Valve interview: ‘I just told Gabe he was full of shit’

Friday, 28 September 2012 18:52 GMT By Dave Cook

Valve has its eye firmly on the future of gaming. VG247’s Dave Cook spoke to Chet Faliszek about where all of this is heading.

It’s no secret that Valve is a busy studio with fingers in many pies. It’s an anomaly ruled by no-one, free from the shackles of publisher ownership, and willing to venture into the unknown. It experiments, innovates, iterates and forms opinion across the industry. It’s an inspiration to many.

But It’s also a mystery to many people. How does it work? What will it do next? Why does it operate according to such strange and unique ideologies when its competitors are doing something else?

We wanted to blow the doors off all of those big questions, so VG247 had a chat with Chet Faliszek, a long-time member of the Valve family, and a man who firmly believes that you, yes you reading these words, can do what Valve does. You just need to try something wild.

VG247: Valve has revealed many new innovations lately. Is this a bid to get a head-start on the next generation?

Chet Faliszek: It’s more that we just keep working. We just keep looking at what we want to work on, and it just so happens that we announced a lot things stacked together. We’re doing DotA 2 soon, CS:GO just came out, and yeah we just keep going.

When the Valve employee handbook leaked online, it was just fascinating to see your approach to those kind of developments. Is your methodology honestly that open and free?

There’s that thing where we appear to be a mystery, especially the fact that the book states we have no managers. But really, everyone is your manager. That means anyone is able to come up to you and say, ‘what are you doing? Why are you doing this?’

You have to be able to talk about that too, and it’s really important that you have the skills to talk about what’s going on. You have to be able to explain because people will question, there is no keeping secrets from each other and there has to be discussion and explanation between people.

Everyone’s allowed to know what’s going on with everything else, because all of our things tie together. I mean, I did a talk today about education and how to get into the games industry.

When we did our Portal 2 educational stuff, for some reason that meant everyone started fielding questions to Leslie Redd – who was in charge of that – about how to get into school and start in the game industry.

So I did these talks and started talking about it like, ‘if you want to make something, make something.’ People send me emails about how to start game writing, but it’s just like, anyone can do it, so we’ve started talking about that more.

When it comes to have Valve has made stuff, we just put things together and do it. There are other ways to do things, and we should be helping people understand how to do that because we want more people to start making games.

That’s something Valve has always done well, spotting talent and acquiring people. is that talent pool getting bigger and more visible thanks to people having easier routes to market. I’m thinking Kickstarter, iOS and other areas of the market.

We talk a lot about that and of course you can make things in Steam Workshop. People laugh when I say that, but it’s like, people have earned six-figure incomes by doing that. We’ve given millions of dollars to people, so that’s a viable way to go about getting into the games industry.

Then of course the indie scene – what’s happening there right now is powerful, because it’s giving so many people opportunities, and fuelling more people to do that.

There’s also Greenlight which can be a useful way for indies to get their games to market. Where did that idea come from?

That just came out of a necessity as we were getting very backlogged with requests. It’s hard because we never know if we’re making a bad choice or not in accepting games on to Steam.

If someone wants to be on Steam they can say, ‘hey guys check this game out, it really should be on Steam, it’s awesome.’ We’re always going to be missing things when people aren’t submitting their games but should be, so Greenlight just makes it a very open choice as it’s the community that decides.

You also revealed Steam Big Picture mode recently. Do you see bringing games into the living room via TV streaming as the next logical step for the industry moving forward?

It is for some people. For some people it’s definitely the way, and it was interesting to watch people react t that reveal, because a lot of people already play PC games on their TV. But they have to realise that it’s all about the software, and the integration of that, not just the ability to play on a bigger screen. It’s interesting and we’ll keep on iterating it.

It’s timely because now there is a lot of talk about the generation after next, where physical consoles will no longer be boxes, they will be services that are streamed or subscribed to. What’s your take on that?

I don’t know, I mean it’s hard. There’s definitely people at Valve thinking about that kind of stuff, but I’ve kind of just had my head down on the other side of things. So yeah, sorry I couldn’t give you more of an answer on that one.

Not a problem. Players must have given you some good feedback during the Big Picture beta an the idea of streamed services? How will that feedback dictate when the mode launches in full?

I talk to that team a little bit. I don’t know exactly how that process is going, or how they’re judging progress.

Just going back to Greenlight for a second, the idea of crowd funding, community votes, Kickstarter and other collaborative methods have really taken off recently. I know Gabe is a big fan of that idea, but what’s your take on that scene?

