'Weird Paranoia' At Valve, Says Former Employee

Valve is an iconic game company. It has a unique corporate structure. One former employee said it "felt a lot like high school", complete with popular kids, troublemakers and everyone in between. Then, there's the alleged "weird paranoia".

"Now we’ve all seen the Valve handbook, which offers a very idealised view," former Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth, who was the head of Valve's hardware lab, recently said on The Grey Area podcast (via Develop and VG247).

"A lot of that is true. It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups at least in small groups you are all peers and make decisions together. But the one thing I found out the hard way is that there is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company. And it felt a lot like high school."

"There are popular kids that have acquired power, then there’s the trouble makers, and then everyone in between," Ellsworth continued. "Everyone in between is ok, but the trouble makers are the ones trying to make a difference. I was struggling trying to build this hardware team and move the company forward. We were having a difficult time recruiting folks — because we would be interviewing a lot of talented folks but the old timers would reject them for not fitting into the culture."

Earlier this spring, Ellsworth was among a handful of longtime Valve employees who were suddenly dismissed. Ellsworth said that the hardware project she was working on at Valve was "cancelled by proxy" as the key hardware engineers were let go.

The hardware team apparently caused a "weird paranoia" that caused a group to "round up all the undesirables and get rid of them".

Ellsworth admits that what might have gotten her dismissed was how she complained about being unable to hire anyone for the hardware team. She said she was getting frustrated. "I was fired for being abrasive," she said. "And I probably was."

Ellsworth recalled the day she was fired, and she overhead a mechanical engineer say one of her team members got fired. Then, she went straight to her team and found out that she was fired, too. "I couldn't believe it," said Ellsworth. "The handbook said that if you get too far off course they will tell you about it."

"I'm sounding bitter, and I am," Ellsworth said. "I'm really, really bitter, because they promised me the world and then backstabbed me."

Ellsworth did point out that she was talking about her experiences at Valve — experiences that sounded brutal towards the end of her tenure.

"I'm still really friendly with the folks there and the ones I wasn't friends with before we became friends since," said Ellsworth. "My heart goes out to them — it's probably completely different, and they may have got their machinist."

Kotaku is following up with Valve and will update this article should the company comment.

Jeri Ellsworth former valve Engineer [TheJenesee via Develop via VG247]

Picture: Ed Sozinho/Office Snapshots



    Like one of those people who think they "Say it like it is" but are actually just tactless a**holes whose ego make it impossible for them to realise just the amount of misery they inflict on to other people's lives.

    This article was posted in 2013.


      On the 9th! Which is 3x3!

        And I just read it at 8:41am... 8 - 4 - 1 = 3!

          OMG THREE POSTS ABOUT 3!!!!

          3 + 3 - 3 = 3!!!!!

            @ic-1101 = 1+1+0+1 = 3!

            Coincidence? I don't think so!

              Mind... blown!

              OMG THREE DOTS!

              Ok this is geting out of hand. lol

              OMG THREE LINES!^^^

                OMG three ^ arrows. And, wait for it, lol has 3 letters! 3!

                Also, LOL is L = 12, O = 15, L = 12.

                15 - (12 - 12) = 3!

                  But hang on:
                  15 > 1+5 =6
                  12 > 1+2 =3
                  12 > 1+2 =3
                  1+2 = 3


                  LOL = 3

                  Is LOL the key to the universe? i'm beginning to think so...

                  15 - (12 - 12)
                  = 15 - 0
                  = 15

                  I guess it's not Half Life 3 after all. False alarm, people. Go back to sleep.

                  EDIT: Although now I think about it, 15 and 12 are both divisible by 3! IT'S BACK ON!!

                  Last edited 09/07/13 12:25 pm

                  Hehe I know, that was an intentional addition of brackets to see if anyone spotted the obvious nonsensical mistake. :D

                  but wait!!
                  15 - (12-12) = 15
                  1 + 5 = 6
                  and since we just added 2 numbers
                  6 / 2 = 3.
                  This is CRAZY!

