don’t feel motivated to fix, nor do they have the tools to address.
But at least we have Artifact. And, to be fair, people do say it's actually really good. So at least we know they can still make games when they can be bothered to.