Behind the Success: VALVE

by Divyanshu Singh on May 21, 2018

 

Valve, a publisher that hasn’t released a game since 2012 but still made 4.3 billion US dollars in 2017, a studio who practically owns the PC gaming scene, holding a firm 70% market share is one of the more popular industry names, the team of great minds which is headed by Gabe Newell.
But how did Valve reach here? What was their Eureka moment? What controversies did they land themselves into? Let’s take a look at the history of one of gaming’s most revered developers of all time.

– The Origins:

Valve started way back in 1996, by the like-mindedness of Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, both of whom previously worked at Microsoft as designers of early Windows versions before starting this endeavor of their own.

Half Life:
The idea was to create something revolutionary, something ahead of the time, something unique and this thought-process lead to the legendary Half Life. Released in 1998, Half Life was an FPS game with a story so engaging, so intense, that it is still considered to be among the best single player stories till date. Back then, facial animations blew everyone’s minds away; G-Man’s face was so surreal, it really terrorized the 6-year-old me.

Half Life was based on the Quake Engine which Valve acquired from the renowned Doom and Quake developer, id Software. They then made their own modifications to the engine and renamed it to GoldSrc.

The game was a huge success, it put Valve on the roadmap and gave them a high enough pedestal to mark their name in the industry. But this success lead to the departure of Mike Harrington from Valve for personal reasons.

Half Life was unique for the time and the GoldSrc engine made the game very versatile; in fact people started even making mods and maps for the game. One of the mod makers were TF Software, who were originally working on the Team Fortress mod for Quake 1996. Gabe Newell saw  huge potential in this team and the Team Fortress game as well, and ultimately, Team Fortress ended up being huge, so Quake had dedicated servers just for this mod.

Deals and late 90’s:
In the summers of 1998, Valve secured the deal with TF Software, and decided to make Team Fortress an expansion for Half Life. Releasing the standalone version under the name of Team Fortress Classic, in the April of 1999.

– Start of 2000’s
This brings us to the second part of the journey, the beginning of a new era, 2000s.

Mod support
Valve realized the helpfulness of modders, that they can bring amazing changes to the games as they’re a gold mine of content for their upcoming games. So, they began sending out Software Developer Kits for free. Many mods were polished by Valve and they either turned out as a standalone title or expansions for their games, like Deathmatch Classic, Ricochet and Day of Defeat. But the diamond in this pile was Counter-Strike.

Counter-Strike came out in November 2000, and it quickly exploded in popularity, shattered the player base of Halo, Quake or any other FPS multiplayer game for years to come.

Gearbox:

Half Life was still a popular phenomenon, so it was time for Valve to make new content for the game inorder to increase its lifespan. But the team was too small to make new expansions and port the game to the consoles at the same time, so they seeked for a helping hand.

Gearbox Software helped Valve; it was a mutual benefit for both the companies. Valve got the expansions for Half Life, Opposing Force and Blue Shift and Gearbox got their name on the map.

Steam
It was at the Games Developer Conference of 2002 where Valve showcased their new platform to send out patches, a simple digital distribution platform known as Steam. It was quite an interesting idea at the time; since patches often crashed games and were sometimes hard to apply, Steam would make that job easy.

But this also led to backlash when Valve announced that every game made by them would now require a Steam account to play it. The community was upset because this adds DRM, the weird Steam authentication and whatnot. Steam was a mess at launch; bugs, crashes, all sort of things which you don’t want from a digital distribution platform, especially a new one that is designed to facilitate the users.

The two big V’s 
Here comes the intriguing part: Steam was still in its very early stages so Valve needed someone to distribute and publish their games. Sierra Entertainment (owned by Vivendi Universal) was to handle this job. However, Valve ended up suing Vivendi for copyright infringement, claiming that Vivendi illegally distributed their games to cyber-cafés. This went on for the following 3 years and Valve ended up winning the lawsuit.

Data Theft
2003 came and so did problems. You see, Valve was one of the top players in the gaming industry by then. They were in the spotlight with all the success they had achieved in the last 5 years. And with success there are always hurdles, hackers got into their system. It was bad: hackers not only stole the data of the soon-to-be released Half Life 2, they also installed keyloggers and hacked Gabe’s personal email account. This not only reminded Gabe and Valve the threats from hackers but they also learned the importance of having a better network security.

Half Life 2
E3, 2003, Valve showcased their most anticipated title, sequel to Half Life. Half Life 2 improved on everything, better visuals, smoother gameplay and continued with having an amazing story. This was a chance for Valve to showcase their new engine as well, called “Source”. With the new engine and a complete overhaul, Half Life 2 was destined to be on a path to success.
But as previously mentioned, the company got hacked and contents of the game were leaked which was dealt a huge blow to the company.

Half Life 2 was then pushed back to a late 2004 release. The wait was worth it though, as the game not just surpassed the expectations set by fans, it probably even surpassed the original in terms of achievements, winning tons of awards and sold 10 million copies.

