Valve is a bit of an oddity in the game industry.
The company's inner workings have generated a lot of interest over the years, due to both its high-profile success in multiple areas (game design, commerce, VR) and the public sharing in 2012 of its employee handbook, which revealed the company has a mostly flat org chart.
Company chief Gabe Newell has spoken on multiple occasions about the benefits of this arrangement, which he says creates "an efficient market for people's time" and ensures that people are less likely to burn out because they're always working on what they think is most valuable to their customers.
"I think it's that fact that you're always voting with your time, you're always making a decision about how to spend your work product, that actually makes it easy for people to be fired up," Newell told Gamasutra and other outlets during a press briefing last week. "Because they're always working on stuff that to them seems significant. Nobody's working on yet another sequel. 'Oh, it's the fall, we have to come out with, you know, version 17.'"
"There are plenty of great developers for whom this is a terrible place to work"
That's all well and good -- but how does it go bad? Some folks have left Valve, and some have been asked to leave; according to Newell, the company's internal structure -- or lack thereof -- can actually be totally ruinous to someone who is unhappy or unproductive in an unstructured environemnt.
"People at Valve have to get used to working without a safety net."
"That seems to be kind of a personality trait," Newell said. "Everybody thinks they want a lot of autonomy, and to be self-directed. Turns out that a lot of people don't. So, you can have really capable, successful developers who won't work well in this environment. And you really have to like customers, right."
"You have to be pretty egoless, too," interjected Erik Johnson, a longtime Valve staffer who was present alongside Newell during the brief. You have to be pretty egoless to just do what customers ask you to do, right. You have to admit you're wrong. Often."
What's notable here is not that people sometimes stop working at Valve, but that the folks at Valve acknowledge their idiosyncratic way of working is anathema to a lot of otherwise very skilled game developers.
"If you're not excited about making a mistake, right; if you don't see that as an opportunity for improvement, that can trip people up," Newell continued. "And there are plenty of great developers for whom this is a terrible place to work."
Back when Valve was working on games that actually had physical releases, adds Johnson, things were a bit different; the company had to be more regimented in order to accomplish tasks like squashing bugs before ship.
"When we were doing more retail-focused products that had a very strict end date -- like, you had to burn a CD and all those things -- that created some restraints," said Johnson.
"So we would go, like, at the end of Half-Life 2, we were pretty regimented around bug counts. 'Who owns bugs? You go fix these bugs, you go fix those bugs. Where's everybody's bug count?' It was pretty structured. And if you ask a bunch of people around here, it's actually kind of awesome to work where you come into work, somebody's just telling you the work that you have to do, and then you're done. And that's generally not how we work, but there's genuine comfort in that."
Now that comfort is pretty much gone, according to Newell.
"People at Valve have to get used to working without a safety net," he said. "There's nothing between you and a customer. You can come in that morning, and by two o' clock in the afternoon, you have fucked a million customers."
"And they are ALL emailing you," added Johnson, smiling and looking at Newell.
"They're all emailing me!" Newell continued. "And you probably should fix it, right. But nobody's looking over your shoulder. And for some people, that's liberating. And for some people it's terrifying."