I’ve funded a lot of things on Kickstarter. I figure 60% of these projects will actually create something by the end, and I’m fine with that. It’s going to be interesting for projects that take a long time, for teams that aren’t as experienced, seeing what people think, and to see what’s going to happen two or three years from now.

Are they actually going to deliver and come through with it? So yeah, that will be interesting to see. But I do hope that it maintains being a viable way, because I love being able to see people saying, ‘yeah, I’m just going to do this project.’

We recently saw a New York Times journalist wearing a set of Valve AR goggles. What’s your take on wearable computing? Gabe has spoken a lot about the idea previously, and it seems that others are going down that route too. We saw patents from Microsoft for example.

It’s super-cool. It’s more that we’re just looking at the future and making sure that we’re prepared, trying to understand how everything will work, what the limitations are, and what problems could we run in to.

If you’re not playing around with ideas in that space already you’re going to be really behind the game. So yeah we’ve started playing around with it, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff the hardware guys are just goofing around with and having some fun with.

I’m trying to imagine what their office looks like and all I’m seeing is an ungodly mess of wires and spare parts.

Yeah, it’s full of multiple rooms with crazy little devices, as well as a ton of pinball machines that they brought into work. We had to re-power one part of the office because we didn’t have enough power for all the pinball machines to always be on. You’re never too far from a pinball machine in our offices.

Are you mindful that the industry has tried to sell wearable hardware to people before in virtual reality, which of course didn’t take off? Is there a danger of that happening again?

It’s just like anything else, I mean, I was a naysayer on smartphones being as small as they were. But I love it.

It’s an exciting time though because nobody – save a select few – really knows what’s going to happen further down the line.

Yeah you just have to see what’s out there. But yeah the VR stuff is definitely something people are looking at.

Let’s talk about software now. Counter-Strike just launched on consoles recently. It’s predominantly been a PC franchise, so how has the console audience reacted to it?

Yeah its been great. I mean I get things like sniping is harder on the 360 than in the PC version and all of that, but it’s still the same gamers. From when we’ve been showing the game publicly, you see people pick up a controller and they’re like, ‘oh yeah, I remember this game.’

It’s neat that they can still remember it and just jump back into the competition, and I think that has helped it become super-successful. It’s just really popular.

You have DotA 2 as well. How is development going as you move closer to a full launch? The reaction has been impressive so far.

Yeah, its funny because at the International tournament, everyone at Valve volunteers and helps out. Just sitting there and watching people play at the event, when we get back to work everyone’s just playing it so much more and we get re-energised for it. It’s intense and it’s fun.

So many people are bringing out or working on MOBAs now as well. Is that validation of the game’s popularity?

Yeah it’s weird because if you look at DotA 2 compared to CS:GO – they’re just so different, but it’s a format that more people are starting to enjoy.

People always ask a lot of questions of Valve as it’s a studio they’re keen to know more about and again, your employee handbook leak gave us a clearer view on the company’s culture. What was your reaction to that?

It was great and we’re happy to have fun with that sort of stuff. it’s kind of a weird thing where the HR person looks like a tough monster but really she’s very nice.

Valve is very similar to Rockstar Games in that you don’t over-hype your products. You talk about them when you’re good and ready, or when games are finally in a presentable state. Why is that important?

Telling people a game is great will sell one extra copy. Letting people play the game – Left 4 Dead is a good example – is much better. All of our pre-release stuff is designed to just let people play it.

We just let the game speak for itself because the internet has made this thing where, you can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes any more. They’re going to know you’re hyping.

But when a game does really well at pre-release, they’re going to know that you’re not just talking a bunch of PR crap. I mean, the Left 4 Dead series has now sold over 12 million copies.

That’s amazingly cool, and that wasn’t because I was out there like, ‘Oh my god! This game is amazing! Buy it!’ Seeing Counter-Strike be the number one PSN title was awesome, and you know it’s just because of people reacting to the game.

And with Left 4 Dead you collaborated with the Payday: The Heist guys recently on the No Mercy map. How did that come about?

We’re fans of their work and the guys are great. We got to hang out with a bunch of them at E3, which was awesome, and it happened more just through hanging out. They’re fun guys and it just seemed like a really fun little thing to do, so yeah, it’s just another little thing we decided to do and have fun with.

Black Mesa Source. Have you played it? What do you think?
Yeah it’s cool because there’s so many memories that just come flooding back. The last time I played Half-Life was before we worked on Half-Life 2: Episode Two.

There’s that bit where you’re walking around the White Forest base and there are scientists talking to you, saying the same things from the start of the original Half-Life. That was an inside joke, but I hadn’t played it since Black Mesa Source, so it’s cool to go back, plus it has excellent graphics that’s for sure.

