Valve’s Innovation, Risk, and Freedom of Information
Nearing a week ago, Gabe Newell, founder, director, and public face of Valve, estimated net worth well over a billion USD, sat down at this year’s Game Developers’ Conference and directed his pitch to a handheld camera, while one guy sitting on an ottoman leaned forward so he could push his microphone closer.
His pitch was mostly things that have already been announced, but he made sure to attempt to present all of Valve’s many experiments as a single, holistic movement for the company. Among these prototypes and new programs are consoles (soon to be available for anywhere between 500 dollars and a cool five grand), virtual reality headsets, specialized haptic feedback controllers, an operating system, a streaming device allowing you to link PCs and televisions, and the anticipated Source 2 game engine, which Valve intends to release for free.
Somewhere along the line, Valve went from being just a game developer, to a market manager, to their current form as an innovator rolling out new content like an empire moving out onto a multi-front war. They’ve become something like the Google of video game corporations; snaking out into new and strange ideas in an attempt to be just as innovative and disruptive as the scheme that made them rich and famous in the first place. Of course, Google is a massive and infamously successful business who plays with innovation much like a cat plays with a ball of yarn, while Valve takes some risks in attempting to bypass what they call “artificial barriers to accessing content.”
Anyone who’s ever attempted to merge two groups into one can confirm that it is easier to construct barriers than to break them, yet that seems to be Valve’s goal everywhere it goes. With modular consoles built with PC-grade parts and streaming link devices, Valve wants to blur the strong line between the PC and console gamer—a line which is ironically defended by most of Valve’s consumer base, as their games and online store platform, Steam, have become load-bearing beams in the PC gaming scene. Valve continues to work with and share software between other developers and corporations, whether it is trading design specifications for VR with Oculus or cooperative design with developers like Epic Games, attempting to weaken the exclusivity of innovation or game releases. With releasing software for free, setting up workshops and modding communities for games, and arranging for payments for mods successful enough to be integrated into games (Team Fortress 2’s massive repertoire of community designed content stands as a poster boy), Valve even tries to blur the difference between consumer and producer.
It’s all interesting to watch, from both the gaming and business standpoints, but one never knows how well it will turn out. Will developing extremely expensive, top of the line consoles alienate both console and PC gamers? Will VR remain a money sink as the technology necessary for it to be popular is farther than patience can stand? Will Valve’s diversification turn them into a jack of all trades, master of none? Will everything succeed, and years from now, as we sit down to light candles at our shrine to Lord Gaben, will we wonder what we did without Valve? Either way, it’s probably going to be expensive.