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GC08: One-on-one with Valve's Gabe Newell


Left 4 Dead's looking hot, bucko. It's looking real hot, and inevitably so: it's a Valve game. Being shown at Games Convention in Germany this week, the co-op zombie shooter has all the hallmarks of another Valve drip-feed classic, and company boss and development legend Gabe Newell probably knows it.

Given that, then, we thought we'd talk about other stuff when we interviewed him yesterday. Things like:

  • How Half-Life 2: Episode 3's development is coming along.
  • How Left 4 Dead will follow the Team Fortress 2 content update model.
  • How Steam is planned to contain apps like Firefox.
  • How Steam will utilise user bandwidth for peer-to-peer delivery.
  • How Newell would still love to make a Wii game.
  • Why Newell hates being told what to do by console manufacturers.
  • Why buying a "bunch of ads" is not the best way to sell a game.
  • How EA is the only partner Valve's ever had that paid up all the money it owed.
  • How every Team Fortress 2 content update bring a sales spike of 20 percent.
  • How Newell gets approached twice a week to sell Valve.
  • How Newell really doesn't want to sell Valve.

You know. Stuff like that. Did we say how amazing Left 4 Dead looks?

After the drop.

VG247: Are you getting sick of saying there's no PS3 version yet?

Gabe Newell: It means people want the game, which is good. But we don't have plans for a PS3 version yet.

Are you thinking of Left 4 Dead in terms of a franchise?

I think we're going through this transition right now, where we're used to thinking of these products as boxes that you ship into stores and then you wait to see how many you sell. If you look at what we've been doing with Team Fortress 2, where every four to six weeks we release a new movie, or tell you something more about the characters, release new maps, achievements, weapons, unlockables and so on, we find that the community grows much faster that way.

People are excited about bringing their friends on board. You know, the community gets bigger, there are more servers and we sell more products. So that's pretty much the direction we're going in with Left 4 Dead, wanting to continue to provide ongoing content releases to the community, based on its feedback, as quickly as we can.

Why do you think that drip-feed mentality works for Valve games specifically?

I think it would work for anybody's games. Like I said, we're moving through this transition.

It used to be that you really wanted to have that big first weekend, just like the movies, and that was the best way to deliver products. But in this post -internet world, the best way of getting more customers is not to buy a bunch of ads or put up a bunch of posters in stores.

Your existing customers are the best way to get more customers, and the best way to get them excited is by releasing more content.

Do you find the boxed copy model and the slowness of the industry to react to what you're saying frustrating?

We're mainly concerned about what our customers think, and they're... rewarding us by buying lots of copies. Each time we do an update there's a 20 percent uptake in Team Fortress 2 sales, so that tells us pretty clearly that we're doing the right thing.

How's Episode 3 coming along? You've been quiet on it for a while now.

Doug [Lombardi, Valve's comms boss - Ed] is shaking his head at me, so I don't get to talk about it. It's coming along well. I think it's going to be the best episode of the three.

When do you think we're going to be able to see it?

We aren't announcing a date yet.

You've been working on Left 4 Dead for some time, and you've taken the traditional Valve approach of "when it's done," as you did with Team Fortress 2. Are you making any moves internally to speed up the development process or are you comfortable with the way things are working at the moment?

I think we're happy that we spend the time. I think we're more frustrated with what we tell people about dates rather than how long we spend. Everybody works very hard. These games are very complex. I think we're excited about how fast the Team Fortress team has been able to put out updates, and they've been able to do that with a narrow focus and knowing exactly what they're going to do, and knowing they're going to ship it in four weeks.

There's a real feeling that we're being very productive that way, and that's the mode the Left 4 Dead team will be transitioning to when we get the product out into customers' hands.

What about the console conundrum? That seems to be a nut you haven't cracked. You seem to be very comfortable with 360, but I do remember a while ago that you said you were interested in Wii, then you said you weren't...

No no no. I think Wii is a great box. I'm really interested in stuff they've taken forward in terms of input. You know, we're a 150 person company. There's a limit to how much we can get done.

Do you feel comfortable with doing console versions? To be absolutely blunt, is it purely a money thing? Or, aesthetically, does it make you happy to be able to deliver 360 versions?

