Relative to Activision and Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Sony Computer Entertainment America have the misfortune of poorly timed geography. As mega-publishers and game platforms, all four are rich with proven game talent and invaluable experience, but also saddled with institutional hierarchy and now an ironic shift in employment stability. However, only EA and SCEA are a stone’s throw from the social mobile revolution, whose epicenter is San Francisco. Zynga, Kabam, and in full disclosure, the companies that Shawn and I work at, hire liberally from these and other traditional game companies in driving distance. Even with these rich resources at arm’s length, there’s scarcity in certain specific areas, causing recruiters to adopt increasingly audacious tactics to hit their target. The Bay Area is not enough. Seattle and LA are now fair game. Enter the Valve Handbook for New Employees. Please take a moment to read the recently released pamphlet, it’s a quick read, available here. I’ll wait.
This handbook has been making the rounds among game news sites and discussion lists, and there’s been a fair number of cynical responses to it. I personally think it’s awesome. It hits all the right notes. It addresses common challenges that talented people have. For example, it immediately denounces hierarchy, stating flatly that telling talented people to “sit at their desks and do what they’re told obliterates 99% of their value.” The handbook repeatedly emphasizes the flat reporting structure, and the ability, or even preference, for people to seek out the teams they want to work on, propose their own ideas, and put them in motion themselves.
There’s also a strong emphasis on non-work activities, like the company trip, which is a phenomenal example of scaling up the fun company culture that exists at small startups, as Shawn described in his piece on culture. In fact, the entire handbook seems like a direct broadside to the culture-less machine factory reputation applied to both traditional game mega-publishers and the larger social companies alike.
Why it Was Released
The existence of such a handbook makes sense. Valve lives in the shadow of Microsoft up there in Bellevue. It has to actively project the value of its culture. Quality of life is a powerful motivator, especially for talented people who have been through the promise-risk-reward-penalty cycle before. While I do have a healthy appreciation of the motivations of any HR department, I still think this is a wonderful idea to put out into the community. So much of our mindshare, and the vast majority of the stories on the major blogs we frequent, are about fundraising, valuations, acquisitions, quarterly earnings, bankruptcies, and claims of copying. Very little is about innovative game designs, moving the industry forward, or fostering cultures that support the two. Valve should be commended for sharing this document, regardless of motivation. In today’s world, it’s important to even just support a collaborative, creative game studio culture.
Which isn’t to say the piece isn’t a cheerleading spot, designed to heap praise on the studio. It is. Nor am I even saying it’s completely consistent. Since it at once decries the straw-man example of “caviar-catered lunches” provided by “some 1999-era dot-com startup,” while at the same time encouraging employees to “board our chartered flight,” and “relax by the pool,” they’re clearly trying to have their indie cake and eat it too. But those hints in the text, along with the timing of its release now, suggest a bigger motivation than Microsoft’s shadow, which has always been there.
Why it Was Released Now
Instead, here in San Francisco, we’re partying like it’s 1999. And Valve sees it. Valve, while progressive in many ways, is still predominantly of the old world. It makes $60 games for people to buy in stores. Steam may be the dominant digital delivery service for PC games, but Valve still relies on EA to publish their products. I should know, we published The Orange Box, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, and Portal 2 at EA Partners. Valve has always been a revolutionary company, developing undisputedly best-in-class games, catering to their community, and retaining their own IP and financial independence. But they are feeling the pinch from the party down south. They need to start a new revolution.
This handbook is the first salvo. The next is something Valve co-founder/president Gabe Newell alluded to in an upcoming piece in Seven Day Cooldown, as reported by Develop. He’s proposing a new free-to-play model in which player behavior and reputation directly affect how much things cost you, which will debut in DOTA 2. I’m very curious to learn more about this. I remember when J Allard revealed the Xbox 360 dashboard at GDC, and someone asked if the gamerscore could be redeemed for Microsoft points in Xbox Live. He gave the questioner a funny look, as if to ask why you would mix the two. His actual answer was more polite, if corporately neutral, saying that wasn’t the direction they were pursuing. Well it looks like Valve finally is. Maybe it’s even an outcome of the dream machine corporate culture there. Who knows, perhaps Allard’s questioner was an unknown Microsoft employee, who left to pursue the idea at Valve. Well, Valve let’s see what you’ve got. I’d love to see your talent-first model set off a new revolution.
SF: I’m always fascinated by things like this. I honestly think a management style like this only works in places where the employees have high faith in the leader (in a flat world, even Gabe has a step stool, if only one made of reputation) and the company has high faith in its employees. It also doesn’t hurt that Valve prints money like it’s going out of style (and it might be, given the fact Canadians are offing their penny). The confluence of these factors don’t seem to occur much in nature.
That said, pretty fricking badass. I may be compelled to apply if I didn’t hate working at companies of more than 50 people.