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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