Source

The next year, 2004, for Valve was their biggest yet. Multiple games saw releases in queue along with the official release of Source. Counter Strike: Condition Zero and Half Life 2 were the two heavy hitters. Apart from these two, Valve ported every game in their arsenal to the Source Engine in the same year, starting with Counter Strike: Source, Half Life: Source and Day of Defeat: Source.

Source made it easier to make new content which benefited Half Life 2 with Deathmatch coming out just about a month after the release of Half Life 2While Source was working well for Valve, it still had elements from GoldSrc, which had elements from Quake Engine. This meant although Source was good, it wasn’t as powerful or flexible as the Unreal Engine.

Valve used Source for every single game they released after 2004, and as it was free, every single game got so much community support and mods that it was unmatched.

After the great year of 2004, Valve laid back a little and breezed through the next 2 years with relative ease, i.e. by releasing expansions for Half Life 2, a very simple business tactic which brings in cash. There were 4 major expansions: Lost Coast, Episode 1, Survivor, Episode 2 (all in their chronological release order). This again brought the spotlight to Half Life 2.

Meanwhile, Valve made agreements with third-party publishers and made a deal which allowed other publishers to distribute games on the Steam platform; this just exploded in terms of profit and diversity. In the upcoming years, Steam became more feature rich:- chatting with friends, cloud saves, music player, video player, workshops and the recent addition of SteamVR.

– Second Leg of the Journey
Valve always wanted to revolutionize the market. They acquired many talented teams to work for them, hosted meetups with modders to look for new ideas. This hugely benefited them.

Garry’s Mod
Garry’s Mod was one such idea. Originally released as a Half Life 2 mod in 2004, Valve actively published the game and supported the small team, Facepunch Studios to make Garry’s Mod a stand-alone title, and was released in 2006. The game is a physics-driven sandbox, where the only limit is your imagination, with the Source engine beneath it. The gameplay was solid and satisfying. It was not only a game but a platform for other people to make their own content as well – including new models, maps, game modes, and so on.

The game was a huge hit and sold 10 million copies, it still has a dedicated player base which peaks at 50,000 players in one day.

Search for new ideas 
At this time, Valve was planning on content for Half Life 2, with the sequel of Team Fortress 2 promised to the fans. But something was still missing, so they started searching for new ideas and stumbled upon some graduates from DigiPen Institute of Technology. Their interest was in the game Narbacular Drop, a puzzle game with portals. Well I’m sure you can see where this going.

Valve immediately hired the graduates and gave them access to their products. This resulted in the critically popular first-person sci-fi puzzle game Portal.

With 2007, Valve was on a gold mine of content; Steam grew further and became better, and Source got great feedback from the community.

The Orange Box
They planned on launching a package, containing 5 games for the price of one. The games included were, Half Life 2 with both Episode 1 & 2, Team Fortress 2 and their latest title, Portal. They named this package “The Orange Box”.

While Half Life 2 was already well received, Team Fortress 2 made everyone happy with its diverse gameplay mechanics; it was a blast, just a good old multiplayer shooter which you could play with your friends after school, that boasted vast improvements over the previous game.

Portal

But it was Portal, the spiritual successor to Narbacular Drop, that snatched the spotlight from Team Fortress 2. The game was a masterpiece and screamed originality; it was unlike anything anyone had seen in years, an epitome in puzzle game design and set the bar in the genre so high that it’s still praised as one of the best puzzle games ever made.

Portal was very well received by everyone, won several awards and was also named “The most Original Game of 2007”.

Left 4 Dead
While all of this was happening, a studio started working on a zombie shooter using the Source Engine, namely Turtle Rock Studio. Valve, following their tradition and history, took an interest in the project, and later acquired Turtle Rock in early 2008 with a deal of making the project a standalone game. And once again Valve struck gold, the project gave birth to Left 4 Dead, a co-op based zombie shooter.

The game had remarkable maps and music (the tank theme still makes me nervous), and the gameplay was fresh from the oven. You wouldn’t play Left 4 Dead solo, you play it with friends.

Left 4 Dead 2

A year later, Valve announced the sequel to Left 4 Dead which divided the fan base of the game into two. Some thought that this was bad idea, as Valve would abandon the first game and would not make new content for it, while others said it’s nice to see a new game with narrative storyline and more maps. The first half of the crowd began boycotting the game. But this went under the rug soon after, when Valve released DLCs and expansions for the first game.

E3 2009 was when Left 4 Dead 2 was showcased, then launched on November 2009. Most fans and critics agreed that Valve managed to release yet another successful title. Left 4 Dead 2 got expansions and DLCs as well, in the following year.