I can’t imagine a world where Activision say, would allow a fan remake of Call of Duty 4. That would get shot down the second the first screenshot went out. Why is it important to be that open and to allow people to do things like Black Mesa Source?

Why wouldn’t we? But I guess you’d have to convince me of the benefits to the other side, because to me, this feels like pretty common sense.

It’s mainly companies protecting their interests and blocking anything that could tarnish the reputation of their products.

Well let’s say that Black Mesa Source turned out horrible. It’s not going to hurt the original Half-Life.

Because it still remains.

Yeah exactly, and it’s interesting to play and to see what parts they kept the same and in what ways they went in and changed things.

Let’s go back to the early days, particularly when you joined just after Half-Life 2. What was the company like then?

Well yeah, I started right after they shipped Half-Life 2, and one of my most terrifying moments was during my three-day interview, where I was just hanging out there. I was sitting there with Gabe behind me while I was playing Half-Life 2, and I got stuck.

I kept getting motion sickness from this one TV there that gave people motion sickness, and I was tired and we were trying to figure out If I was was going to take the job at Valve or not – which sounds weird I know – and Gabe was just there behind me as I was just stuck. So much pressure. I felt stupid.

What was your first day on the job like? I imagine that adapting to Valve’s open way of working must have been a weird challenge.

I told Gabe he was full of shit.

What?

Yeah [laughs]. I told him he was full of shit and I was saying ‘there’s no way the company works this way.’

But then you started to understand it and get into the groove?

Yeah it was weird and there is is this adjustment period before you realise that yeah, you really can just go off and work on something you want. But the thing is, again, we hire people who understand that they can work on they want, but that thing is always going to be what is most valuable to the company, or what you think should be the most valuable thing to the company.

It’s not like, ‘I’m going to go make this crazy thing that does nothing and has no value.’ You’re going to think of the right thing to make. We all talk to each other, and everyone wants to be doing the right things.

You hire a lot of talented people into that system, and again, you guys are keen on helping people become developers. Would you say the educational routes to the industry are getting clearer and increasingly viable?

Go to university if that’s what you need. I don’t think that’s what everyone needs. But to make something, you don’t necessarily need a four-year degree to do that.

If you come out of a four-year course and you haven’t made anything, then you’re coming out at a point of weakness. You’re just another resumé to throw in the trash. You’ve got to just do it yourself, and you do that by creating something.

That is becoming easier now thanks to cheaper engines like Unity. I mean, I couldn’t just walk into a shop and buy Unreal Engine 3. That’s just not accessible for budding developers.

Yeah, or you could just make an item for Team Fortress 2, a mod or anything. There’s a bunch of things you could do as long as you’re excited by your work. Once you’re excited about your work, you will want to succeed. That’s how you get noticed now. It’s silly not to be doing something.

So prototyping is advisable?

Yeah, but you could just make a mod, or small game. There are probably guys out there who just thought they were going to make an indie game, showcased it, and them became a developer.

Does Valve prototype a lot? Do you have to scrap a lot of things?

We dabble in experimentation. That’s how we work things out, so yeah.

I imagine that few studios have as much room to experiment as Valve does, thanks to its open approach. The thought of working at a big studio with zero room for creativity sounds like hell to me.

Yeah, but what people forget is, Valve only has this opportunity because we’ve always done this. You get creative by always having that freedom to begin with, but you also need focus. You have to have one to have the other, but you have to do it all-in.

What happens when you do acquire a studio or individual in that regard? Can they still change direction and work on whatever they want, or do you encourage them to play to their strengths?

Well yeah, they can do either. They find out themselves how they can be valuable.

Finally I’d just like to touch on Steam. It’s big, it’s not going away any time soon, but it does have increasing competition from GOG, Origin, and others. What’s your take on that market?

Competition is good because it just makes us better. We’ve got a bunch of stuff we’re working on and it’s what we think we want to do from the point of view that, ‘we play games. What would make our lives better?’ You need that kind of scope on it.

Can you tell us more about any of those new ideas?

Just a whole bunch of stuff, and some it just came out. We’re just always refining it. We reviewed the entire community system and how that works. It went from something that we knew we needed to change to this cool thing.

We just have to keep refining and working on it, and with those community features in particular, the shock was just the way people reacted to it. Some people didn’t like it at first, but they get it now, so it’s all about just building on our ideas.

Can you give us a timeframe on when Big Picture mode will launch?

There’s three things that can change when you’re shipping something. You can either give a project more time, put more people on it, or release something of lesser quality.

So not number three then?

We’re going to do something where we’re not worried about the time. So when it ships, it ships.

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