    These reports always seem to come from former employees.

      I understand what you're saying but it's difficult to go public with these things when you're still relying on a paycheck from the people you're talking about.

        I was going to say "They could always do it anonymously", but then many of us (myself included) would question the validity of the source. Guess this is one of those things you can't really win.

      It's amazing how liberating it can be to talk about your experiences when you no longer have to worry about the conflict between accepting money from someone vs thinking badly of them.

      The stories I could tell you about Telstra that I absolutely wouldn't have while they were paying my wage...

        Oddly enough, I only have praise about working for GE Money. In retrospect an excellent employer who do actually look after their employees. I was the one who screwed up my job there royally (you don't often hear people copping to that huh? lol) but GE Money, yeah, great employer and does look after their employees very well...

        I hear you on Telstra, have sat with many friends who worked for their call centers and door to door division listening to horror stories.

          Copping to fault is definitely pretty tough. I got fired from a small business for screw-ups when I was a teen. Still embarrassing to think about.

          The culture of fear at the big T is pretty effective. If I'd been ten years older, know what I know now, I'd have been taking careful notes and collecting evidence of the actually illegal shit going on in the name of incompetence and ignorance. Like the inexperienced idiots we were, we simply confronted the management about the more egregious examples we were able to prove, to make management uncomfortable. That, instead of what we SHOULD have been doing, such as contacting the authorities.

          Hindsight. :P

      Well a current employee wouldn't really post scathing comments... or any comments for that matter... about their employer, It's generally considered unprofessional and ends up causing you a world of hurt.

    A company is a company more at 10.

    In other news, people are still people.

      It's 10:32am now. Still no information about a company being a company.

      0/10, would not rely on for news

      Review: News preview given succinctly, concisely, good presentation, approve of content relevant to my interests.

      4/5, would upvote again.

      (@grayda : https://xkcd.com/937/ )

    Working there sounds both amazingly liberating and terrifying at the same time. I'm disappointed that they didn't' communicate properly with their hardware team though, radical work structure or not, blind siding somebody like that isn't right.

      Sounds like they got the hardware team mixed up with the general public.

    Those current employees need to jump on Glassdoor (US) or JobAdvisor (AU) so we can get a better idea!! I think they are the major ones.

    To paraphrase a comment which was said over in the thread regarding this on Reddit, I think it's important to know that despite the fact she was fired by Valve, they allowed her to keep the IP of the AR research she was working on. You won't find many companies like that.

    Is it only my opinion or if Valve didn't own and run Steam then as a studio they would have closed their doors years ago?

    It's good for them so be financially secure so for them not to be weighed down by a publisher but without having publisher backing we are seeing a situation he have now at Valve with Half Life 3, them taking their sweet arse time with it because there is no pressure t release the game.

    Half Life 3 could soon turn into Duke Nukem Forever, raised to ungodly level of hype and the final product was a major disappointment, not a bad game but mediocre and certainly not the time it was developed.

      I really don't think it'll get made. Not by Valve, anyway. Someone might pick up the licence at some point, but the pressure of expectation would be nuts.

        I have no doubt that Valve will finish Half Life 3 some time soon. It is and always has been in development. They understand the huge expectation (which was there even the day after HL2 shipped) and are just putting the time and resources into fulfilling that. Duke Nukem had the problem that it constantly released screenshots and video and promised that it would be out soon. Valve are keeping mum about it specifically to avoid that.

        Barring Valve going bankrupt, which won't happen in the foreseeable future thanks to Steam, the Half Life IP will never be sold off.

          Yeah, I doubt the IP will ever be sold, but I wouldn't be surprised if another studio gets a contract to pick up the licence for a game or two.

          OK, since we're spit-balling, I'm going to put it out there: I don't really see a need for HL3. Except to tie up loose ends, anyway. And doing so is usually predictable.

          HL2 really did wrap things up as neatly/messily as it needed to, in my opinion. The episodes feel like they were done partly as an experiment in game-design/episodic content (and discovering that it didn't work for them), and partly as an indulgence in that fan behaviour that we love so much: What happened next?

