The developer and publisher Valve has made itself one of the video-game industry’s success stories by doing the opposite of what might have been expected of it.
First, the Bellevue, Washington–based company, founded in 1996, allowed players to modify its games and share these versions with each other. Then Valve built a digital distribution system in order to deliver games directly to customers. Most recently, the studio made games in which players have to cooperate with each other if they are to succeed.
Game-industry insiders considered each of these innovations to be risky, but that didn’t stop Valve. So far, it appears to be three for three. With franchises such as Half-Life, Counter-Strike, and now Left 4 Dead, the company is doing better than ever.
“You’ve got to kill some things,” Doug Lombardi, Valve’s vice president of marketing, told the Georgia Straight. “We haven’t shipped everything we’ve ever done.”
On the phone from his office, Lombardi explained that the company’s independence—it’s privately owned—is a major factor in its success. When Valve wanted to delay by five months the 2004 release of Half-Life 2, to allow the development team to “polish” the game, it didn’t have to win the support of another publisher—a third party that controls the budget and is “generally tied to the brick-and-mortar retail business,” he noted.
“The only people we have to convince are the people in the room,” Lombardi explained.
But Lombardi was quick to point out that many of the things Valve has done have been in response to its community of gamers. “It comes from both watching what they’re doing and listening to what they’re telling us,” he said.
For example, Lombardi said, the impetus for Steam, Valve’s digital-distribution platform that was launched in 2003, was the company’s desire to find a way to automatically update its PC games. Around the start of the new millennium, when Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic were taking off, Valve bundled updates for the games—including new maps and weapons and other enhancements—and released them every three or four months. When those patches were released, Valve watched as hundreds of thousands of players disappeared from its servers, as those players had to find, download, and install the software updates in order to continue playing. Every time, Valve ran the risk of losing customers.
“There was this huge anxiety where we knew that if it was successful it would increase the numbers, keep the players playing,” Lombardi said of the updates.
As those customers upgraded their computer systems, they asked Valve for an easier way to get their games and settings from old computers to new ones. So in 2008, the company expanded Steam to include what it calls Steam Cloud functionality. Gamers with a new PC install a small program, and after they’ve signed in to Steam, their games and game-specific data, which they’ve saved on-line, start downloading.
“When you have over 20 million people on the system, you’re going to hear a lot of things that have a chorus,” Lombardi said. “You would never have gotten the Steam Cloud from simply watching the people; you have to listen to them as well.”