In recent times, people have taken to calling Valve “evil.” Not negligent, not out of touch with their fans, but evil.
I do not think Valve is evil. But I think it matters that people have started to view them—once gaming’s do-no-wrong golden child—that way. I think Valve’s brand of “evil” comes from a place of arrogance and ignorance, as opposed to ill intent. Actions that sometimes look “evil” even without intending to be. A belief that tools and metrics say more than people.
Valve head Gabe Newell recently argued against the assertion that Valve has become “evil,” a simple black-and-white term that tends to ignore modern realities of running a company. Forbes, however, ran a piece that digs deeper. I don’t agree with all of it, but there’s some good food for thought. For instance, the piece notes that Valve has declared itself more profitable per employee than Google or Apple, yet they fail to provide a lot of useful services for their users—for instance good customer service or a more organized store. They fail to use all that profit for what many would consider “good”:
Earlier this year, Valve announced that in roughly three years it had paid out $57 million to 1500 people using Workshop to sell cosmetic items in games like Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2. By comparison, Etsy had more than $525 million in sales in the first eight months of 2012, a sum from which the company takes a 3.5% commission compared to Valve’s reported 30%. Moreover, Valve’s centralized marketplace has become a platform for circulating uselessness and inutility as profit, with an estimated 37% of all games in a person’s Steam library having never been loaded. It’s become a tool that preys on a person’s desire to participate in the zeitgeist of a given game overriding her or his interest in actually playing it.
So basically, Forbes is saying that Valve has scaled their operation poorly, or at least in a way that doesn’t exactly benefit entities that aren’t Valve. Moreover, the Steam store itself encourages spending money over engaging with a thing, really immersing yourself in it—or even using it at all to begin with. Then again, perhaps the same could be said of all stores/religions/etc. The piece further argues that Valve has come to focus more on keeping users around and using them to create content rather than creating content of their own, rather than giving (an admittedly very particular group of) users what they want: more Valve-created or curated games, a Steam store that’s less chaotic, better customer service, a new Half-Life, and so on. All they get is more content.
Do these issues make Valve “evil” per se? Depends on your definition. But I mean, it’s not like Valve is directly exploiting labor or displacing poor families or acting as an exec for the Marvel movie franchise or anything truly evil. What we’re really witnessing, I think, is a continuation of a longtime Valve trend: they listen to their users, but they do not listen well. They act with the belief that they have infinite information (as relayed in the Forbes piece, ex-Valve economist Yanis Varoufakis once “enthused over [Steam] as the antithesis of econometric imprecision, a ‘marvelous test-bed’ built from a ‘full-information set’”), but they’re repeatedly shocked when their dives off the deep end don’t work out.
The most recent example of this is, of course, the paid Skyrim mod fiasco. I’m sure they figured there’d be a few bumps in the road, but ultimately they’d crest a steep hilltop and drive off into the sunset, to a tomorrow that they made better. And I’m sure they ran the numbers on the feasibility of it all over and over and over. They even had a pretty sizable pool of information to draw from, what with their curated Steam Workshops for games like DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
But it all blew up in their face—party confetti suddenly turned to shrapnel—because of factors they failed to consider. Intangible factors. Non-numeric factors. Human factors. The history of the Skyrim modding scene, the feuds people might wage over using each others’ stuff, the way modders and fans would fracture, shoot to opposite sides of the issue like same-polarity magnets forced into close quarters. And sure, a mod marketplace on that scale is something that had never been done before, but Valve seemed absolutely baffled by it all. Totally unprepared. In that case, at least, they owned the faults of their plan after a few days and decided to withdraw it, retool it into something better. That is a good sign.
Less good is the way they’ve handled Steam Greenlight, whose evolution seems to have stalled out, an awkward sasquatch waiting for its end. Again, its beginning was marked by Valve’s seeming inability to account for what actual human beings would do once they got their hands on it. Steam Greenlight’s early days were full of joke entries (including, of course, Half-Life 3) and other blatant misuses of the system. Even recently, it’s become a hotbed (or at least a lukewarm, beginning to simmer bed) for scams. On a smaller scale, the same goes for Steam tags, Steam reviews, Steam chat, and the Steam market.
Valve failed to predict those misuses, and in many cases, it didn’t act particularly quickly to patch the holes. On top of that, in the case of Greenlight, the system itself was a fix for a problem (many excellent smaller games not being able to get onto Steam) that itself went unaddressed for a long damn time. And then it caused another problem—too many games on Steam, some of which are abysmal—that’s beginning to drag the service down.
Oh, and then there was the whole Diretide thing with DOTA 2, lest anyone ever be allowed to forget. Again: mistake born of ignorance about what people wanted, failure to act quickly to fix it, long overdue apology. With Valve, it’s pretty much a cycle at this point.
Valve understands data. Valve does not seem to understand, or seek to understand, people. I don’t think it’s an inherently “evil” operation, though. Valve is, after all, a massive-scale business that a) has access to more information than any of us could ever imagine and b) is ultimately looking out for its own interests as a business above all else. What they’re doing is, on some level, to be expected.
They are, however, making a mistake. Data never tells the full story, paints the complete picture. You need to observe the less tangible elements as well, and in Valve’s case people are shouting them from the mountaintops. In a way, that is what’s happening when people deride the company as “evil.” They’re saying, “There’s all this stuff we’ve told you we wanted or shown you about your games and systems, but you don’t listen. You don’t act. Now we’re mad.”
I can’t guess Valve’s intentions, but I can observe the outcomes of their actions. That, too, is why it’s a problem when people like Gabe Newell flee back into the warm embrace of “you’re being kinda ridiculous” every time people start throwing around the word “evil.” Because while, yes, it is kinda ridiculous, there’s a feeling underlying that word, something just as powerful as data, something essential, something undeniable.
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