Valve: Trouble in Paradise?

After I published my speculatory Half-Life 3 post-mortem, some people expressed the idea that Valve would never move away from game development just like that. They cited the table-on-wheels policy outlined in Valve’s 2012 employee handbook as proof that the game is being worked on, because there will always be employees wanting to make Half-Life 3. They also told of how some of the company’s developers have occasionally interacted with fans in the past, as if this made it Gospel that Valve would never betray us.

I didn’t want to guess on Valve’s inner workings, because as Marc Laidlaw pointed out in his email conversation with Rooster Teeth, Valve is a closed-development company and so how it operates is none of the consumers’ goddamn business. But I feel I should present my input, because the sentiment that Valve is a flawless company that can do no wrong is unhealthy for everyone, including Valve themselves. In fact, it’s part of the reason why Half-Life 3 hemorrhaged developers to death: The overhype became a liability.

I want to address the table-on-wheels policy first. It was outlined in the employee manual from 2012, which also promoted inter-project dialogue. The policy is about how Valve desks supposedly have wheels on them, so individual staff can decide what game to work on and easily move to the room it’s being developed in.

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But that was three years ago. The recession was just about in full swing. As a general rule, corporations since then have really had to become more cynical to ensure continued profits. We’ve seen this as outsourcing in manufacturing, and as a loss of focus on employee happiness in the service industry. The gaming industry has been no different, with countless indie developers going out of business or selling out to larger companies that go on to turn their franchises into soulless f2p mobile games. You’re either willing to make your indies for next to nothing, or you are part of a stable but corporate company.

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And it seems to me you lived your life / Like a candle in the wind / Never fading with the sunset / When the rain set in

What I’m trying to say is that I’m confident the table-on-wheels policy has been dead for years. That level of freedom was just too utopian to be sustainable, and at some point Valve realized that it had to create an internal hierarchy and project management system. This would mean higher-ups would totally have the power to move developers in and out of projects. The people that were working on Half-Life 3, like Rooster Teeth‘s informant claimed, have been moved to other, safer projects.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. In an interview for the Grey Area podcast, hardware expert Jeri Ellsworth spoke of how she was treated while she worked for Valve before being fired. She compared the experience to being in highschool in respect to the clique-like social stratification. This strongly suggests a chain of management has coalesced. Around the same time, Valve fired eight percent of their developers, in a move they described as being part of a ‘large decision’ regarding the company’s future. This does not seem utopian to me.

Let’s also not forget that concept artist Ted Backman either quit or was fired earlier in 2015. Backman is the artist responsible for the design of many, many of Half-Life’s entities: Combine soldiers, hound-eyes, hunters, striders, stalkers, and even the human rebels. Why would Valve let go of an artist that has had such a huge impact on the shaping of their franchise? Does this mean they won’t be needing him in the future? Or did he quit because he was unhappy with what Valve has become? Either way, it doesn’t look great.

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Ted Backman’s Half-Life 2 rebel designs

And what about #modgate? Yes, they scrapped the idea of paid workshop mods after a week of backlash, but to me it shows they are out of touch enough to not have understood it was bad idea in the first place. If this is true, it’s another sign that Valve might not be on top of it as much as many people think. They might even be a tad out of touch.

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Never forget

January 2016 update: Only one day after the “Cachetrastophy”, in which a faulty Steam protocol during a denial-of-service attack swapped accounts with millions of people, making their bank information visible to strangers, Valve launched an unsolvable ARG just to mess with Half-Life fans. In the past, big-scale Steam ARGs always preceded the announcement of a new release. This one looked so promising, with tons of Half-Life 3 clues thrown in, and then it turned out to be a joke. Can they seriously be this out of touch? The ARG itself isn’t the problem, fans do need to learn to chill. The problem is that Valve still went ahead with the ARG even after they compromised many of their users’ bank accounts. It’s a question of tact. And it’s not like Valve have never gone out of their way to bait fans before. Remember this photo from 2011, in which a Valve employee got himself a Half-Life 3 shirt printed and allowed himself to be photographed with it in a developer conference?

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Look, I’m not trying to say Valve has turned into EA. I still love their work, and that’s why I write about them all the time. All I’m saying is that Valve might not be that perfect and might not have consumers’ best interests in heart a hundred percent of the time. They are a corporation, after all. Sometimes it’s healthy to question what for-profit organizations actually do with our money.

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