Valve’s Gabe Newell talks wearable computers, why consoles should open up, and game ownership
Gabe Newell is the co-founder and managing director of Valve. What we found during our conversation with the man himself is that those titles don't mean much of anything, and he's willing to throw his support behind whatever projects needs his help on a day to day basis. Valve has a unique structure… if you can even call it a structure. When you're finished reading Mr. Newell's thoughts on everything from Valve selling hardware to his love of tablet computing, be sure to join us for a tour of Valve Software's offices.
Ben Kuchera: It's been said you're not much of an early riser. Can you walk us through a day of your life at Valve?
Gabe Newell: It used to be that I was the best multiplayer gamer here, and then we hired someone. It's been downhill ever since. Just about anything I do, there's someone here who does it better. Whether it's game design, or business issues, or writing, or programming, or anything. I do a lot of things, but I tend to do them not as well as other people, so I tend to fill in holes as much as anything. If there's something that needs to get done that's not getting done, that's what I end up doing. I don't really have the same day, my days tend to be more reactive than many people's.
That seems tricky for someone in your position. Is it hard to keep track of what's going on in the company?
We're a very flat organization, so we expect everybody to manage themselves. One of the things that people have to do when they're here, they need to know when to broadcast to me when something's important. We don't have any sort of regular report system really at all. Most of the time when information is being distributed it's because someone decided it was important and people needed to know about it. So the issues of keeping me on top of everything is more of a question of people deciding that getting me involved would be helpful for something they're working on. It's not my job to track down or supervise everyone and make sure they're doing the right thing. It's more like I'm a resource here and I can be helpful at addressing a problem. It works surprisingly well, but it takes a while for people to get used to it. We're optimized for people who are very experienced and have been working for a long time and don't really need someone looking over their shoulder or second-guessing their decisions.
It sounds like things are very fluid, but you’re also juggling a lot of projects. Do you have a five or ten year idea of what you would like to do?
We have a bunch of issues that we sort of identify as kind of structural, long term opportunities. So when you look at Steam, for example, we thought that there were a lot of opportunities to improve the design of business and the design of our relationship with customers and partners around the internet that drove a lot of our thinking about Steam. If you look at Team Fortress 2 we’ve been trying out a bunch of different ideas for how we think we can create more opportunities for community involvement and engagement with multiplayer games. So we tend to have these concepts that we all kick around and gnaw on and then we try to apply those. You can see that what we’re doing with DotA 2 is very much the result of a lot of things we think we learned with Team Fortress 2. If you look further out, like one of the things we’re pretty concerned about is the closing off of open platforms and what the implications are for content developers. You know, the success that we’ve – that Apple has had in mobile has made a lot of people, rather than thinking of how can we build an open platform that builds on the strength that we’ve traditionally seen in open platforms, they say “oh, well we’re going to go off and build a closed platform as well.” And at the same time it seems really clear that dealing with a bunch of power issues and interface issues in mobile are going to be super important and critical to thinking of how we evolve gaming experiences forward. So you look at those things and you say “okay well we have to figure out a project that’s gonna let us wrestle effectively with those issues and then try out solutions with customers.” You know, where some of the things we’re looking at longer term are just spending a lot of time thinking about input devices. We’re also looking at some of the emerging output technologies that are coming along and trying to figure out how much of an impact that they’re gonna have on our designs. So we mock stuff up in our hardware labs and try and figure out different, sort of game fragments and see how those things work. But it does tend to be pretty focused on trying to get things to the point where we can get it in front of customers so they can start showing us what are the good ideas and what are the bad ideas. That process always turned out to be a pretty successful strategy, and if you ask what we think we learned the most from, it’s any time we get something out to customers and they say okay, this is what we think we’re learning and make some changes and say “oh, I guess that wasn’t really what we should have been extracting from that, let’s try this.” So that’s actually much more what people wanted us to be hearing back from that.
Is there anything you’re seeing in terms of the inputs or outputs you’re experimenting with that you’re personally jazzed about, or you think that is really bearing fruit, or will in the near future?
