What do you think of the recent news about the story of Half Life?
I feel like the tide is turning hard and fast on Valve these days. The timing of this certainly doesn’t help. Valve is no longer a software company. They are bleeding talent that worked on some of their biggest, most critically acclaimed work.
And the fact that they are bleeding this talent is important. Valve is not a company that you should just walk away from. Erik Wolpaw once told a story about a flare-up of ulcerative colitis that made him miss months of work. Valve paid for all the hospital expenses and even gave him full paid leave. Gabe Newell told him “Your job is to get better. That is your job description at Valve. So go home to your wife and come back when you are better.” They didn’t have to do that, but they extended the ultimate in generosity to keep him happy, healthy, and employed at Valve.
So when Erik Wolpaw leaves Valve, that’s not a decision I’m sure he came to lightly. Even though Marc Laidlaw, Erik Wolpaw, and Chet Faliszek all left and said there was no bad blood, they are putting the golden goose back in the pen and saying “Naw, I’ve got somewhere else to be.”
That’s a reflection on what Valve is, and what Valve will become going forward.
Valve has, essentially, infinite money. And not only do they have infinite money, but they’re constantly looking for solutions to avoid hiring more employees. They’d rather figure out a way to make the community do all the work for them, so they can kick back and go for a swim in their Scrooge McDuck money bins.
In a lot of ways, it’s starting to feel very reminiscent of the trend you see on Kickstarter. The big important game developer promises you everything you’ve ever hoped or dreamed for, they get millions of dollars, go over-budget, miss deadlines, and ultimately under-deliver. We saw it with Broken Age, we saw it with Mighty No. 9, we saw it with Yooka-Laylee, we’re seeing it with Shenmue 3 and most likely Bloodstained (which, after three years in development, is apparently only 20% complete). It’s less that these guys have lost their touches and more that they have the freedom to do whatever they want, and whatever they want turns out to be beyond reasonable budgets.
Take Broken Age: when Tim Schafer pitched the Kickstarter, he thought they’d do a short, simple adventure game, like the very first Maniac Mansion. No voice acting, not even HD visuals. The final Broken Age was so expensive it had to be broken in to two separate halves, with the sales of Broken Age 1 funding part 2.
I think it was in their Yooka-Laylee video, but Stop Skeletons From Fighting brought up a wonderful clip from behind the scenes of The Incredibles, where Brad Bird is arguing for a big, impressive, and most importantly time consuming and expensive action scene to cap the movie off. If Brad Bird had total creative freedom he would do that scene without a second thought, but since he was working for Disney, he had a producer on hand pushing back against it. Brad, in his own words, wanted to do “something cool” and the producer wanted it “on time and on budget” – and ultimately, that clash lead to a fantastic final product, because limitations foster creativity. Unchecked freedom can just make a very costly mess, which is a trap many of these high-profile Kickstarters are falling in to.
Valve gets around some of that because their money hose doesn’t stop gushing. They don’t even have to put out software anymore – Valve takes a deep cut of every DOTA 2 International tournament prize pool, which this year raised $24,000,000. Roughly half of that gets funneled back in to Valve, every year, until the day DOTA 2 stops being interesting. On top of the 30% of every sale on Steam. On top of them ramping up the tournament scene in CS:GO in the last two years with the same tactics that filled DOTA 2 with money. Valve clearly has more cash than they know what to do with.
But what has that gotten us?
A failed deal with Adult Swim for Valve to produce Team Fortress 2 shorts as a TV series. Only one episode was ever finished and released (Expiration Date), which reportedly took something like a whole year (or more) to put together. Using a piece of software Valve built themselves, and is intimately familiar with. When fans, using that same piece of software, routinely produce a significantly greater volume of work at nearly professional standards, and often by single-person teams working alone (there’s even a yearly film festival about this exact thing). The best Valve could muster was a single episode, despite reportedly employing more than 200 people.
Two, the Steam Controller. Valve custom-built an entire assembly line factory with their own money to produce Steam Controllers after nearly two years of private and public R&D. It failed to set the world on fire, because in order to use it, it requires you to unlearn basically everything you’ve ever known about game controllers. It is the DVORAK of gamepads, catering to a very narrow audience of people who either forced themselves to like it or grew up knowing nothing else.
Three, are Steam Machines, which is really just a nebulous PC spec that doesn’t seem to have really stuck around or gone anywhere at all.
Four, SteamVR (The Vive), which is prohibitively expensive and requires a minimum amount of space in order to work that most people apparently do not have. Cool if you’re rich enough to afford any of that, but I don’t think very many can right now.
And five, a DOTA 2 collectible card game that seems to exist only because Valve saw how much money Blizzard was making with Hearthstone, and they decided to make their own version of that.
Not exactly the greatest pedigree to have after a high point like Portal 2. So much for Valve’s “make something interesting, and if it’s cool enough it’ll eventually come out.” mantra.
How many projects like Half-Life 2 Episode 3 were left on the cutting room floor? Forgotten about if for no other reason than the person working on it got pulled away to help crunch for a TF2 update, or producing The International, or something else? Only to, weeks or even months later, come back and realize they don’t remember where they left off. But who cares, right? If it wasn’t cool enough, then you can just work on something else. Nobody’s going to stop you. Wheel your desk somewhere else and start over on whatever catches your interest that week.
What happened to F-STOP? The idea that was reportedly going to make up Portal 2 but ended up being abandoned because it was “too good.” That was more than six years ago. They spent one whole year prototyping F-STOP and we haven’t heard a peep about it since (unless they planned to have a whole section in Portal 2 where you play a DOTA 2 card game, I guess).
Valve has really backed themselves in to a corner, here. I am a massive Valve fanboy, and they just seem like a really hard company to root for these days. Between their hands-off approach to Steam curation, their slavish dedication to gargantuan esports profits over all else, and now the man who literally invented the Half-Life universe more or less saying, “This is how I wanted that story to end, because they might not ever tell you” …it’s just… probably about as close to a worse case scenario you could get for that company. And for once, you can’t point fingers at a greedy publisher, or a failed merger, or any kind of corporate man in a business suit. Valve controls their own destiny, and are the only ones to blame for the monster they’ve let themselves become.
It’s difficult for games to have years
and years worth of life expectancy and it’s usually not even the
game’s fault itself. Sequels come out that drag people’s attention
away. Online support just runs out. Completely different games are
released that grabs people’s attention. Sometimes people just get
tired of playing it. So for a game like Team Fortress 2 which has no
campaign of its own and is meant exclusively for online play to last
10 years and still growing strong is a testament to how good the game
TF2 has had an interesting history. The
first game in the series, Team Fortress, started out as a mod for
Quake but even back then, the core of it was realized. After several
delays, improvements, and even a complete overhaul of the art style,
Team Fortress 2 was released in 2007 as part of the Orange Box
bundle, a collection of various Valve games.
Like other Valve games at the time, it
was well received and spawned a dedicated following that only grew
with time. Even 10 years later, it’s still one of the most played
games on Steam in general so the question is, how did it last this