Valve Isn't Evil, They Just Don't Understand People

Valve Isn't Evil, They Just Don't Understand People

In recent times, people have taken to calling Valve "evil." Not negligent, not out of touch with their fans, but evil.

I do not think Valve is evil. But I think it matters that people have started to view them — once gaming's do-no-wrong golden child — that way. I think Valve's brand of "evil" comes from a place of arrogance and ignorance, as opposed to ill intent. Actions that sometimes look "evil" even without intending to be. A belief that tools and metrics say more than people.

Gabe Newell recently argued against the assertion that Valve has become "evil," a simple black-and-white term that tends to ignore modern realities of running a company. Forbes, however, ran a piece that digs deeper. I don't agree with all of it, but there's some good food for thought. For instance, the piece notes that Valve has declared itself more profitable per employee than Google or Apple, yet they fail to provide a lot of useful services for their users — for instance good customer service or a more organised store. They fail to use all that profit for what many would consider "good":

Earlier this year, Valve announced that in roughly three years it had paid out $US57 million to 1500 people using Workshop to sell cosmetic items in games like Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2. By comparison, Etsy had more than $US525 million in sales in the first eight months of 2012, a sum from which the company takes a 3.5% commission compared to Valve's reported 30%. Moreover, Valve's centralised marketplace has become a platform for circulating uselessness and inutility as profit, with an estimated 37% of all games in a person's Steam library having never been loaded. It's become a tool that preys on a person's desire to participate in the zeitgeist of a given game overriding her or his interest in actually playing it.

So basically, Forbes is saying that Valve has scaled their operation poorly, or at least in a way that doesn't exactly benefit entities that aren't Valve. Moreover, the Steam store itself encourages spending money over engaging with a thing, really immersing yourself in it — or even using it at all to begin with. Then again, perhaps the same could be said of all stores/religions/etc. The piece further argues that Valve has come to focus more on keeping users around and using them to create content rather than creating content of their own, rather than giving (an admittedly very particular group of) users what they want: more Valve-created or curated games. A Steam store that's less chaotic, better customer service, a new Half-Life, and so on. All they get is more content.

Do these issues make Valve "evil" per se? Depends on your definition. But I mean, it's not like Valve is directly exploiting labour or displacing poor families or acting as an exec for the Marvel movie franchise or anything truly evil. What we're really witnessing, I think, is a continuation of a longtime Valve trend: they listen to their users, but they do not listen well. They act with the belief that they have infinite information (as relayed in the Forbes piece, ex-Valve economist Yanis Varoufakis once "enthused over [Steam] as the antithesis of econometric imprecision, a 'marvellous test-bed' built from a 'full-information set'"), but they're repeatedly shocked when their dives off the deep end don't work out.

Valve Isn't Evil, They Just Don't Understand People

The most recent example of this is, of course, the paid Skyrim mod fiasco. I'm sure they figured there'd be a few bumps in the road, but ultimately they'd crest a steep hilltop and drive off into the sunset, to a tomorrow that they made better. And I'm sure they ran the numbers on the feasibility of it all over and over and over. They even had a pretty sizable pool of information to go on, what with their curated Steam Workshops for games like DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

But it all blew up in their face — party confetti suddenly turned to shrapnel — because of factors they failed to consider. Intangible factors. Non-numeric factors. Human factors. The history of the Skyrim modding scene, the feuds people might wage over using each others' stuff, the way modders and fans would fracture, shoot to opposite sides of the issue like same-polarity magnets forced into close quarters. And sure, a mod marketplace on that scale is something that had never been done before, but Valve seemed absolutely baffled by it all. Totally unprepared. In that case, at least, they owned the faults of their plan after a few days and decided to withdraw it, retool it into something better. That is a good sign.

Valve understands data. Valve does not seem to understand, or seek to understand, people.

Less good is the way they have handled Steam Greenlight, whose evolution seems to have stalled out, an awkward sasquatch waiting for its end. Again, its beginning was marked by Valve's seeming inability to account for what actual human beings would do once they got their hands on it. Steam Greenlight's early days were full of joke entries (including, of course, Half-Life 3) and other blatant misuses of the system. Even recently, it's become a hotbed (or at least a lukewarm, beginning to simmer bed) for scams. On a smaller scale, the same goes for Steam tags, Steam reviews, Steam chat, and the Steam market.

