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The Valve Way: Gabe Newell And Erik Johnson Speak
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The Valve Way: Gabe Newell And Erik Johnson Speak

August 29, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[As the company begins to let Dota 2 into the wild, Gamasutra speaks to Valve boss Gabe Newell and to project leader Erik Johnson to find out both the decision-making process that lead to the game and also about how things work at Valve.]

Valve Software's Erik Johnson likes DotA -- and from that, a project is born. Can it really be that simple at Valve? According to managing director Gabe Newell -- yes it can, if things align properly. Relying on interest and talent much more than planning and business strategy, the developer has become synonymous with both quality and success.

In this interview, Newell and Johnson discuss the genesis of the Dota 2 project, the culture at Valve that drives the company's creative and financial success, and a host of other smaller but no less significant aspects of the company and industry.

When it comes to making games, says Newell, "the challenge is to find exciting, worthwhile projects for smart people to do. And then whether you're doing it as an individual, whether you're doing it as a small indie developer, or you're doing it as a larger group, if you can answer that question you're probably going to be successful."

That's Valve's philosophy summed up succinctly, and what follows is a greater exploration of how that plays out throughout the company's larger moves.

Well, Valve chooses very carefully where it treads, right?

Gabe Newell: [laughs] It may look that way on the outside.

Erik Johnson: I'd like to think we just lumber along. And usually run into trees.

So it's not as deliberate as it looks?

GN: Oh no. Hell no. I mean, Dota 2 is really a result of Erik and a couple other guys being huge fans of IceFrog. So that's not like this incredibly, deeply reasoned business strategy. It's like, "I'm a huge fan of this! Oh, we can build a sequel? Awesome, let's do it!"

Well, that makes sense, doesn't it? You already know the potential there.

EJ: Well, I was a huge fan of it, and saw there were lots of other people that were huge fans of it. And most importantly, meeting IceFrog, he was the kind of person that we all wanted to work with.

GN: But what about your marketing? Your market analysis?

EJ: There's no market analysis. I mean, I guess there is, but not in a traditional stupid line graph sense.

Just "a lot of people like this sort of thing"?

EJ: Yeah, a lot of people, here's a person...

GN: But you must've had a business plan!

EJ: [laughs] Yeah, there's no business plan. A bunch of people... It is rare for any single person to be entertaining tens of millions of people on his own. And that's kind of enough for [a business] to be awfully interesting for us.

GN: One of the things about Valve that sort of works for us is that we think about what we do as being a collection of people who really like and trust each other who build products.

So for us, you could come up with a really compelling business plan or a market analysis, and nobody in the company would pay any attention to you at all. But if you said, "If we do this, then we can work with Michael Abrash", then a whole bunch of people would say, "Done! That's it, we have a plan now."

And that's really how [Valve works]... It's a useful thing to know about us if you try to follow what we do, and what our decision-making is, to realize that that's the kind of thing, to us, that's really compelling. And lots of other things, which traditionally drive business decisions at other companies, don't really get much traction at Valve.

Well, I can think of a few obvious examples. One is looking at [Portal predecessor] Narbacular Drop and going, "Okay. We'll turn this into something because it's so good."

GN: Well, the thing there -- and I've talked about this before -- that was really scary to me, was that something had happened with this group, that would've been kind of sad if these people all went their separate ways.

Because a lot of times you can look at something and say, "Oh, it's successful because of this person."

EJ: Carmack.

GN: Yeah. Carmack is so clearly the heart and brain of everything that id does. But with the guys who worked on Narbacular Drop, it was like the magic was in the team, and if the team had split up... That was my read. That there were a bunch of games that wouldn't get made if these guys went their separate directions. So I was like, "That'd be a real shame, so we need to keep them together and see what they can do."

And that turned out -- we ended up making a ton of money because of it, but we didn't do it because we thought we're going to make a bunch of money. We were thinking sort of like, "Gee, it'd be a drag if these guys weren't able to do their next game together." You know, they were going to go off and like have testing positions at large publishers, kinds of things, and it seemed like a waste given what they were able to do together.

