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