Valve failed to predict those misuses, and in many cases, it didn't act particularly quickly to patch the holes. On top of that, in the case of Greenlight, the system itself was a fix for a problem (many excellent smaller games not being able to get onto Steam) that itself went unaddressed for a long damn time. And then it caused another problem — too many games on Steam, some of which are abysmal — that's beginning to drag the service down.

Oh, and then there was the whole Diretide thing with DOTA 2, lest anyone ever be allowed to forget. Again: mistake born of ignorance about what people wanted, failure to act quickly to fix it, long overdue apology. With Valve, it's pretty much a cycle at this point.

Valve Isn't Evil, They Just Don't Understand People

Valve understands data. Valve does not seem to understand, or seek to understand, people. I don't think it's an inherently "evil" operation, though. Valve is, after all, a massive-scale business that a) has access to more information than any of us could ever imagine and b) is ultimately looking out for its own interests as a business above all else. What they're doing is, on some level, to be expected.

They are, however, making a mistake. Data never tells the full story, paints the complete picture. You need to observe the less tangible elements as well, and in Valve's case people are shouting them from the mountaintops. On some level, that is what's happening when people deride the company as "evil." They're saying, "There's all this stuff we've told you we wanted or shown you about your games and systems, but you don't listen. You don't act. Now we're mad."

That, too, is why it's a problem when people like Gabe Newell flee back into the warm embrace of "you're being kinda ridiculous" every time people start throwing around the word "evil." Because while, yes, it is kinda ridiculous, there's a feeling underlying that word, something just as powerful as data, something essential, something undeniable.

You're reading Steamed, Kotaku's page dedicated to all things in and around Valve's stupidly popular PC gaming service. Games, culture, community creations, criticism, guides, videos — everything. If you've found anything cool/awful on Steam, send us an email to let us know.

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


    You can't please all the people all the time. Combine that with the fact some gamers are precious delicate snowflakes who would flip out and punch holes in walls because someone moved their Mountain Dew, and John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, and you have a whole lot of people with absolutely no perspective whatsoever who genuinely convince themselves that whatever doesn't conform to their current whims is Literally Worse Than Hitler (TM).

    There are legit complaints to be made about Valve and the way they do some things, but those legit complaints tend to get lost behind the epidemic of rustled jimmies and indignant ego masturbation that explodes after pretty much anything happens on the internet, ever.

      How can they be snowflakes when you stereotyped them so effortlessly?

        It's used to convey both fragility and sarcasm.

          So you're saying that not only are valve not evil, and do not understand people, when there is an adverse reaction to their actions, its not legit? The legit reasons do not get publicised? Or are you just slagging gamers, or the particular type of gamer you defined?

            You've gone off on some pretty random and unsupported tangents there. The answers to each of your questions are in my original post. Take particular note of "there are legit complaints to be made about Valve", and "the fact some gamers are", underlined for emphasis.

              They are not tangents. They are questions. to elicit more information.

                So you're saying that not only are valve not evil, and do not understand people, when there is an adverse reaction to their actions, its not legit?

                I think this is covered sufficiently in my post. The reactions of the type of gamer I described are often not legitimate, or are wildly disproportionate. There are legitimate complaints to be made about Valve.

                The legit reasons do not get publicised?

                I think this is covered sufficiently in my post. Legitimate complaints about Valve are made, but tend to be lost behind the aforementioned disproportionate reactions.

                Or are you just slagging gamers, or the particular type of gamer you defined?

                I think this is covered sufficiently in my post. "Some gamers are [...]" should be clear that I'm referring to "some gamers", not "gamers".

                  I think you've just stirred up the people you were talking about.

                  @g-man Probably, it wouldn't be the first time. I'm of the view that if you don't want to be ridiculed for insane overreactions to small things, don't insanely overreact to small things. And if you don't insanely overreact to small things, then the ridicule isn't targeted at you so it shouldn't matter.

                  I think whatever point you tried to make is obscured by the excessive hyperbole and aggressive descriptions. It really undermines and invalidates your arguments. The fact that you only make vague generalized references to anything is unfortunate.

