The Valve Model — Is it Good for the Industry?

Pretty much everyone loves Valve.

How could you not? Its brought us some of the greatest games ever made, created the standard platform for PC digital distribution and community and is one of the few large development houses exploring the intricacies of the video game medium and business.

Yet, something bothers me about Valve. When looking at its release history (and counting DOTA 2), we see that although Valve has developed close to eight franchises in the 13 years since the release of Half-Life, its debut. The number of properties that were fully conceived in-house is only…well one: the Half-Life series. Oh oh and Ricochet. Don’t forget Ricochet.

Let’s break this down shall we:

(A more detailed breakdown of Valve’s release history is available here: https://jforjanky.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/the-history-of-valve-release-a-timeline/)

Half-Life

The original was developed by Valve and released in 1998. It had a number of expansions and of course a series of sequels which together are one of the best games ever made.

Team Fortress

Valve hired the studio behind the original mod released in 1996 for id’s Quake. Valve’s version, Team Fortress Classic, was released at retail in 1999.

Ricochet

An official Half-Life mod, Ricochet was developed by Valve and initially released for free. It now costs $4.99 on Steam.

Counter-Strike

CS was originally released as a Half-Life mod in 1999. Valve hired the developers and acquired the name, releasing the mod at retail in 2000. A number of sequels and spin-offs were produced.

Day of Defeat

The original DoD mod was released in 2000. Valve hired the team and released it at retail in 2003.

Portal

Narbacular Drop from Nuclear Monkey Software, a team of DigPen Institute students, was released for free in 2005. Valve hired the entire team and employs Drop’s portal mechanics in…Portal, released in 2007. The sequel, released in 2011, features a number of mechanics from another Digipen game, Tag: The Power of Paint. The team behind Tag was hired by Valve to work on Portal 2.

Left 4 Dead

Turtle Rock Studios, a former Valve collaborator, began development of L4D in 2005. The studio and L4D were acquired by Valve in 2008. The game was released later that year. Valve later let go of Turtle Rock after absorbing most of its staff. The studio has since reformed and is now developing a game for THQ.(Eurogamer)

Alien Swarm

The original Alien Swarm, a mod for Epic’s Unreal Tournament 2004 by Black Cat Games, was released in 2004. They announced a  sequel in 2005 this time based on Valve’s Source Engine. The development appeared to stop in 2007. Valve hired the Black Cat team and they developed a new Alien Swarm in between larger projects. It was released in 2010 as freeware.(Gamasutra)

DoTA 2

The first version of the Defense of the Ancients scenario, something of a mod for Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III, was released by modder “Eul” in 2003. Valve hired  “IceFrog,” the longtime and current caretaker of the most popular DoTA variant, DOTA-Allstars in 2009. He is now lead designer for the sequel to the original mod set for release in 2011.

So what’s your point?

Well, taking a look at this we see almost every game in Valve’s arsenal of successful titles is based on a mod, or, in the case of L4D, an acquisition.  Strangely, this is one instance of an acquisition hungry company that has gone unquestioned (well…except for the case of DoTA 2, but that’s a million kinds of complicated).

I posted a Facebook status about Electronic Arts’ acquisition of PopCap and one friend commented, “As a PSA, you should write the short list of things that EA doesn’t own. Shouldn’t take 5 minutes.”

This is the kind of vitriol companies get when the make mergers and acquisitions a priority. It comes off as creatively bankrupt. “Hey! Instead of making new, successful games of our own, why don’t we just use the oodles of annualized franchise cash we have to pick up a few studios that can do that for us?!”

Or in Valve’s case, “Hey! That’s really cool. Now, you’re fresh out of college and have no way to promote your game or make money off your mod, so I’ll tell you what: if you come work for us, we’ll take your little game and spruce it up for millions to see AND pay for. How does that sound?”

Pretty slimy, right? It seems like Valve sees a design it wants and just absorbs its creators so as to avoid any sort of conflict down the line.

In the case of DoTA 2? Yeah, it’s definitely frickin’ slimy. Valve is practically trying to trademark an entire subgenre of video games and one that began by using material created and owned by another company, Blizzard. Strangley the most conflict over this trademark Valve is encountering is from two of the most prominent original DoTA developers (who are currently working at Riot Games, creator of the DoTA clone League of Legends). They have created a company, DoTA-Allstars, LLC. to combat Valve’s trademark efforts. (PC Gamer)

Valve currently owns the trademark for “DOTA2” and “DOTA3” while Allstars retains just plain “DOTA.”

Concept art for DoTA 2

But it’s not all bad…

DOTA 2 aside, what Valve has done is use its resources and above-average eye for great design to bring excellent games to the masses. While Counter-Strike and Team Fortress were popular mods, the boost in player numbers and technical support thanks to an official Valve release were invaluable.

Also, we wouldn’t have Portal  and its sequel if it wasn’t for this Valve model. In that case the mechanics from the Narbacular Drop team just served as a basis for something wholly unique and special thanks to the brilliance of the talent and production process at Valve.

In many ways Valve is serving a priceless function for the mod and student community. It’s something of a curator for new and wonderful design. It gives hope to an entirely new generation of modders; make something noteworthy enough and you just might end up at Valve.

Now let’s not give Valve all the credit. Developers, especially PC developers, have been hiring modders for years based on their work. Valve’s case is just a little different — and more suspect — because those hires can be so easily linked to a later project.

So is it good or bad?

Yes, this Valve model of design and property absorption is kind of gross. Maybe it’s the fact that the last game with truly in-house origins is HL2: Episode 2. We haven’t seen anything original from them in four years and it’s starting to seem like the folks at Valve are more content to sit back and poach concepts from little guys then come up with any big ideas of their own.

But then again, is that so bad? And can we honestly say Valve isn’t doing important things with games? Sure, Portal 2’s gels were lifted from a student project, but it’s not really those mechanics (or even Narbacular Drop’s titular portals) that make that game special.

So, what do you think? Is this Valve model a good thing for the industry? Is Valve just a bunch of lazy Scrooge McDucks, swimming in their massive piles of money? Are they hurting the indie game community by scooping up potential creators? Do any of these negatives even matter? Are they negatives at all?

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About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

One Response to The Valve Model — Is it Good for the Industry?

  1. Pingback: The History of Valve Release, A Timeline « Rated J, For Janky

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