Nintendo is catching a lot of heat these days for refusing to make games for the iPhone, but one of the other elite video game companies, the forward-thinking makers of Portal, Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2, Valve Software isn't just shunning iPhone.
Valve shows no interest in making portable games at all. Not for iPhone. Not for iPad. Not for Droid, 3DS, Vita, or even your old digital watch. That makes them not just one of the only major video game companies not making games for people on the go.
That also might make them—apologies to World of Warcraft's Blizzard Entertainment—the best game-making outfit on Earth, not making portable games.
"We're about people sitting on their couches or at their desks," Valve writer Chet Faliszek recently told me while we talked about Valve's Counter-Strike GO, the team-based first-person shooter set for release as a downloadable PC, Mac, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game in early 2012. To be about couches and desks, of course, means to be for people playing games on consoles and computers.
I had wanted to know if Valve was considering making GO as a portable game, perhaps for the twin-stick PlayStation Vita, which may launch in America around the same time as the new Counter-Strike. "We haven't forayed into that space," he said, of portable gaming. "It's just not a space our engine has been looked at or optimized for."
If Valve keeps shunning portable games, they're going to be lonely. They're natively a PC gaming company, one that has branched out and established, in recent years, a reputation for also making reliably good games on home consoles. But while they've gone that far, some other long-time PC gaming stalwarts like id Software and Epic Games have aggressively pushed into the world of portable games. From id we've gotten a raft of Doom and Rage-related iOS games. Epic, which makes Gears of War but also the graphics tech Unreal has pushed into the world of iOS too, selling their Unreal engine to developers and pushing their own Infinity Blade as one of the most well-regarded and visually-impressive games on iPhone or iPad. From Valve we've gotten no portable Portal, no handheld Half-Life.
So many other companies have gone portable too. There are DS Call of Duty games, PSP Maddens and, of course, Marios, Zeldas, God of Wars and more released by Nintendo and Sony for their portable gaming machines. Even Microsoft, the one console gaming juggernaut without a handheld system, has started making mobile games for Windows Phone 7.
Several years ago, Valve reinvented how PC gaming works by launching Steam and convincing PC gamers and game-makers that a digital download store filled with user-friendly chat and game-updating services is not just essential to gaming on that platform—it's better, better than what was there before. Lately, they've been nudging console makers to reinvent their business, wrangling Sony to allow the PlayStation 3 version of Portal 2 to connect to those being played on computers (the PS3 CS:GO will do the same). Perhaps they'll punch through some walls there.
But what could Valve do for portable gaming? In that area we have Apple promoting 99-cent games yet holding gaming at arm's length by still only gingerly promoting the iPhone or iPad as a go-to gaming device. We've got Nintendo, once unimpeachable in portable gaming, struggling to justify its new 3DS and the $40 price tags on its portable games. And we've got Sony oscillating between a portable gaming strategy based on downloads or store purchases while once again hoping that creating a handheld device, the Vita, with nearly home-console-level horsepower can thrive globally. What we have, really, is chaos in portable gaming, a lack of clear vision, visionary leadership and sound execution, the very things Valve, under Gabe Newell, has given PC gaming.
Maybe one day Valve will get into handheld gaming. Maybe we'll get a Steam store on iPhone, a Portal on the 3DS and a Counter-Strike on the Vita. That won't happen soon. When I met them at Valve, last month, Chet Faliszek and Counter-Strike: GO Ido Magal didn't have portable gaming on their minds. I had to remind them what the Vita is. "We're slow to move on to new platforms," Magal told me. That may be, but portable gaming sure could use them.