Amidst the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Valve co-founder and internet gaming dad Gabe Newell got stuck in New Zealand. The world went into lockdown, and instead of heading home to Seattle to cope with the United States’ brand of public health management, Newell stayed down under. That resulted in a happy affair with the country throughout all of 2020, so much so that Valve employees started asking about potentially moving to New Zealand permanently. But in a chat with Rocketwerkz co-founder Dean Hall, it’s become apparent that Valve’s good intentions haven’t quite evolved into action.
As part of our larger chat about Rocketwerkz’s Icarus, I asked Dean Hall and Stephen Knightly — the studio’s chief operating officer and a board member of the New Zealand Game Developers Association — if anything had emerged from Valve openly talking about moving to New Zealand.
Earlier this year, Gabe Newell told TVNZ that there was a “lot of interest at a grass roots level inside” of Valve, and that Newell himself had already been granted residency in principle, with intentions to continue seeking citizenship.
However, at the time, Newell also said they were wary about relocating a world away in case things improved. “You don’t want to uproot a bunch of families, have them come here, and then the situation gets a bunch better and then they have to turn around and go back,” Newell said at the time.
So it’s no surprise then that Hall, the creator of DayZ, didn’t really have anything positive to report when I asked if Valve had made any headway on starting a permanent New Zealand base.
“I really like Valve: I’ve had many friends who worked there over time. Chet Falisek took me under his wing with DayZ, really mentored me, took the rough edges off me a little bit. But Valve time is, like, glacial, even just waiting for updates to Steam. That’s not how I operate – ‘We do this now.'”
Knightly, speaking not as a member of Rocketwerkz or Icarus but as a member of the local game developers association, said they’d spoken to Newell directly at the end of 2020. “While he would love to, I haven’t heard any specific announcements about anything happening,” Knightly added.
“Why he would love to bring more developers to New Zealand is because of how New Zealand has handled the lockdown; the way Gabe describes it, New Zealand has a productivity premium. We’re just able to work 10, 20 percent faster than people who have doing it remotely over lockdown. And I think Icarus has really benefited from that. Our competitive advantage is that we can all gather around the same whiteboard together.”
I couldn’t help but ask the pair: if New Zealand had such a competitive advantage, what exactly did it do with it?
“Nothing,” Dean Hall replied.
“What did Icarus do with it? Stay on schedule and stay on budget,” Knightly said.
Hall went on to stress that New Zealand had missed a further opportunity to advance the education of STEM and other knowledge-based industries, a parallel that Australians are all too familiar with. “The time for us to make changes to the education system to deliver people into video games, the time to capitalise on that stuff was 4 or 5 years ago,” he said.
“We have to capitalise on that stuff now. I personally believe a lot of the answers to what we need comes from me and Stephen and the rest of the team driving the change here — that’s in our sphere of influence. We’re trying to say, hey, we’re making this creative project here in New Zealand, it can be done, we can do it, here it is, screw you politicians, you’re all lazy.”
Stay tuned for more from our long chat about Icarus, and game development, with Rocketwerkz and Dean Hall.