Yes, Valve Knows They’re Terrible At Talking To Fans

Yes, Valve Knows They’re Terrible At Talking To Fans

Valve does a lot of things right, but they also have a reputation for leaving fans in the dark. What’s going on with Counter-Strike updates or Steam Greenlight’s brokenness or Half-Life 3? We rarely find out until release day. This leads to fans who are confused at best, pissed at worst. Valve knows, and they agree that they need to do better.

During an interview at GDC last week, Valve business development mastermind Erik Johnson explained the philosophy behind Valve’s frequent curtains of silence — the way they don’t really keep fans involved in their process, even when it might be better for there to be an open dialogue — while acknowledging that, yeah, that probably needs to change.

“For a long time, the way we’ve operated — especially with games like Counter-Strike, DOTA, and Team Fortress — is by writing software for our customers,” he told me. “Our plan on that has been, ‘Let’s be as efficient as possible in building features and content.’ We want all of our customers to be as close to the people who are actually building content as possible. That influences things like us not having a marketing department. The teams themselves do all of that. We try to be transparent because they’re no point in being otherwise. Customers will always find out what’s going on. You can’t lie to the internet.”

“[Time spent communicating] isn’t free. It’s not coming from a marketing department. That’s the programmer who’s gonna be doing that instead of writing code.”

However, despite noble intentions, Johnson admitted that things don’t always pan out the way Valve hopes. Fans frequently feel like they’re being given the silent treatment or, worse, outright ignored. Sometimes they don’t know what’s going on, other times they have suggestions for their favourite games and don’t feel like anybody cares. As Valve grows and expands into new areas like living room and VR hardware, Johnson said their approach will probably need to change — hopefully sooner rather than later.

“In our model, we always thought customers would think they’d get the most value out of that person delivering new features to them,” he said. “But there definitely does seem to be something where we need to be doing a better job of walking people through what we’re doing. There is something we’re missing where we need to spend more time explaining things to users.”

As for exactly what that will entail, it’s still up in the air. Could be that Valve brings in a dedicated marketing or community person, could be that they divert time from development into keeping fans clued in. Or they might continue to handle the issue in Valve Time, which sometimes ends up looking awfully similar to doing nothing at all.

Still, this is a much more encouraging answer than the one I got last time I asked this question to a Valve higher-up, which was early last year shortly after DOTA 2‘s Diretide event fiasco. Back then, Valve’s Jan-Peter Ewert and Jeff Cain defended their company’s habit of keeping their lips zipped despite obvious outcry. They said they’d continue to act more or less the same way with things like SteamOS, Steam Machines, and the like. Actions speak louder than words, they explained, more or less.

But actions and words can also speak together, in harmony, and that’s key. Valve say they to be transparent, but if the window pane is only see-through in one direction, then what’s the point? Saying nothing when asked is sometimes just as bad as deliberately keeping secrets. It seems like Valve is finally coming around to that idea — not necessarily that they have been doing something bad (because they really haven’t), but that their communication oversights are hurting fans and themselves. That’s good to hear.

But now we’ve come back around to that pesky old “words vs actions” conundrum again. Valve (or at least Johnson) say they want to communicate better, but what will they do now?

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To contact the author of this post, write to [email protected] or find him on Twitter @vahn16.


  • They need a Pete Hines, someone to be the face of the company. Yes they have that in Gabe, but he’s never been a PR guy

  • It’s my opinion that if it wasn’t for Steam keeping a steady revenue stream coming in, Valve would have shut up shop years ago or they would have been forced into making more games and releasing them at a regular pace.

    Saying that, what games do come from the Valve slave pits are of a very high quality.

    • While I’m sure steam is a good source of money, I imagine TF2 has been an even better one, then add dota and CSGO on to that and they would be fine without steam

    • Up until 2012, Valve had a regular stream of gamings coming out. You could say up until 2013 but nobody counts Dota 2 coming out of beta as a proper release.

      Since TF2 became all about the hats, Valve has been making obscene amounts of money from the in-game economies of TF2, Dota and CS:GO (although the last one took a little while to get off the ground). If they didn’t have Steam, they might not have had the luxury to do that. If they weren’t founded by a billionaire, they also might not have had the luxury.

      Valve is an incredibly lucky company but they’ve made a lot of their own luck. Getting Steam to where it is today took a long time.

      • I remember when I first bought Half-Life 2 and set it up, Steam ran like an absolute dog. It was such a nightmare getting the game installed, registered, patched and then validated so I could play it.

        Yes these things still happen today, but Valve have had 10 years to iron out their bugs to get Steam to be the number one digital distribution service it is today. They definitely had a good base to start from with their founders wealth, but nailing Steam and then Team-Fortress 2 really set them up. (Not saying it’s flawless, but it’s still a lot better than it was when it started!)

        • I remember when I first bought Half-Life 2 and set it up, Steam ran like an absolute dog. It was such a nightmare getting the game installed, registered, patched and then validated so I could play it.

          I remember having to lug our family computer over to the neighbours to use their dialup connection to activate HalfLife 2. That was not fun.

  • ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ Give DIRETIDE

    I expect nothing from Valve when it comes to communication and I’m still occasionally disappointed. They’re great at building games that have communities but they really drop the ball when it comes to maintaining those communities. Just a little nudge now and then would go a long, long way.

  • Valve are going to need one whole marketing department devoted solely to the queries about half life 3……

    • How many people do you need to reply to questions with a copy-pasted script?

      1. We are not working on Half-Life 3.
      2. We are not ruling out working on Half-Life 3.
      3. 1 and 2 are literally everything there is to know about Half-Life 3. You now know everything there is to know about Half-Life 3.

      Q: Can we get a rough release date, like even just ball-park… like, ‘before WW3’?
      A: See point 3.

      Q: Will Half-Life 3 be a continuation of the ‘Episodes’ format, or a full-blown sequel?
      A: See point 3.

      Q: Will a petition change your decision?
      A: See point 3.

      Q: Would you entertain the idea of devoting more time to it if you were able to raise money through kickstarter?
      A: See point 3.

      Q: Why don’t you just hand the mantle over to someone who’ll actually make a fucking game with the IP?
      A: See point 3.

      Q: What’s influencing your decisions, what’s the hold-up? Why won’t you commit one way or the other?
      A: See point 3.

      Q: How does this count as communicating?
      A: See point 3.

  • Alternatively Gabe could just spend some time discussing the topic instead of dodging it with stupid derails like “I hate sharks”.

    What’s that we have a huge number of fans who are just dying to know more about a further work on series we’ve made? Better dodge the question with stupid comments for years until they all just go away.

  • I still have this vain hope that this lack of communication will lead to a completly unpredicted release of HL3. That I’ll just wake up one morning and it’ll be there for preorder.

  • Let’s start here Valve. Say it with me now,

    “THREE” Th-Ree

    Let’s say it again,

    “THREE” Th-Ree

    Once more,

    “THREE” Th-Ree

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