Big Pic­ture Mode

We should let off Valve for Steam mishaps, be­lieves Nathan Brown

EDGE - - SECTIONS - NATHAN BROWN Nathan Brown is Edge’s deputy editor, and his name just hap­pens to have three Ns in it. Half-Life 3 con­firmed

This pro­fes­sion is, fa­mously, rid­dled with perks. Cham­pagne on tap. A life­time’s sup­ply of those tiny lit­tle ham­burg­ers. All the free games you could ever play, and all the co­caine you can eat (you eat co­caine, right?). We live lives of such largesse that we’re of­ten mis­taken for rock stars.

We’re not, of course (well, maybe YouTu­bers are). But there are perks and by far my favourite is the way you get to sit in rooms with peo­ple who are much smarter and more im­por­tant than you’ll ever be, and speak to them as equals.

My first over­seas gig for Edge was a roundtable in­ter­view with some of the big­gest names in Scan­di­na­vian game de­vel­op­ment. I’d been in the job 18 months and was sat next to the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of a stu­dio that had been in busi­ness for 15 years. We met shortly af­ter the leak­ing of Valve’s staff hand­book; the in­stantly leg­endary doc­u­ment that de­tailed the com­pany’s unique ap­proach to work­ing, a flat struc­ture where desks are on wheels and staff can move about be­tween teams and projects as they like. As some­one who knew, or thought he knew, a bit about run­ning a busi­ness, it seemed to me to be a lovely idea that was prob­a­bly com­pletely un­work­able in prac­tice. The triple-A MD had a slightly dif­fer­ent take on it. He loved the idea, but felt it put a ceil­ing on Valve’s growth. That if the com­pany’s head­count rose above a cou­ple of hun­dred peo­ple, there would be chaos.

Ev­ery time Valve gets some­thing wrong – which is of­ten – I’m re­minded of the MD’s line. It gets right to the heart of Valve’s prob­lem: it’s a hugely am­bi­tious com­pany whose am­bi­tion is al­ways go­ing to be re­strained by the need to keep within a cer­tain size. When you re­alise that, so much of what Valve does makes sense.

A few months af­ter that roundtable dis­cus­sion I met Valve’s then-busi­ness de­vel­op­ment guy, Ja­son Holt­man. Valve had just an­nounced Steam Green­light, pitch­ing it as a com­mu­nity-led so­lu­tion to the com­pany’s achingly slow cu­ra­tion process. Holt­man said that the en­tirety of Steam was, at that point, run by a team of a dozen peo­ple, and de­spite the mas­sive surge in the vol­ume of games on the plat­form, I doubt that num­ber has changed much since. With SteamVR, SteamOS and Dota 2 – and, Gabe will­ing, some ac­tual game de­vel­op­ment – on the go, who’s go­ing to wheel their desk over to the Steam team, with their spread­sheets, their sup­port tick­ets, their as­set-flip­ping hen­tai dat­ing games? I wouldn’t, es­pe­cially with­out fear of a boss over my shoul­der telling me what I should be do­ing.

Steam’s lat­est prob­lem – a caching er­ror over Christ­mas that ran­domly showed other users’ ac­count de­tails when you logged in – wasn’t Valve’s fault but that of an ex­ter­nal firm. All 200 staff could’ve been work­ing on Steam and it still might’ve hap­pened. But Valve’s lack of re­sponse was fur­ther proof that it’s suf­fer­ing, rather than ben­e­fit­ting, from its phi­los­o­phy. It’s a highly se­cre­tive com­pany; it doesn’t an­nounce projects, it shows them, keep­ing its cards close to its chest un­til it deems its work ready for the pub­lic eye. That’s fair enough when you’re mak­ing games, or hard­ware. But when you’re run­ning a shop? It’s ter­ri­ble prac­tice. The 21st-cen­tury cus­tomer ex­pects round-the­clock sup­port. Here they got noth­ing un­til a hand-wavey state­ment was is­sued days af­ter the fact that con­tained no apol­ogy and took a few lib­er­ties with the truth.

But a few days later it was all for­got­ten, when a sus­pi­ciously well-timed ARG linked to the (ter­ri­ble) Steam win­ter sale got half the In­ter­net in a froth about how this time it was maybe, def­i­nitely, prob­a­bly not a sign that Half-Life 3 was about to come out. Whether pre-planned or not, it was a mas­ter­stroke from Valve, us­ing its rep­u­ta­tion for sur­prise and in­no­va­tion to wipe out all that neg­a­tive sen­ti­ment by putting a cou­ple of lamb­das in a web­page and watch­ing as Red­dit went ba­nanas.

Few other com­pa­nies could do that. But equally, few other com­pa­nies would look at a head­count of 200 peo­ple and think that be­tween them they could sup­port a new op­er­at­ing sys­tem, PC gam­ing’s prin­ci­pal mar­ket­place and plat­form, and one of the big­gest F2P games on the planet while de­vis­ing best-in-class VR tech and maybe de­vel­op­ing the most ea­gerly awaited game on the planet on the side. There may be a ceil­ing on Valve’s am­bi­tion, but it makes sure it reaches for the skies any­way. Frus­trat­ing as that can be, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

There may be a ceil­ing on Valve’s am­bi­tion, but it makes sure it reaches for the skies any­way

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