From the get-go, Valve’s approach to virtual reality gaming has been as laid back and unstructured as the company appears to be: And, so far, that seems to be a good thing.
Even as Valve hurtles toward its first major hardware launch in history next week with the HTC Vive VR headset, the structure of that launch - details like the games that will be available on day one - are still coalescing organically, almost as if without the guiding hand of the platform's creator.
On Monday, Valve told Polygon that the final list of launch games wasn't set yet. The next evening, the company released a list of two dozen launch titles, but warned more would be added as launch day approached.
That the HTC Vive, a VR headset jointly created by HTC and Valve, looks like it will now have more day-one games than rival Oculus Rift's 30-game lineup is, by all outward appearances, purely happenstance.
Where Oculus brought in an accomplished game maker and curator to help oversee the creation of a robust, methodically designed lineup of games, Valve did what Valve does.
"There was never a ‘launch title line up/portfolio’ meeting," said Valve’s Chet Faliszek, who works with outside developers. "We have just been talking to developers throughout the process. We first brought in a group of developers back in 2014 and pitched them on this idea of doing roomscale VR with tracked input. It was an interesting meeting as everyone made their opinions very clear. The loudest point: Don't fracture the development pipeline during the process, give us one system now and make sure that is the target for the consumer launch. So from day one, each developer kit we have shipped has had two base stations, two controllers, and a headset running at 90 Hz.
"We provided the hardware, but it was up to the developer what to make, what platforms to support, and when to release it."
While Oculus made sure it had launch games in a spectrum of genres, Valve left the door open on almost everything in that regard.
"We haven’t approached it as needing a ‘portfolio’ with checkboxes for each genre, or the like," Faliszek said. "Instead, we’ve just tried to provide the latest pieces of the system to the developers in a timely fashion and tried to listen to how we can help them create their experiences to the fullest potential.
"If you look at what we showed last year at GDC and then again this year, you can see the growth that makes the future unpredictable and interesting. For example, as developers have learned to transfer game mechanics from buttons to motions, we see games like Vanishing Realms — an RPG where to swing a sword you don't mash on buttons, but instead swing a sword. This makes you learn how to attack and block in a way games have wanted you to imagine you were doing for years."
Because Valve is run as a flat organization without the hindrance of things like management positions or even set, permanent teams, no one person was really assigned to overseeing the lineup of games that may come to the virtual reality gaming system. Instead, Valve tried to foster a sense of community within the growing field of VR game development.
"The great thing with this project is everyone on the team has a kit at their desk and at home," Faliszek said. "So we are all playing VR experiences all the time, and developers are creating great experiences all the time. As we are playing these experiences we write up feedback and share it with the developers.
"We also have more direct interactions where we have had developers visit us for weeks at a time and work out of our offices alongside of us, or even just come over to run play tests with us of their experiences. We all have so much to learn from each other."
While Valve isn’t actively shepherding specific experiences or games for the Vive, they are helping to share what they and other studios learn while making games for the headset.
"Good VR removes the abstraction of traditional games and ‘puts you into the game,’" Faliszek said. "For us, we want your brain to map your natural movement to the virtual space.
"That sense of agency is infectious when it is no longer abstracted. In Job Simulator, it is great to watch the first time someone picks up one of the donuts and puts it by their mouth - they almost always ‘take a bite.’ They can't help it, their brain is invested to what they are seeing even though the graphics are clearly not life-like."
This year's Game Developer Conference, held earlier this month in San Francisco, was home to more than 100 virtual reality games running on four different platforms, including the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
Oculus held three days of daylong appointments during the early half of the week, inviting reporters to get hands on with three floors of virtual reality launch games and to speak with the game makers.
Valve handed over their GDC booth space to developers creating games for the HTC Vive, inviting press to come check out Valve's single gaming experience and then peruse the games made by the developers that took them up on the offer.
During the Oculus event, I chatted with Jason Rubin, Oculus’ head of worldwide development, about constructing a launch lineup. He described his job as finding the missing ingredients in what the company felt would make for a strong launch portfolio. Essentially, filling holes.
One of the big holes, he said, was a lack of third-person games, something he worked with developers to fix for the Rift.
But where Rubin saw a hole that needed to be filled, Valve's Faliszek sees the prevalence of first-person games as a natural offshoot of the technology.
"You want to be in the game," he said. "After so many years of trying to get people to feel like they were in the action, in the world, room-scale VR let's us do that - you can stand in the middle of the action and as designers we get a bunch of things for free - how do you duck? Duck. Lean? Lean. It opens up a whole new set of verbs for developers."
Valve’s many lessons in VR game development haven’t led to a lot of Valve-made games for their headset though. At least not yet.
Currently, The Lab, a collection of games and experiences in VR, is the only announced title coming from the people behind franchises like Portal and Half-Life. It’s due out in April for free.
Valve programmer Jeep Barnett, whose student project became Portal, said that The Lab was the result of a lot of experimentation.
"We’ve explored all sorts of VR experiments over the years and, while many were failures, a few were strikingly compelling," he said. "Among our favorites we had enough to form a broad intro to the possibilities of VR and decided to share these as The Lab.
The Lab drops users into the middle of a open room of sorts and allows them to explore the tables and items spread around. Once they select something they want to try, they simply pick it up and are dropped into that experience. The collection includes a bow and arrow game, a photorealistic exploration of a Washington State mountain and a short Portal-inspired robot repair shop.
The collection seems designed for expansion.
"That’s certainly a possibility if fans want more," Barnett said. "We’re also interested in seeing what content creators might do to expand it via [Steam] Workshop. VR itself is a grand experiment and this is a first test to see how everyone reacts."
The one question I asked that Valve didn’t answer was whether Half-Life 3 might make a VR appearance.