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The Week article: How capitalism killed one of the best video game studios (Valve)

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While I can't necessarily disagree, Steam is probably worth the trade-off :p


Valve has clearly internalized a lot of this abusive capitalist mindset. The only major game it has released since Dota 2 is an online card game called Artifact, where one builds a deck by buying random card packs and individual cards on a secondary marketplace. It came out to middling reviews in late 2018 (one streamer quit after he spent $300 on cards and still couldn't even build two quality decks), and the player population has since fallen by about 95 percent.


The article generated these comments from a poster on Ycombinator:


I worked at Valve a few years back, and I could write a book about what's wrong there. I think the biggest problem they have -- which the author of this article touched on -- is that "success is the worst teacher." Valve have discovered that cosmetic microtransactions are big money makers, and thus every team at Valve was dedicated to that vision. When I was there (before Artifact started in open development) there were essentially no new games being developed at all. There was a small group that were working on Left for Dead 3 (cancelled shortly after I joined), and a couple guys poking around with pre-production experiments for Half-Life 3 (it will never be released). But effectively all the attention was focused on cosmetic items and "the economy" of the three big games (DOTA, CS:GO, and TF2). One very senior employee even said that Valve would never make another single player game, because they weren't worth the effort. "Portal 2," he explained, had only made $200 million in profit and that kind of chump change just wasn't worth it, when you could make 100s of millions a year selling digital hats and paintjobs for guns (most of which are designed by players, not the employees!)


I joined Valve because I excited to work with what I thought was the best game studio in the world, but I left very depressed when I found out they're merely collecting rent from Steam and making in-game decorations for old games.




While you were there, how much was Valve still an "anarcho syndicalist" paradise? When you say projects were cancelled, was that because the teams working on them decided to stop (since everybody there is supposed to be their own boss) or was it a decision that came from the top down? Just curious how close Valve still is to its roots -- or at least the popular mythos of them.



In theory, employees are allowed to (supposed to, even) work on whatever they think is valuable. In reality, you should be working on whatever the people around you think is valuable or you're gonna get fired really quickly. (Fewer than half of new employees make it to the end of their first year.) This usually means doing whatever the most senior people on the team think is important, both because they should know if they've been there for a while, but also because they wield enormous power behind the scenes.


The problem with a company with no defined job titles or explicit seniority is that there is still seniority, but it is invisible and thus deniable. An example: in my first few months, I was struggling to find a good project and a very senior employee (one of the partners, actually) took me aside and recommended I leave my current team since my heart was clearly not in it and take some time to think about what I really wanted to do, or else I'd get let go. I took his advice seriously, came up with a couple ideas, and then approached him a week or so later to pitch these projects. He got _angry_ at me, stressing that he's not my boss, and that it showed a remarkable lack of initiative that I'd ask someone else at the company what I should work on. So: he has the authority to fire me (or at least to plausibly threaten to fire me) but the moment that authority would mean any responsibility or even the slightest effort to mentor someone, he's just another regular Joe with no special role at all. Similarly, there's no way to get meaningful feedback because nobody really knows who's going to be making the performance evaluations. Sure, you can take advice from someone who's been there for ten years, but if they're not included in the group that's assembled to evaluate you then their guidance is worth nothing.


I worked with some very smart people there, but it was the most dysfunctional and broken work environment I've ever witnessed.


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This is equal parts fascinating and depressing.  Left 4 Dead and Portal are two of my absolute favorite games, and I'd long considered myself an acolyte of Valve before they discovered where the real money was.


I just read another article about this for an organizational design class that I'm taking, and the impression is very similar to what the previous employee relayed about their structure - the lack of formal authority or control masks a very real power structure that's exploited at the whims of a few powerful individuals.  The article also mentions that this flat hierarchy tends to produce higher rates of sexual harassment, and asserts that the same flexible org structures may contribute to the culture of predation that's so prevalent in the entertainment industry at large.

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I'd say that capitalism has finally caught up to Valve.  They're getting threats from outside companies now because they've all realized that with their own megahits, they never needed to rely on Steam.  They can leverage their games to build their own install base, subscription services, or outright buy timed exclusivity like Epic is doing.

Valve seems to be placing hope in turning Auto-Chess into something they can capitalize on, an Artifact reboot, developing Steam Link Apps few will actually use, Campo Santo saving their reputation as a publisher, selling $1000 VR headsets because that's smart, chasing their Linux dreams, and leaning in on porn-games.


And if Blizzard couldn't live on WoW and Starcraft forever, Valve can't possibly hedge their bets on their last-gen releases a decade from now.


I think they're screwed in the long run if they can't recreate lightning in a bottle.  They'll have the better portion of a decade to turn the ship around, but it's going to be a slow and gradual decline unless they wake the fuck up.  Now, more than ever, they need new exclusives.  Since they've forgotten how to make hits, they'll need a few more acquisitions to get there.

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