I think the 360's a great platform for Left 4 Dead. The 360 players that come in and play the game are really happy with it. So yeah, I think we're comfortable.

The difficulty comes in continuing to try to broaden how many different platforms we're doing simultaneously. We'll do better over time.

The big concern I have right now is our ability to provide updates. On the PC side, we've done as many as four updates in a day, and that's great: we can respond very quickly. If Nvidia puts out a new graphics driver and it changes some way about how texture management works, then before our customers know there's any issue then the problem has gone away.

Or we can do the Pyro updates, and the Medic updates [and so on]. On the consoles, they want us to charge money for them, because that's in their model, and our model is very much more to grow the community by giving out free updates. That's harder for us.

And then on the consoles they have pretty lengthy certification periods, and we're pretty happy that our customers think that we do a good job on the quality side of updates, and we don't need someone looking over our shoulder checking to make sure that we're not going to screw our customers with a bad update.

Does it rankle a bit when people from the console manufacturers tell you what to do?

Sure. I mean, like any developer, we want nobody between us and the people who are playing our game. It's pretty self-interested, because when you have the ability to respond directly to what customers are telling you, you sell more copies of your games, and you sell more audiences, and you make more money.

So anything that stands between us and them is a bad thing.

What about Steam Cloud? That was a bit of a leftfield announcement. How does it enrich the platform?

I think people right now are used to the idea of application portability. I can log into any PC anywhere, log into my Steam account and have all my applications, and we just wanted to do the same thing for data as well.

So, starting with small chunks of data so we can scale up the robustness of the system and then growing it to be whatever data you have associated with those applications. So, it's just part of making the service component to Steam stronger.

Do you intend to extend that?

Oh yeah.

In what way?

In terms of services?

Functionality and services.

One of the things we'd like to do is to understand what types of applications people have on their PCs. For example, if a whole bunch of people are running Firefox, then make sure that's one of the applications they can get through Steam.

There are community features that we want to continue to add. There's peer-to-peer functionality: the community has this tremendous amount of bandwidth. There's a whole bunch of content that they're downloading right now, and being able to replicate that throughout the community using peer-to-peer would be a really good idea. What they need is a structured interface on top of that so they can find the content that everybody's already downloading. Those are the kind of things we're looking at.

I think it was you, Doug, said that you were interested in having negotiations about selling Valve?

No. So, Doug was trying to be complimentary to EA Partners. Before we started working with EA, all we were hearing were horror stories from other developers about what it was like to work with EA, and our experiences with EA have been very positive.

For example - I'm not sure how many people are interested in these nitty gritty games business details - in all our contacts we have the right to audit partners, and whenever we do an audit it always turns out that whoever we're working with hasn't paid us all the money that they owe us. We just did an audit of EA, and for the first time in our 12-year history, they'd paid us everything they were supposed to.

You audited EA?

We audit everybody. All of our partners. It's a part of doing business. The thing that's unusual isn't that we audited them, it's unusual that they were totally squeaky clean and had fulfilled all of their obligations. It sounds sort of strange if I'm saying that to a gamer, but if I say that to another game developer they're like, 'You're kidding.' So we found them great to work with. And Doug's comments about EA were like, 'Hey, they're great to work with, and we love working with them.'

So you've got no interest in selling Valve?

Right now we're super-happy. We've been an independent company from day one, and we think that that contributes to our good decision-making. We're much more concerned about finding more people that are like us and want to work with us - and doing a great job for customers - than looking for people that want to buy the company.

Have you had any approaches for the company?

I get approached a couple of times a week by people saying, 'Can we invest in you, can we buy you?' That's been true for several years. We're having too much fun.

Are you interested in stepping outside the shooter genre? Any chance of a Valve MMO?

We're always interested, but let me put it this way: I would love to do a Wii game, and how many Wii games have we shipped? So, it's just a question of having way, way too many ideas for our ability to execute. If people things are bad now, if we were trying to do a Wii MMO at the same time our schedules would be measurable in centuries.

About the Author
Patrick Garratt avatar

Patrick Garratt


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