                  @keiranj The votes on my post suggests that you're the only person who thinks my point was obscured. 33 other people had no problems finding and appreciating the point. Given you're the only one who seems to have missed it, perhaps the problem is with you, not with me.


                Votes are no indication of understanding, or even support. Popular support is not an argument.

      Pretty much exactly what I scrolled down to the comments section to say, only worded better. So many gamers are just too precious for their own good, and then shit bricks once they come to the realisation that shock horror - Valve is a business out to make money, and Gabe Newell is in fact not your best friend or gaming jesus.

        Gabe Newell is in fact not your best friend or gaming jesus.


        Personally, the main thing I want from Steam at the moment is an "I already have this game" button so they stop trying to sell me games I have on GOG.

        However, I'm not expecting that to happen until Holy Gabe ascends.

          can't you select 'not interested' on the item's store page to stop it showing up on the front page?

          Meanwhile I just wish I could set my Steam Store homepage to show me all new releases except for those damned F2P MMOs

      You Sir/Madam have won the internet today with that comment. At least in my humble opinion. Can't have said it better myself!

      Valves customer service is very poor.


      "those legit complaints tend to get lost behind the epidemic of rustled jimmies and indignant ego masturbation that explodes after pretty much anything happens on the internet, ever"

      I just wanted you to know I'm getting this printed - maybe even embroidered - so it can be framed and hung on my wall.

      Sooo, this is pretty much my thought process on the internet in general put into words. Thanks.
      I want to expand on that, but mainly to just get this off my chest whilst going a little off topic.

      Metacritic. That website is essentially useless for reviews because of the moronic trolls who will always score a product they don't like a 0. It makes the user reviews in particular completely pointless, because if a person doesn't like that movie, band, game franchise, tv show they will just score it a flat 0. This completely messes up the review system because people are jerks.

      I hate the Witcher games for example, my personal opinion only, however if I was to create a review for metacritic I would never score it a 0. Nothing is worth a 0, not even Grown Ups 2.
      There are 1,000s of man hours put to work in a game that I don't end up enjoying or dislike for a certain reason, but I appreciate the things that are good and will score it accordingly.

      I propose metacritic change their review system to go from 10/10 at the top down to a minimum of 3/10. Therefore if someone hates something, their trolling won't have such a negative impact.

      Anyway, I sorta grabbed that topic and through it down an elevator, but I had to get that off my chest.

    Excellent Article Nathan, more of this type of journalism/reporting please.

    "'Evil', because why be accurate when you can exaggerate?"

    - The Internet

    I can say that in all honesty, I haven’t played through a brand-new PC game since Half-Life 2 came out.

    So for me its extra hilarious to see this company that could once do no wrong, that was once the “anti-EA”, that was the carrier of flag for the cheap online game store that’s slashed the average price of PC titles repeatedly over the past 10 years to the point that you’re low looking at a MINIMUM 40% saving on a console title on launch day…. Slowly become maligned by your average PC gamer.

    “Meh”, “average”, “normal”, “par”…. Those are the adjectives I would use towards Valve as a business.
    “Evil”? They’re no more or less evil than 99% of companies on this planet.

    One thing from this article and the linked Forbes article I want to mention, the idea that Valve is being predatory by selling gamers games they never play.

    If I buy a gym membership but then never go to the gym, it's not the gym's fault for selling me something I don't use. If I buy a game of Steam I never play, it's not Steam's fault for selling it to me.

    So basically Valve is run by nerds who don't know people, thus not being able to predict the interactions of the average user with their products. They seem evil because they aren't providing the services they should but it isn't due to direct money-grubbing but rather to an inability to predict human reaction.

    I like this piece, Nathan. Kotaku - do more like this please.

    Valve is a privately owned company, not public like Google and Apple, so comparisons are pointless because how efficient they are/n't has no bearing for anyone but Valve as a company

    Last edited 14/05/15 7:17 pm

    Paid mods was actually a good idea, but without rules it will get exploited as we saw people making plenty of genitalia mods and overcharged junk in the short time it was up. If they can STOP that from happening, then its a good thing.

    Valve doesn't understand people?
    Valve understands people better than people understand themselves.

    That is why they're successful.

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