The following is an opinion piece – I wanted to write up my thoughts on Valve through the various perspectives I’ve seen them through. I originally planned to write and post this earlier in the year, prompted by the Steam Dev Days conference.
Disclaimer: I actually don’t know anyone who currently or has ever worked at Valve. I’ve worked with people that ended up at Valve at some point, but we haven’t kept in touch. Anything I know is simply from interviews, the famous employee handbook, etc.
As a consumer:
I still remember the first time I played the first Half-Life. I was in high school and a friend of mine had it on his laptop. I was impressed, but always saved the title of ‘best FPS game’ for whatever the latest id Software game was out there. I was a big fanboy at the time, and young, so I would always side with the latest of the Quake or Doom series when it came to debates, especially about rendering technology.
Half-Life 2 came out in my first semester of university. I still remember seeing students rushing to install it on university lab computers because they could get started playing between classes – faster than waiting until they got home. Despite enjoying playing Half-Life 1 and its expansions and mods (especially Counter-Strike) I was boycotting Half-Life 2. It was because of Steam.
Steam had launched a year before, and I had mixed feelings about it. There was downtime, many bugs, all typical things when you first launch a service like that. It used an embedded Internet Explorer renderer for the news page – I could see where they were going, but didn’t like that. I still remember the downtime because they had just one datacenter, and there was a big storm in that area that knocked the whole service offline.
For multiplayer titles, I thought Steam was definitely an improvement – I didn’t have to go and find patches for Counter-Strike, it would just be updated automatically. VAC (Valve Anti Cheat) was integrated more deeply, so cheating seemed to be reduced by a great amount (from my experience). These were all great things. But then I found out that Half-Life 2 would require Steam.
I thought it was completely ridiculous. It was a single-player game! The DVD (or multiple CDs) just ended up storing encrypted data – you would have to install Steam, make an account, hope that Valve’s servers were up, enter the keycode you got in the box (which is what you actually paid for) and the disc(s) served as a local download source. They just saved you some time and bandwidth. But what if you didn’t have an internet connection? This was ten years ago after all… What if you lived somewhere where home internet is not available, but you bought the game and weren’t able to install and activate it? There was some controversy. Some people pirated it to ‘make a statement’, or to bypass the DRM for convenience. I just boycotted the game.
I didn’t play Half-Life 2 at all until the Orange Box came out. That was 3 years later. I only bought the Orange Box to get Portal and the Team Fortress 2 Beta. I was missing out: Half-Life 2 is a great game. It still looks pretty phenomenal today, honestly. By the time of the Orange Box, things had changed a lot. The advantages of Steam were obvious by that point, and the service had improved greatly. They had earned my trust and confidence by this point.
As a game developer:
Valve has a great story. They’ve put out great titles, and take the time to do them right. For the most part, Steam is a great thing for developers and gamers. It’s not perfect, but it is a lot better than most if not all app/game distribution platforms. I actually have experience integrating with Steam, and it’s pretty good (mind you this is a few years ago). Compared to most of my experience integrating with 3rd-party systems, I’d have to say it’s really good. I think the only problem I encountered was back when they were iterating a lot on the Steam Overlay, and it would break Dawn of War 2 sometimes. In their defense we were doing weird stuff supporting their overlay plus the Games for Windows LIVE one. They usually fixed their bugs pretty quickly.
I really hope to release some games of my own on Steam in the future. What they are doing with free-to-play on PC, Steam services, and Steam PC are very interesting, actually kind of inspiring – but that’s a discussion for another blog post.
As a member of the game industry:
As I said in my disclaimer, I don’t know anyone at Valve. But from the outside, it seems like a pretty cool place to work. Aside from the amazing pedigree of games and services, and the famous Valve Employee Handbook, the company boasts many talented and experienced developers – many of whom I look up to and would love to learn more from. The only two reasons why I haven’t been trying to work there are: 1) I don’t want to move away from Vancouver and 2) I’m afraid if I did work there, I would have no reason/desire to strike out on my own someday. Maybe #2 is a bit silly, but if the handbook is accurate, then I think it’s a legitimate concern.