Yeah, I mean there’s a surprising amount going on with new – they used to be called wearable computing before those all got kind of set on fire by losing investment firms hundreds of millions of dollars, so nobody wants to call them wearable computing, but they sort of look like the old wearable computing solutions, the difference being that they’re way higher resolution, way lighter weight, much better battery life, and things like that. It seems like just about the time that everybody gave up on them they actually started to become interesting, so we’ve been seeing a lot of stuff go on in that space that gets us excited. We’re trying to get our–the experiments we’ve been doing in–you know we did a ton of work on biofeedback, on biometrics, and that’ll, you know, from our point of view we were like “okay, this is all sort of proven out” and we’re just sort of scratching our heads trying to figure out the best way to get that hardware out to customers without something where we’d just say “okay, this works.” it’s not a question of whether or not this is going to be useful for customers, whether or not it’s going to be useful for content developers, you know, it’s figuring out the best way we can get these into people’s hands. So we’re thinking of trying to figure out how to do the equivalent of the [Team Fortress] incremental approach in software design and try to figure out how would you get something similar to that in the hardware space as well. The sort of old method of, you know, let’s go make a giant pile of inventory and hope that some set of applications emerge to justify this giant hardware investment doesn’t seem to be the – very consistent with what we’ve seen to be the fastest ways to move stuff forward, so we’re trying to come up with an alternative to that that gives us the ability to iterate more rapidly. That stuff we’re like “this is good,” now we just need to figure out how we can start giving these to customers and iterating on the design quickly enough without having to go off and buy ten million of them and then find out we did something mildly stupid and then having to throw them all away and start over.
I'm very fascinated that you’re interested in wearable computers, especially in these days where our smart phones are basically handheld, touch screen systems. What about a more modular, full-featured approach that we used to see with these prototypes – where does that excite you, where do you see that going in the realm of games or other applications?
Well it’s exciting when you, you know, some of the prototypes that I’ve seen are basically the equivalent of a hundred inch display with considerably lower power requirements than a typical smartphone display, so if you just look at it straight up as a presentation technology that’s pretty interesting. It seems like some of the hard engineering problems are getting solved and a hundred inch display is way better than a ten inch display. The other thing that’s interesting is that a lot of these systems tend to allow you to overlap on a per-pixel basis the sort of real world with the virtual world. That’s sort of a more speculative class of applications, it requires obviously a lot of computation to try to figure out how to integrate pixels from the real world with pixels from the virtual world. So is that a for sure that that’ll end up resulting in a lot of interesting augmented reality games? I think that that’s pretty speculative, but if somebody here said “I’ve got a – I want to try something,” I don’t think there’s anybody here that would say “oh well there’s nothing, that’s a waste of time.” As opposed to the – it’s a hundred inch iPad where it’s pretty easy to see that that’s awfully nice, especially if it takes – it has battery power characteristics than more traditional kinds of displays.
Now do you see a future where Valve is actually selling hardware or do you just want to have things that could take advantage of that technology should it be popular?
Well, if we have to sell hardware we will. We have no reason to believe we’re any good at it, it’s more we think that we need to continue to have innovation and if the only way to get these kind of projects started is by us going and developing and selling the hardware directly then that’s what we’ll do. It’s definitely not the first thought that crosses our mind; we’d rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do that. We think it’s important enough that if that’s what we end up having to do then that’s what we end up having to do.
Now we’re talking about things like wearable computers and biofeedback and we’ve touched on Steam a little bit but there’s millions of people out there who are gnashing their teeth when they read this who just want to play Episode 3 or Left 4 Dead 3. Is there ever tension between all the different things that Valve is interested in doing?
Oh absolutely. We’re acutely aware of how much we annoy our fans and it’s pretty frustrating to us when we put them into that situation. We try to go as fast as we can and we try to pick the things that we think are going to be most valuable to our customers and if there’s some magic way we can get more work done in a day then we’d love to hear about it, but we recognize that it’s been a long time whereas we have so many games that people really love–Counterstrike, Half Life, Portal, Left 4 Dead, not a whole lot of Ricochet enthusiasts out there, and at the same time we want to be making sure that those games and those stories and those characters are moving forward while also making sure that we don’t just get into terminal sequelitis. But we’ve always somehow, you know, part of the reason that we backed off talking so much about what was happening in the future is that when we’ve done that in the past, you know, with Half Life 1 it was a year after we originally said it would be, Half Life 2 basically if you go and read the forum posts apparently took us fifty or sixty years to get done so we’re trying to be careful not to get people too excited and then have to go and disappoint them. So we’re sort of reacting in the other direction and saying “okay, well let’s have things a little more baked before we start getting people all excited about it.”