Last week I had the extreme pleasure of going to downtown Bellevue and visiting the headquarters of Valve Software. While it is relatively easy to take a tour of Valve (you can contact them and arrange for a tour Tuesday or Thursday every week), this was something a little bit different. I am part of an online gaming community and, as luck would have it, one of our members is employed there and was able to arrange a ‘special’ visit. Our community came out in massive numbers (40+ of us total) and jumped at the chance to explore a company we adore at a level deeper than just playing the various games they produce or complaining on the Steam forums.
We started with the general tour of Valve, which mostly consisted of going up and down a bunch of stairs and then walking in circles around the various cabals (large rooms dedicated to a specific game or project) while our guide described how awesome it is to work for the company. Along with the full benefits and yearly vacation paid for by the company, Valve provides in-house massage therapists (to keep those developmental juices flowing?) and a kitchen stocked with any item the employees request. While this is all designed to maintain a happy team and an efficient work environment, it still seems like work heaven (did I mention they get new computers every 6 months?). Indeed, if I had any sort of game development or art skills I would be investing all of my time trying to get on the Valve hiring radar.
The tour does not give much insight into the development process however, and while each cabal is labeled with the game it harbors, there is usually nothing more than some concept art or a few posters to look at while the guide explains their flat-level management strategy and the rolling tables that each employee gets as their mobile office. That said, most of the stuff they have decorating their halls will make you giddy with nostalgic joy, like sentries, and zombie statues, and the ever awesome HAT wall! Unless you hate hats and TF2, in which case I feel bad that you are investing that much emotional energy in despising geometry on cartoony characters’ heads.
The highlight of our visit came when we were ushered into a room full of chairs and found Gabe sitting at the front. FRIGGIN GABE NEWELL! I was a bit awestruck; I mean surely the director of the company had much better things to do on a Friday afternoon then humor a group of nerds by answering their questions. My first impression was that he was incredibly proud of his company and the people that worked there. Suffice it to say that he has come a long way from just being employee number 271 at Microsoft and has plenty to be proud of. While he did briefly discuss the fact that Valve is currently working on three controller prototypes and possibly a console of some sort, he wasn’t able to reveal much about it other than being very confident that their designs are way better than anything currently available. This got my curiosity meter up to “extreme.” There was some implication that whatever they are working on is going to be a very different take than what we are currently used to, and I’m not sure that we can really predict what it will be until it’s finally available for use. If there is one thing Valve is good at (and they made sure to tell us many times), it’s collecting data and using it to their advantage, so I am incredibly confident that whatever they end up shipping will be pleasing to the gamer community (please oh please).
It came as no surprise when Gabe started complaining about Microsoft (somewhat reiterating the points he made at the Casual Connect game conference in Seattle this past July) and further voiced his opinion that Windows 8 is a terrible product and very unsuitable for gamers and PC users. Gabe seemed quite confident that this latest OS will give Microsoft consumers a reason to hate them and may cause a huge hit to PC gaming. He explained that this was a big part of their reasoning for making Steam available on Linux—as a back-up plan for when Microsoft fails. While it’s hard to say what will happen once Windows 8 is released, it’s nice to know that someone out there is interested in preserving the gaming experience as we know it.
After our Q&A with Gabe, we also got the pleasure of talking to Robin Walker, who is one of the lead developers at Valve. We were particularly excited to talk with him as he was originally hired into the company for his work on Team Fortress and has now had a major role in nearly every Valve game to date, which highlights Valve’s work-on-whatever-you-want philosophy of development. Our gaming community has a soft spot for Team Fortress 2 so we mostly inquired about his work on that game. As some of you might know, Team Fortress 2 has become somewhat of a gaming guinea pig since Valve has made it free-to-play and keeps pumping out updates for it. The game seems to serve as a community data mine for what gamers enjoy (or completely loathe), and the playful nature and comedy that surrounds the Team Fortress 2 characters has engendered a community which Valve developers listen to for consumer feedback. In fact, it was revealed that a lot of the engineer update was mandated by what the community said they would love to see in the game after the teaser video came out. I don’t know about you but I think that’s really cool; a company that really listens to the fan base and tries to deliver what they want. As a side comment, I have the sneaking suspicion that the sniper may be loosely based off Robin himself (this is only based on the fact that they have the same accent).
So while not everybody loves Valve, I’ve gained an even greater respect for this incredibly successful and innovative company. Their strategy really works (otherwise they wouldn’t be growing by 50% a year) because they try to make games and content that appeals to the gamers. Being a private company, they don’t need to appeal to shareholders. They just need to appeal to us, the people who buy their games and love them (or complain that they haven’t finished a certain episode of a certain series *cough* HALF-LIFE *cough*). No company is perfect so we really need to give them credit for collecting as much data as they can and using it to make the gaming experience better, and for always trying to do right by their customers. I cannot wait to see what they do with their first attempts at hardware engineering and hope that their current commitment to the gaming experience will continue for a long time.
I hope you enjoyed my long-winded tribute to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity visit to a company I very much adore. Hope you’ll take the chance to visit them sometime soon!