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mark cocjin
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I think that Gabe Newell is the only games industry leader I know that's of the same level as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Unfortunately, of the three, only Gabe gets gaming. While Steve Jobs' charisma relies heavily on the magic of his products' presentation, Gabe's works are more of an industry changer behind the curtains. You never see him reach rockstar status since he credits everyone else for his success.

I call it a silent respect the industry and community has of him. The rest would prefer calling it being part of the Hammer Legionnaries.

It's really unfortunate that Valve is content to doing Valve stuff. The gigantic games corporations spend a lot of money puffing themselves up to overshadow the real heroes of gaming. The developers. We have great developers being swallowed up by these corporations who take advantage of them due to their hunger and lack of self management. Valve was right with seeing some games only existing due to the magic of a certain team being together. A lot of these magical teams have died throughout gaming's history. Their DNA spread across several other development teams are really never the same.

Good job Gamasutra. A lot of your articles have always been like lectures or college thesis for me but this is really fun to read. I'm surprised there hasn't been an interview with GabeN and company yet that followed a BBC Hard Talk format on camera.

manou manou
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"The gigantic games corporations spend a lot of money puffing themselves up to overshadow the real heroes of gaming. The developers." - You sir are my hero :) Businesses must be shaped from the people behind them not the other way around, as it is now. 95% of the value is created by the programmers and artists and yet most of the rewards go to the... you know, the parasites with the suits. If I make a game some day the big publishers will not get one cent! I will give the game for free and die of hunger instead of let those leeches just stand there consume what I've created.

Matt Hackett
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> Valve doesn't have job titles


mark cocjin
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Those are specializations. When they're working, they can choose to work on anything. Nobody is somebody's boss in a team. There's a Cabal leader but that job is just to oversee everything.

People there just pick what they want to do. You can't do that if you have a job description that limits you.

Joe McGinn
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It's inspiring stuff, but you also have to be realistic. Most companies do not have the financial freedom to operate this way. Keeping in mind that Valve had that freedom, from day 1, with money earned in another business.

Samuel Batista
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I think looking at publicly traded publishers and Valve as "good vs evil" is a gross simplification of the situation. Fact is, Valve has one of the best (if not the best) work environment in the entire industry, because they hire the best, and have a very lax attitude towards product development. But they can do this because they have the most talented and motivated employees, as well as a good development structure, that leads them to create a stream of amazing game after amazing game. It's a self realizing prophecy, and I really wish I could work for them.

But fact of the matter is that I'm nowhere near as talented or experienced as most people working at Valve, but I'm extremely thankful and fortunate to work for a publicly traded company that is owned and funded by a publisher. I don't care that investors will ultimately reap the fruits of my hard work, I have a great job, I work with awesome people, and I get paid enough to live a comfortable life and buy loads of games.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you work for a publisher that will suck all the profits. It only really matters that you work for a publisher that sees employees and development studios as indispensable (and precious) resources for their business.

Anner Bonilla
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Completely true at the end the most important thing is that you have fun and you do what you love.

Neeraj Kumar
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Great interview :)

DotA is the most SuperbAwesomeFantasticAddictiveSatisfyingCompetitiveComplexTeam game i ever played :D

My dream is to work with them :)

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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"Instead of having some person review all the products that are going on at Valve, you can tell how a product's doing based on how willing people are to go and work on it. We know a product's pretty likely to be successful, or fun, or at least fun to work on, if lots of people are going to working on it. It's a good method."

Working in a large studio, Ive often thought about that. Some recent projects proved me wrong thought, with a popular project going to hell, and an unpopular one getting an unexpected good vibe. Things can turn around so fast. At the very least, it tells the management which projects are in need of more scrutiny.

One thing I do with my friends is betting on the metacritic of our project, during beta. The median of the bets is never far from the truth.

Casey Labine
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This feel-good blather is pure stealth marketing on Valve's part. DotA 2 is a carbon copy of DotA, roughly analogous to Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. They know full well it's going to be F2P. As for IceFrog, anyone involved with the Warcraft 3 modding scene is aware of how sketchy he is.

Shekhar Gyanwali
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@mark cocjin

I'll buy that.