The building Google Maps claims is the headquarters of Valve Corporation is a very big, shiny, anonymous-looking building in a sprawl of other very big, shiny, anonymous-looking buildings in downtown Bellevue, Washington.
But in the lobby, there’s no sign that Valve is actually headquartered here; they’re not on the list of companies by the elevators, and there’s no Aperture Science or Lamarr Corp either. The lady on reception nods and smiles. “Oh yeah, they’re here, they’re just not listed. They’re, uh… kinda private.”
That would be putting it mildly.
All games companies are necessarily cagey about their projects - when you trade in ideas, someone can pinch your product just by knowing what it is. Valve’s ideas are among the most profitable in the business, and they’ve been stolen before - Half-Life 2 was pirated weeks before its release, and the damage was reckoned at US$250 million. Consequently, Valve is more secretive than MI6 planning a surprise birthday party.
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The Valve stronghold actually takes up five floors of this massive building, of which I get to see about one and a half, but it is the coolest office I’ve ever visited (sorry, Google). Mostly because this is where the Half-Life, Portal and Left 4 Dead series were developed (and, so millions of gamers fervently hope, are still being developed), but also because they've got a lot of fancy stuff. The shelves are festooned with custom-made statues, and a gravity gun and Portal gun are propped up on the desks. There’s an alien barnacle on the ceiling, a crowbar hanging from a pinboard and in the reception, a really, really big valve. A present to Gabe Newell from his brother, it’s a reclaimed pressure controller from a ship, a pleasingly massive red wheel on a solid brass mount the size of a fat ten-year-old. It weighs as much as a small car, and the floor beneath it had to be reinforced with extra beams when Valve moved in. “I’ve had five people try to lift that thing” says Joel Hatfield. “They can’t even tip it. I like to think that when you turn it, information is released onto the internet.”
I give a spin, but Portal 3 fails to materialise.
And then, of course, I’m greeted by Gordon Freeman. Not the actual Gordon Freeman - he’s in an extra-dimensional holding state, obviously, preparing for Unforeseen Consequences - but Greg Coomer, a long-time Valve employee who was one of the original head models for The Freeman. He’s wearing glasses. The goatee is missing, but he does look - to a misty-eyed Valve fan - quite a lot like Gordon Freeman. With him is Anna Sweet, who thankfully doesn’t look like Alyx Vance, or I’d be crawling through an air duct cackling excitedly about headcrabs by now. Anna and Greg are two of the leading figures on the Steam Machine project, but they don't have job titles; the company is very proudly ‘boss-free’, with no chain of command and no limit on the amount of holiday or sick leave an employee can take.
Valve relies heavily on community, both at a customer level - every decision on the design of Steam OS and its new controller has been informed by the reactions of the 65-million-strong Steam community and 300 lucky Steam gamers who were picked to test a prototype Steam Machine - and internally, with employees effectively voting for each other’s projects by choosing to work on them. The desks famously have wheels to allow people to move around the building as they pick different things to work on. As Anna shows me around a floor of engineers and industrial designers prototyping hardware, she points out Frank: “Frank’s one of our lawyers, but he’s doing a bunch of work to do with the hardware side of things, so he’s moved here.” In a lot of workplaces, allowing employees to pick how and where they worked would spell disaster, but at Valve it’s a recipe that makes billions. Does this do-what-you-want culture ever backfire on them?
“Sometimes. What makes it work is that everyone tells everyone else about what they’re working on, and the measure of whether your work is successful is whether other people will join you and start working on your project. We’ve had to turn down people who are absolutely at the top of their field, in some cases very well-known, because we thought they might not fit with this way of working.”
As we continue our tour of the hardware development floor - a floor that I am Definitely Not Allowed to take any pictures of - Anna shows me the banks of 3D printers they use to run off prototype controllers, boxes of which are lined up in racks along a wall. It’s a Cambrian explosion of controllers, evolution throwing up form after form: angular pads with flat touchscreens, chunky Sega-esque pads with sticks, N64-style pads with alien-looking lobes and trackballs instead of sticks. One can be used like a normal gamepad, but has a line of magnets down the middle that allows it to be cracked in half and used as a Wii-style motion controller.
We continue past a couple of spaces in which the walls are covered with what look like QR codes, and Anna explains they’re visual cues for the virtual reality equipment their R&D guys are testing. A number of Oculus Rift units, including one that looks like a Crystal Cove, are being worked on among boxes of electrical and optical components, and a thing that looks like a huge Kinect stands on a tripod in the middle of the room. It’s probably a 3D camera, although it might also be a sentry.
Back in the demo room, I’m given some time on a prototype Steam Machine - I stop and gawp for a long moment when I realise it has free access to every single one of the more than 3000 games on Steam - and at last get my paws on that strange-looking controller. It’s difficult to believe it will be any good until you actually get it in your hands, because it’s all about feeling - specifically, haptic feedback.
The thing about Steam’s new controller is that those pads aren’t really pads: they’re virtual trackballs. A lot of Valve’s prototypes used real trackballs, and when you’re not looking at the controller it feels as if there's a kind of ethereal golf ball beneath each thumb. The controller is shaped so that your thumb stands on point, rather than mushing flatly against the surface. This improves accuracy and sensitivity, and also makes the pad less sweaty, because the shape and the control scheme means you hold it more gently than a traditional thumbstick pad. When the tip of your thumb moves across the pads, they click gently. Tiny actuators give a very fine degree of haptic feedback that makes it feel as if you are rolling a ball covered in little dents; flick your right thumb quickly across the surface and it whirrs and then slows down, exactly like a spinning ball. The left ‘ball’, which replaces the WASD keys, clicks relatively slowly, like the gentle rubbery clicking of a mouse wheel. The right ‘ball’, which replaces the mouse, feels lighter and faster, giving you more speed and sensitivity for fast aiming. It makes you realise what incredibly sensitive instruments your hands are, and how much information you can get through them - the speed of the virtual trackball lets you feel how fast you're moving even before your eyes register the change on screen.
For anyone who plays console games already, the transition to a Steam Machine controller should be pretty straightforward. I am a ham-fisted n00b of the first order, but I was jumping around Portal quite happily within a few minutes. I didn’t take quite so easily to the less familiar Trine 2, a platformer which uses a mouse pointer for aiming ranged weapons, until we took a look at some other control mapping options for the game which had been suggested by the community of beta testers on the prototype machines. I picked the most popular control map for the game, resumed and found it a lot easier. When you have 65 million gamers to mine for feedback, it makes the right answer a lot easier to find.
As the demo draws to a close, we go through a little fact-checking and I decide I might as well try my luck.
“...and just remind me, when did you say the release date for Half-Life 3 was?”
Greg grins. “Oh, you missed it the first time we said it?”
I stare studiously at my notebook, biro hovering expectantly over the page.
“You’re just gonna get blank stares from us on that one.”
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