The Death of Valve

How a gaming pioneer fell from grace

I’m not one to shy away from controversial topics. I believe that discussing these sorts of disputed subjects can create a dialogue where opinions, especially unpopular ones, can be tested against one another without fear of digital retribution. I want to foster that sense of argument and debate, so that we don’t just accept everything we’re told. So let me come out and make it absolutely clear: I do not, nor have I ever, liked Valve. And with Mike Laidlaw releasing his plot for Half-Life 3, grimly hinting that the series will never be returned to, Valve has shown their true colors. Valve might be an innovative company to some, but to me, they are a talented developer that wastes their gift it in the pursuit of profit. While they may have once been the industry pioneers most gamers view them as, Valve has stagnated in its own self-aggrandizing marketplace, suffocating its developers’ creativity, history, and soul.

“But Lee, Valve has made so many amazing games!” untold masses cry out. While Valve does have a history of well-received games under its belt, I have never been a fan of their style. The games themselves have solid controls and the engine most of their titles run on, Source, has lead to some incredible animations, mods, and more. But I always felt like there was something missing, some immersive factor that was supposed to pull me into the game. It was like I was looking through a dense fog; something was obscuring my view. Maybe it was the writing in their games, which is a little too “on the nose”, or maybe it was the first-person platforming. Regardless, I just couldn’t understand why many of my friends, and indeed a large portion of the gaming community, held them up as a paragon of the industry. 

Now this…this is a fun game.

The only title I felt particularly worthwhile was Left 4 Dead, an IP that was only published by Valve and actually developed by Turtle Rock Studios. Where L4D’s frantic cooperative play and grindhouse film-inspired aesthetic fully drew me in, Half-Life, Counter Strike, and Team Fortress never really felt inspired and failed to invigorate me. Don’t even get me started on Portal. Between its slipshod story and overzealous fanbase, I shudder to even think about it. The games themselves might have critical acclaim, but Valve has clearly decided it’s a better idea to abandon the adventures that made them famous in pursuit of man’s greatest weakness: avarice.

It started with the advent of Steam, the moment when Valve shifted its priorities from making games to selling games. They created a huge marketplace where thousands upon thousands of games can be sold, in addition to mods and Early Access titles. In exchange, they take a percentage of every sale. They became the middleman, allowing us to purchase games from the comfort of our own homes and almost instantly play them. With a steady source of income, Valve no longer had to rely on producing its own content. It became more about the business and less about creating experiences.

Digital download services in general bother me because you never actually own any of the games you buy; you instead purchase a license to use the game, which can be revoked at any time. Posted something mean on a discussion board? Cheated one time in a multiplayer game? Even if you’ve never cheated, stole, or posted mean comments, the fact that you don’t actually own the games that you paid for is disconcerting. When you signed the Terms and Conditions in order to use Steam, you gave Valve permission to hold hostage every single purchase you make. 

Steam’s Greenlight service allowed some developers to purchase “likes” that would nudge their games towards publishing, removing the democracy in a democratic system.

That was just the start. As with many other gaming companies, Valve fell prey to the “freemium” trend. Dota 2 and Team Fortress, while free to play, allow anyone to purchase upgrades, unlock characters, or wear amusing hats with a meager donation. This can heavily upset the careful balance of an online multiplayer community. Those who spend more have a distinct advantage over those who just want to play the game. With Counter Strike, Valve’s Source Engine was one of the origin points of competitive online gaming, yet the delicate balance and focus on player skill that made that game the juggernaut it is has been thrown out the window.

Valve went off-brand, into an area where they are not strong as content creators. Blizzard also utilizes microtransaction services, but there’s a satisfying consistency across their titles that Valve’s services are lacking. Regardless of whether you like their products, Blizzard is pretty clear about what they create and release; their overarching style and attitude are present in everything they do. They are a known quantity and have been for decades now. So when you throw down your hard-earned cash on a loot box in Overwatch, a card pack in Hearthstone, or the Necromancer class in Diablo, you pretty much know what you’re getting into even if you don’t know what you’re going to get. This isn’t the case with Valve. Microtransaction services in general are obtrusive and, in some ways, antithetical to the ideals of the industry, but when Valve utilizes them, it feels somehow even more inauthentic, an attempt to jump on a global gaming trend rather than solidify its cult-like niche status.

Seriously? The last game these guys developed was Dota 2 in 2013, which they trademarked and stole from the community after buying out the team that made the original Warcraft 3 mod.

As a final slap in the face, after years of not releasing any news on any of their flagship franchises, Valve announced a brand new game at the International Dota 2 Championships: a digital trading card game. Rather than appease the people who made Valve the powerhouse it became, rather than placating their fans after years of silence, rather than returning to the games they began and concluding their stories, Valve prioritized profit over product. They are now more concerned with wringing money from our pockets than being the fan-service developers they made their name on. It’s official: they have turned their backs on their fans, their history, and themselves.

I can’t say that I’ll miss you.

Written by Lee Feldman

Lee is a writer, game designer, and graduate student from Los Angeles, California. As a gamer, he is primarily inspired by fascinating worlds with deep stories, rich characters, and sharp gameplay, with a love of games both old and new. When he isn't collecting rare NES cartridges, he can be found obsessing over mixed martial arts.

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