Who Killed Gordon Freeman: Toxic Gaming Culture or Corporate Policy?

(The dead Freeman in the header is from a cosplay photoshoot by the ever-talented Duamuteffe. Check out her photography!)

The good folks at Rooster Teeth have been contacted by supposed insider at Valve. This contact reveals that while the development of Half-Life 3 is on the back-burner, the game is unlikely to ever be released. They claim this has happened for these reasons:

First, developers are afraid of player backlash.

Second, Valve feel the profits from Half-Life 3’s release wouldn’t justify the costs.

I’m not going to explore these claims so much as their implications. If true, Valve’s response to the video might be fundamental for understanding what happened to the series, and for attaining some sort of closure. It might also help reveal the health status of gaming, especially if it’s true that Valve now have a strained relationship with their fans. So I humbly argue that the real reason Half-Life 3 is nowhere on the horizon might be as follows:

  1. The relationship between developers and players is damaged.
  2. Publisher-developers are adopting corporate ethics over artistic values.
  3. The two are connected, but not causally.

Bruce Greene of Rooster Teeth wrote to Valve’s lead writer Marc Laidlaw at the time of the video’s release to give him a chance to deny or confirm the contact’s claims. The transcript is here. While it’s intrusive to comment on other peoples’ correspondence, there are some things I’d like to point out about the insight provided by Laidlaw about Valve’s relationship with fans. Spoiler: It doesn’t look like it’s great.

At first he called the accusation that Valve are afraid of gamer backlash “silly”, but he immediately after commented on the pain gamer culture caused him when the company was burgled:

As someone who was at Valve when we were broken into and an unfinished version of Half-Life 2 stolen, I didn’t understand the mentality at the time and I still don’t. 

I sympathize with Laidlaw for the horrific experience. However, it does seem to me that he is giving some credit to the claim that at some level, Valve staff feel animosity towards modern gamer culture. He went on to say that as a writer, he does not understand gamers’ compulsion to see the behind-the-scenes of game development:

I have been in love with the idea of the Last Guardian for years, and I am happy any time the creators feel they have something they want to show the world… But I have absolutely zero interest in seeing unfinished work.

Snide remarks about Steam Early Access aside, this sentiment strikes me as out-of-place, and slightly antagonistic. If PC gamers only wanted shiny, packaged finalized products, they’d be console gamers. To me, the appeal of PC gaming is being able to witness the grit of the development process, and to cheer developers on as they work. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen is that screenshot of Black Mesa’s test gonarch, which I loved so much that I made it my phone background for a while:


If the developers of Black Mesa had not been transparent in their creative process, nobody would have experienced the joy of seeing that ridiculous thing. And didn’t a fan spend $700 on a disk containing an early version of Half-Life 1? For anyone on a non-Valve salary, that is an investment of love. I hope no-one ever tells Laidlaw about Raising the Bar either, which is a Valve publication entirely about the behind-the-scenes of Half-Life’s development. He might just expire.

A page scan of Raising the Bar. If Valve wants to keep players from knowing about their development processes, why did they publish this book and Portal: The Final Hours?

I’m not saying Valve should have an open-development policy, but denying that unfinished work has any value in PC gaming culture is nonsensical. So what’s going on here? OK, maybe he means that he prefers to keep his work private and doesn’t like being hounded by players. He goes into this some more when he contrasts videogame fans with book fans:

Maybe because my background is in books, I have a different philosophy about how gaming culture in general has put so much emphasis on leaks and updates and wanting to know what’s going on behind closed doors. I am very passionate as a reader about a few ongoing literary projects… To name one in particular, William T. Vollmann has been working on his Seven American Dreams project for years. He stated early on that he planned to write seven of them, and he has been going about it very erratically. (…) But I am perfectly happy to receive these books when they are ready. I have never had the slightest need to know if he was halfway through the first draft, or had even written a single word. Whether he abandons the project unfinished, or writes on it without stopping for a decade, makes no difference to me. (…) These books are research-heavy as well… Maybe he needed the time for that. I am speculating, and without much invested in my speculation, because it’s really none of my business.