          How many times have you put down a really great book series, or finished a series of anime, and been really disappointed and sad because now you're leaving these fantastic characters behind and all you really want to do is see them continue going about their lives where they left off.

          Like a child hearing 'they lived happily ever after,' following up with the question, "And then?" sometimes we run out of 'and then'. There just isn't much more of note to that story. Stories are told because they are the memorable, entertaining part of someone's life. If I go out to make first contact with an alien race and get caught up in some terrifying/exciting adventure to justify humanity's existence on the prime earth real estate, if a movie or book gets made about it, the rest of my life won't be the content. It'll be the set-up - establishing stuff, for the actual events of the movie. The ensuing years of signing paperwork relating to managing my vast wealth and various debaucherous indulgences with Earth's foxiest celebrities and athletes? (I have a thing for athletic women, don't judge me.) That won't make as great a movie.

          I contend that we've seen what we needed to see, and we just WANT to see more... of something that may not necessarily be there.

            To be honest I don't remember the Half Life 2 story that much. I mean, I remember the gist of it, with the Tower, and Breen, and a rebellion and then in Episode 2 Eli gets telekenised by floating brain bugs... I'd always planned to replay through it just before Ep 3 came out... and I think I was waiting for them to bring the xbox 360s HDR lighting maps over to the PC version (has that happened yet?)... but I do remember that the story didn't feel finished, it felt like there was much more that needed to happen. I wanted revenge on the baddies, I want some closure with G-man, and recently I even want a bit of Portal tie in (not really the characters/story, but some of the technology would be cool, and is very appropriate in that universe),

            And although I think you're right that some stories don't need continuing, I think you're assuming it will continue in the same direction. Half Life 1 concluded with a very closed off ending, but they managed to continue the story by creating a new world and motivation in Half Life 2. I've got no doubt they could do the same for Half Life 3... except for the way they left Ep 2 hanging, so I guess they do have to pick it up there... :/ hmmm

            Anyway, I do WANT to see more. I WANT TO BELIEVE!

            the structure that wrapped HL and HL2 (g-man's nefarious if always hidden agenda which you cannot escape) seemed too fertile for me to ever think that the series was over... in the hands of talented writers the story of gordon freeman finding his agency could properly finish the HL legacy.

            my fears are that HL3 will be a continuation of HL2 episode two rather than a completely new world. gabe's negative comments on the future of singleplayer also lead me to lower expectations, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole game was a two person alyx and gordon co-op to find the borealis.

              I love the potential behind the hidden lore. What I'd REALLY love to see, which we've been seeing more of in games these days, is clues in emails or notes and memos etc lying around specific locations in the game-world, which you may or may not find.

        But it could also be that because there is no financial pressure from investors to get things done (like there was with DNF), they can wait for the right script to land on their desk and to proceed with it. The script is what makes HF2 so amazing and finding a fitting story to follow up from it undoubtedly takes time. Who wants to be the guy who balls up one of the most anticipated games of all time?

      Steam definitely is the lions share of their income and I have no doubt that it has had some effect on pushing back Half Life 3. But even without Steam I don't think Valve would be in trouble. Left 4 Dead 1 & 2, Portal 2, Counter Strike GO, also Team Fortress 2 and now Dota 2 are both bringing in the millions - that's my understanding, that these free to play games actually generate huge revenues.

    And it felt a lot like high school.

    This describes pretty much any organization, almost everywhere. No matter how flat you try to make your hierarchy, personalities will always come out and clashes are inevitable.

    Sounds like as awesome a place as it is.... it still has the normal underlying crappy management culture that 95% of companies have... it's sad to see.
    I've been through 3 medium - large companies now and I'm still yet to see a "good" manager.

    To anyone who hires her. Be prepared to have your company bad mouthed when she leaves.

    What exactly is the hardware side of Valve doing? Why would they need mechanical engineers? Are they still working on the fabled Steambox?

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