DotA
2011 was the year Valve tried something new, a top down MOBA, originally perceived as a mod for Warcraft III. Valve hired the guys behind this mod and asked them to make this mod a polished, new and a bit technical standalone title, called Defense Of The Ancients (popularly abbreviated as DotA). But there was a problem: renaming the mod to DotA would make Valve vulnerable to a lawsuit by Blizzard for using the word “DotA”. This went on for months, but Valve and Blizzard then came to solution of naming the new game to DOTA 2 and Blizzard renaming their DotA studio to Blizzard: All Stars.

Beta access of DOTA 2 started in 2011 with a full release in July of 2012 thanks to the ongoing confusion between Blizzard and Valve. It soon became another success, with a massive, dedicated player base, where each player poured thousands of hours in-game.

The game was good, so good that it still manages to get 600,000 players playing at one time, even 6 years after it’s release. Today, DOTA 2 is among the most played games in the competitive eSports sector, having tournaments with prize pools of millions of dollars.

Portal 2
The year’s big main release was Portal 2, a highly anticipated title and the sequel to Portal, which itself set such high hopes and standards from fans and the community, that it was deemed tough for Valve to make an even better sequel.

However Portal 2 came and to everyone’s surprise, delivered, immediately gaining a huge amount of success, now with a more narrative-centric story, interesting characters and co-op; in short it was a recipe for another masterpiece.

– Recent Years
By 2012, Valve was among the top players in the industry. Everything they made or did, the fans and community supported them immensely. They were now the sweet loving teacher you always wanted who delivers excellent content.

Steam made it easier for the modders and general players to make their own content for their favourite games by adding Workshop feature. This was so beneficial for the platform that Garry’s Mod received about 1.1 million community-made content. Made by everyone, for everyone.

Counter – Strike: Global Offensive
2012 also gave us Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a totally new kind of Counter-Strike. With new map designs, faster and smoother gameplay, it was an overhaul of the series. The game now has 8 game modes and a very, very strong competitive backbone, with tournaments sponsored by Valve or hosted by other companies. The game did have a bit of shaky start with some bugs, which were later fixed with updates.

Valve, over the time of 6 years, updated and supported CS:GO with major updates which added new game modes and a market for weapon skins. Skins for weapons and gloves divided the player base in 2 parts, one who liked the skins and gloves but weren’t happy with micro transactions being the only way to acquire them while others were supportive of this method. Either way, this turned out better than expected with rare skins from the community store costing upwards of thousands of dollars.

CS:GO is now a household name in the gaming industry. In fact most of the players in the PC gaming industry start with CS:GO now as it’s cheap and also great value for money.

– Valve’s Silence
After 2012, Valve remained silent, and it was their last year as a game developer.
Although, they did showcase Source 2 and promised to porting their most played games to their newest engine, i.e. DotA 2 and CS:GO, which they eventually did, but only DotA 2; CS:GO is still awaiting that leap.

Apart from this, Valve kind of fallen off the radar. Nothing new in interviews, AMAs, no news on completing the Trilogy of Half Life, Portal, Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress.

Artifact


Then in 2017, Valve came to E3 with rumours of a new IP and a new game; people became extremely hyped, with rumours spreading like wildfire about a new Half Life or Portal.
The day of reveal came, and the much-hushed game turns out to be Artifact – DotA card game. Huge disappointment for everyone, as people were expecting so much more than this.

But if you think about it, a card game from their perspective made sense, as there are already millions of DotA players. A card game will not just offer something new to them, but also provide Blizzard’s Hearthstone some competition. Plus looking at Valve’s huge support in making an eSports title, Artifact has the potential to be a new, popular eSports title.

– Present Situation

After all those years in complete silence, Gabe Newell finally talked. In a recent interview in March, 2018, Gabe said that Valve remained dormant for all these years because they were exploring new areas. They tied up with HTC for the Vive VR headset and even made their own hardware – the Steam Link and Controller. They were investing resources in this tech for future benefits.

Valve also revealed their SteamOS, a Linux-based OS built around Steam and their interest in living room gaming, Steam Machines – sadly this didn’t take off like they expected.

He also talked about the upcoming Valve games, of which at the moment there are at least 3 VR games and one single player game in the works. These could be anything. He then said, “Artifact is the first of several games that are going to be coming from us. So that’s sort of good news. Hooray! Valve’s going to start shipping games again.”

So Valve, a company which tried everything, games to OS to hardware, is one of the only few who succeeded in most of them. Everything they made turned out to be an instant classic.

Now there are divisive thoughts I have towards them: the creative side of me says “Yeah they’ve earned their retirement as a developer; making a video game is hard, making dozens of great video games, well, that’s next to impossible”. But the fan part of me, who followed most of their games since the original Half Life, says: “I really want the trilogy of their Holy Trinity”. That is just a dream now, that too a dead one.

But then again Gabe said that they’ve been working on some games, so all I can say is to have some hope, maybe they will release a new Half Life, maybe they won’t. But at the end of the day, they’ve earned all the respect they deserve from me.

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