The game industry invests a lot of energy in making consumers excited about things they can’t play for years. Do you think it would be in its interest to shorten that hype cycle?
We’d like to and we’re trying to find people to work with in the other direction and make it shorter and shorter. In time-honoured Valve tradition, we’ve managed to delay our shorter things just as often as we’ve delayed our longer things. [Laughs] But it would be nice to find people with a different perspective and find out what happens when you release things once a week, you know, the TV model. They’d obviously be much smaller, but it would be interesting to move more and more in that direction and ask: ‘What is our TV model? What does it look like when you’re trying to serialise content at that level?’ We’re not at the level where we’re ready to do that, but we’d like to work with people who are coming out of the TV world and wanting to do the interactive thing.
The interesting thing for us won’t be the gaming part we’re totally used to, but the scheduling demands and the production constraints of pumping out 22 shows, 22 pieces of content per year. It doesn’t seem that that’s going to come out of the game space, but maybe someone who’s used to the TV space will… I think consumers would love it, I think that they’re looking for it. We’ve got the feature film part of our offering in great shape, but we’re looking for the more serialised part of the experiences that I think people would respond to well.
And it would engender a lot more risk-taking in the content?
Right. If you fail, you’ve just failed for a week rather than four years.
That, and ideas such as Steam, are still innovations that seem to trouble people in the industry. Do you resent the fact that the industry is often hostile towards these things, or do you see it as an indicator that you’re pushing in the right direction?
I think it’s fun to get into big flame wars with industry people in the press. I’ve certainly been entertained by those back and forths, but from our own point of view, they’re just sideshows. The important questions are: ‘What do your customers think?’ or ‘What do the people who are using you for tools think about what you’re doing?’ I do think there are people who are more willing to take risks, some of the smaller, newer developers who don’t really see themselves being successful using traditional methods are looking for opportunities, so I think you’ll start seeing some risk-taking from newer parties. And once those roads have been trodden a little bit, it’ll be safer for more risk-averse organisations to go down that route. But I’m much more worried about the emails I get from fans rather than things in the press saying: ‘Episodic is stupid and customers won’t like it,’ because what that really means nine times out of ten is: ‘I don’t have an episode coming, so I’m going to badmouth it because I don’t have one of those in my portfolio.’ It’s not a super-reasoned evaluation.
Looking at the Episode Two/Portal/Team Fortress 2 bundle you’re putting together for the 360 and PS3 [The Orange Box], it looks like you are very confident about the gaming culture on consoles being the same as the gaming culture within the PC market. Do you think people over-estimate the cultural divide between the two?
I guess we don’t know how to make decisions that way. It’s like girl gamers. People say: ‘Oh, you should make games for girls!’, and we’re like: ‘As far as we know, we are.’ We haven’t gone out and said: ‘You guys are different so we’re going to do something else.’ In the same way we think that good games and good product packaging decisions and so on and so forth are going to appeal to people, and if they don’t we’ll find out why and we’ll fix those. I tend to be a little sceptical of these distinctions that people make. A good game is a good game and it’s going to be successful. I’ve never seen a great game fail because it was targeted at the wrong audience.
Instead what you see is that a great game causes everybody to rewrite the clichés that people use to carve up the world. So hopefully we’re right and we’re putting the right products in front of customers, regardless of the hardware they’re playing it on, and, if not, hopefully they’ll tell us how to do it better the next time.
How significant is the arrival of Windows Vista for you?
Right now I think we’re sort of focused on how painful Vista is for our customers. SLI is not supported yet, there are no 8800 drivers, so even though it’s about DX10, the only DX10 hardware doesn’t have drivers for it yet. Limited user accounts are very frustrating. It seems that in some ways Vista is very much a work in progress, so it’s nice that there are going to be end caps for customers in retailer stores. However, for our customers, the sort of key features they already have in XP are going to make it hard for people to migrate over to Vista at the moment. It really puts a drag on Microsoft’s attempts to position Vista as a great gaming platform when there are so many nuts-and-bolts issues that it fails on in comparison to XP.
PC is the biggest sophisticated gaming platform in the world, and yet it rarely gets treated as such. Does that still surprise you or does the fragmentation of the hardware make that an inevitable problem?
I don’t understand it. Like right now if you ask everybody what the big battle is they’ll say it’s between the Xbox 360 and the PS3, whereas really, it seems that World Of WarCraft is a much bigger business, certainly a vastly more profitable business than the Xbox is. If the guys at Blizzard simply called WOW a next-generation console, it would be a much bigger success than either of those two. I mean, if they opened themselves up and redefined a next-gen console as a software platform rather than a hardware platform then they’d be a much more exciting story. It’s the same thing with the Nintendo DS: that’s the thing that’s selling all the hardware and moving all the units.
There’s a fun story to tell, which is that of these two big, multimedia, multifunction, more-expensive-than-a-low-end-PC juggernauts beating each other. But that sort of causes a whole load of real-world stories, such as the huge success of WOW and the huge success of the DS to sort of disappear. And I think one of those other stories that just sort of disappears is that when Microsoft wants to talk about gaming, the reality is that the analysts get shepherded over to the Xbox group but not the Windows group, and when somebody says something about PS3 sales, 15 people at PR agencies working for Sony call that person up and correct them, but when somebody says something incorrect about PC sales… I mean, we find ourselves in this weird situation where we’re a privately-held company and all the analysts call us up because we’re one of the few people who will actually talk about electronic distribution.
When people were talking about the decline in PC revenue, they were completely ignoring cyber cafés, they were completely ignoring the recurring revenue being generated by MMORPGs, they had never heard of PopCap or any of the causal games that were being sold over the internet. There’s just no real stakeholder there who’s helping people understand what’s really going on. In the absence of that, it’s not so surprising that the success of the PC as a gaming platform tends to disappear from the stories that are being written – it’s simply because there isn’t a large PR agency somewhere being paid from platform fees to pump up those stories.
In terms of the future of PC gaming, what most needs to change to enable you to do the things you’d like to do?
Well, the thing that I’m most excited about right now is the advent of multi-core hardware designs from the CPU manufacturers, because that’s going to change the design of games over the next couple of years enormously. It’s also going to give us more opportunities to do all of the things other than graphics in games, so I find that super-exciting.
If I could pick one thing, it would be that the attention MS is spending on the Xbox instead got spent on making the PC a better consumer client, because right now it sort of feels like they’re in reverse. It’s like, for a real customer if you put Vista on their PC in the next six months it’s going to be a worse experience than having XP on that box, and that seems very strange when it’s supposedly a big step forward for gaming.
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