Valve has never had to play by the rules.
Gabe Newell made millions at Microsoft working on the Windows operating system, and that money was invested in Valve, allowing it to operate with a level of autonomy that might not have existed otherwise. Valve remains privately owned, which means there is no obligation to share revenue information or even the rationale behind its decisions with anyone outside the company.
Valve’s last game, Dota 2, was released in 2013. Yesterday it was announced that writer and VR advocate Chet Faliszek has left the company, while Half-Life series writer Mark Laidlaw left Valve last year and Erik Wolpaw, a co-writer on Portal, left in February.
This has led to a lot of chatter on social media about whether Valve is still making games at all, or even if it’s worth the company’s time to do so. Steam, on its own, is likely more profitable than any game or games it could release, after all.
The important thing is to stop holding Valve to the standards and rules of just about any other company in gaming. But yes, it’s still making games.
Shift your thinking
Valve was able to stay independent due to its founder making a large bet with his own millions, and the revenue from the approximately 30 percent Valve makes from the sale of every game on Steam means that Valve doesn’t really have to do anything in the short or medium term to make money.
Starting rich gives you a very large advantage in business, it turns out. So does being in the right place at the right time. Steam is so entrenched in the hearts and minds of PC gamers that any competition is going to have to not just match the mature service in terms of features, but beat it handily to get people to even consider installing something new. That’s a tall order, and it gives Steam a very safe position in the gaming industry for the foreseeable future.
There is no pressure to release software on any timetable other than Valve’s own. That freedom to take its time and experiment with ideas — while killing things that don’t work out — means that the company’s approximately 360 employees have a lot of time and motivation to experiment with finding something with legs. Something that helps to support Valve’s other interests, including the continuing dominance of Steam, the ability to continue to sell or profit from items or some aspect of each game’s community for years and gather data to keep Valve ahead of the curve.
Valve doesn’t just want to earn money, it does that well enough already. Valve wants to make sure its games and releases can be used to keep its hold on the future as well as the present. That’s a very different metric than a traditional developer or publisher that has to justify itself to investors on regular earnings calls.
“Products are usually the result of an intersection of technology that we think has traction, a group of people who want to work on that, and one of the game properties that feels like a natural playground for that set of technology and design challenges,” Newell stated during a Reddit question and answer session. “When we decided we needed to work on markets, free to play, and user generated content, Team Fortress seemed like the right place to do that. That work ended up informing everything we did in the multiplayer space.”
We speculated, somewhat wildly, about the anonymous source who claimed to have information about Half-Life 3, but that story includes a lot of information and educated conjecture about why so few projects at Valve see release.
It always seems as if Valve games that make it into full production need to operate inside a Venn diagram that includes many aspects of its own interests, and leaves room for continued growth in the long term.
Not many games are going to be able to hit all those marks, and no one should be surprised that the company isn’t churning out titles. We spend so much time complaining about endless sequels and then get mad when a company quietly creates titles that change the entire industry every few years, and Valve doesn’t have to play by anyone else’s rules other than its own.
Games as services, or VR, aren’t counted
Gabe Newell himself has also told us that Valve is working on three VR games, and that those experiences will be larger than the tech demos we’ve grown used to in the VR ecosystem. Valve has already released The Lab for free, which includes a variety of VR experiences that are significantly better than most games on the HTC Vive.
The people who claim Valve doesn’t make games anymore also often conveniently forget that Valve is actively working on the first and second most popular games on Steam.
Dota 2 has had 789,480 players at its peak yesterday, and Counter-Strike: GO enjoyed a maximum of 585,343 players in the same timeframe. Then there’s a sharp drop to the 122,802 players of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which is kind of a runaway hit.
The point being that Valve is actively developing two of the biggest games on the planet, and a lack of sequels doesn’t mean a lack of work, nor revenue. The games Valve has in ongoing development as services aren’t just doing OK for their age, they’re some of the most played games both of all time and on a day-to-day basis. These two titles operate on a popularity level that’s far above other massive hits on the platform, and keeping that momentum going takes work.
So what are people asking?
The real question is whether Valve is working on a Portal 3, or Half-Life 3 or Left 4 Dead 3, and if any of those projects will see release in the near future.
Valve is working on games, and is shipping content on a regular basis while supporting and updating its catalog of online titles. The company also worked with HTC to release the Vive, which is kind of a big deal from a hardware and software point of view. It’s not like Valve hasn’t been busy.
But people will continue to ask for the games they want, even if that’s not what they’re likely to get. The criticism that Valve has stopped releasing or working on games in favor of coasting on Steam doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, but the desire for a more traditional structure for Valve’s releases — complete with sequels for the games people love — is going to continue.
That doesn’t mean Valve hasn’t gotten out of the business of creating games, that just proves that the rules that players use to judge success and activity don’t fit a company that never had to do things the traditional way.
And that’s always been the case.