Gabe Newell is a sweet, teddy-bear genius. He is at once loved and cursed by the gaming community, because although he is kind and loyal to his customers, Half Life 3 still isn’t out yet. In a recent interview, Gabe discussed this affront, as well as his hope for the future of wearable computers, game economics, recent legal issues, DRM and piracy, and the future of consoles versus PC.
First, you probably know what he had to say about Half Life 3. Don’t get your hopes up. It is essentially boiled down to this: Valve is busy developing their other games, making sure those stories and characters continue to grow and progress. They don’t want to fall into the trap of severe “sequelitis.” At the same time, Gabe notes:
…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.’
Leave it to Gabe to have you believe that he’s doing you a favor by not telling you anything.
So what’s this silliness I mentioned about wearable computers? Basically, Gabe loves them. So much so that making them himself (or more like, having Valve make them) is something under consideration. He mentions experiments they’ve been doing on biofeedback and biometrics, saying, “…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…” So is he actually considering getting into hardware? He responds:
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.
Gabe is all about progress and development, which he sees as being at the core of problems like piracy and DRM. He reiterates a lot of the points he made at a panel last October, where he basically said that, “The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work.” The key is to provide a better service than what pirates provide. He also uses the same example of Russia, where piracy is so rampant that many companies won’t even touch the country:
A lot of times the systems that are put in place when you’re just trying to punish your evil customers for maybe doing something that’s not in their terms of service end up driving people towards service providers who don’t, right? So, you know, if I have to wait six months to get my Russian language translation and where I can get at this other guy on the street who will give me my Russian translation right away, it seems pretty obvious when you talk about it in those terms how the pirate selling pirated DVDs has a higher product than some of the people who try to DRM their way out of not giving customers what they really want.
This issue of companies not understanding or interacting with their consumers in a positive way is also part of the problem regarding consoles. Consoles continue to remain fairly rigid, controlled, and restrictive of their customers, and refuse to work together with other consoles to provide an integrated experience for their players. They’re also all fairly nervous about trying new things, although Gabe thinks it was a pretty ballsy move of Nintendo making the change from 2D to 3D, calling it “one of the most successful transitions that occurred in our industry.”
He urges those companies behind the consoles (I’m not going to say he’s speaking to Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, because it seems to me like he believes that the right company could come in with an awesome console and then it won’t just be a party of three) to not just think about what would be profitable or beneficial now, but to consider what the future of the market is. He states, “…just because something used to work a certain way there’s absolutely no reason for them to expect that that’s going to be the tickets to being successful in subsequent iterations.” He also encourages them to:
…start betting on the inventiveness and the benefits that you would get by embracing a more open approach to the internet and game delivery and game business models and things like that.
This idea about inventiveness regarding game business models is also informing Valve’s development of a new way to charge players and build server communities. I think, essentially, he is saying that better community members, those that make a gaming experience more valuable to other players, will pay less for their games compared to those who are poor contributors to the community. Gabe puts it this way: “So if somebody’s a really good team member you need some way of recognizing that and if you just sort of–the simple way of putting it is that person pays less money for the game.” But how do you judge a player’s value? You analyze groups of people in a server and determine what groups stay in a server together longer, which groups break apart quickly in anger or frustration:
…then you tinker with the model until you say “good, now we can actually with a lot of confidence say that there are groups of people and when we cluster them together they tend to play longer and they tend to play more often.” That way we don’t have to interview them, we don’t have to read their chat logs, but we probably made a set of changes that those people would perceive as being fairly valuable, so that’s just like a really simple example of the kind of thing that you would do without being particularly intrusive into the relationships yet would still probably have a pretty positive outcome for people in the community.
This model has been something people talked about when Valve first released the idea. Nothing new has really emerged regarding this system, but knowing the way that Valve handles things, they are probably gathering and analyzing massive amounts of data before releasing any new information or making any kind of claims.
Finally, Gabe addressed the recent issue regarding a Russian Steam user who, after being banned from his Steam account, lost access to all of his games, raising the question of whether or not you own the games that you buy on Steam. Gabe had no clear answer, saying:
It’s sort of like this kind of messy issue, and it doesn’t really matter a whole lot what the legal issues are, the real thing is that you have to make your customers happy at the end of the day and if you’re not doing that it doesn’t really matter what you think about various supreme court decisions or EU decisions. If you’re not making your customers happy you’re doing something stupid and we certainly always want to make our customers happy.
He also didn’t have all of the information on the issue, and was following up with the parties involved to reach a good decision on how to proceed.
Either Gabe Newell is a genuinely nice, sincere, and thoughtful guy trying to do right by his customers, or he is a frighteningly convincing, clever capitalist cyborg. I’m going to go with the former, just because no true cyborg would have the balls to wear a beard the way Gabe does.