Oh boy.

This cements my feeling that Laidlaw (and likely Valve at large) have a strained relationship with fans. Players are no longer looked upon enthusiastically. They are now potential violators of artists’ spaces. This makes it looks like Laidlaw wants as much distance as possible between himself and consumers. What I’m hearing is, “Don’t touch Half-Life, don’t look at Half-Life, don’t even think about Half-Life.” If you have doubts that this is the case, check out the follow-up article to this one where I explore the issue in more detail. And yes, toxic gamers are partially to blame. No artist in history has ever been enthusiastic about creating art for patrons that didn’t respect them. I ask this, though: without a healthy developer/player relationship, can the industry survive much longer?

But who will take the first step? Laidlaw is no fool. I’m sure that at least on some level, he and his coworkers are aware that Half-Life is now part of modern cultural history. The games have been formative for many players, for whom the series is now part of their identity. And Valve intended this! From the very start, they worked hard to engineer the Half-Life games into profoundly personal experiences. Much of Raising the Bar is dedicated to explaining the techniques Valve used to maximize the self-identification effect. In the paragraph, however, Laidlaw talks about a compromise in the form clear boundaries. These limits seem to extend beyond polite behavior and the dismantling of toxic gamer culture. It’s more like he’s asking for fans to lose interest in the series. I see the place of hurt he’s coming from, but is this a reasonable request? If compromise demands are not realistically attainable or fair, it might be because one is not desired at all anymore. I want to stress that Laidlaw isn’t “setting up [the community] to fail” – He just happens to be the one developer who voiced his sentiments first, so he’s who I’m quoting. The problem is bigger, and it looks like something has been going very wrong for a long time.

So whose fault is it that nobody trusts anyone anymore? I’m not sure. It probably doesn’t even matter. Corporate attitudes from publishers certainly have soured the audience, but it’s also no secret that the gaming community has become increasingly hostile over the decades. While it’s going to take a lot of work to restore faith on both sides, I believe it’s still possible. Problem players need to do their part and reevaluate whether their attitudes towards developers are respectful… And perhaps it would also help if developers stopped seeing all fans as particularly violent cash cows. The Half-Life and Portal communities boast some wonderful individuals, despite the existence of troublemakers. Fan projects like A Place in the West and Tenacity should strike Valve as awe-inspiring! So seeing Laidlaw romanticize literature audiences over gaming communities saddens me. Have players lost their value for Valve? Yes, gaming culture can be horrendous, but book fans can be pretty nutty too. Extreme fans can be found in every medium. Therefore, I humbly offer the notion that mainstream gaming culture toxicity is everyone’s baby, not just consumers’. Indie gaming seems to be doing pretty well. Perhaps it might partly be due to how indie teams are more transparent and approachable, which no doubt helps promote an environment of trust and respect.

Perhaps communication is the key here. Though PC gaming culture has developed some pretty bad values, it’s grown some pretty good ones too. One of those is the appreciation of openness between developers and consumers. We’re at a stage where players had to learn to trust small indie teams over big publisher-developer corporations. Valve’s radio silence, coupled with the knowledge that the company is earning ridiculous amounts of money, makes consumers fear they’ve been traded off for corporativism. I’m not trying to claim that Valve lost touch with their fans, but perhaps it’d only take a little bit of communication to speed up the healing of their developer-player relationship.


3 thoughts on “Who Killed Gordon Freeman: Toxic Gaming Culture or Corporate Policy?

  1. Your final sentiment: I’ve been waiting to hear more people say it. Whether or not Valve has permabanned/perma-paused/perma-anything-but-moved-development-forward-on Half-Life 3, it’s not very solicitous or affable, not at all in fact, nor a solution, to let the outgoing signal go 99.9% dark for eight years. It shows not restraint, but instead either incompetence in confronting the situation, or complete apathy toward it. And whatever likewise conclusions that people draw are also Valve’s fault because the room it’s left for them is a dark, dark ocean of inestimable depth.


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