Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve started getting increasingly concerned that Valve isn’t actually the benevolent, gamer-focused company everyone thinks they are, and that not only do they not have a clue what the fuck they’re doing, but they’re completely out of touch with reality.
Haha, just kidding! I’ve actually been thinking that for a long time. It’s just that recent events have provided a hefty amount of evidence which points in that direction, and this little article is my way of sort of verbally thinking through those events.
Two things happened recently. First, a few weeks ago, a post popped up on Reddit from “victor_h”, who – in his own words – was “a translator and ex-moderator from the Spanish Steam Translation Server team”, or STS. I’m not going to reiterate the entire lengthy story here, but the short version (again, in Victor’s own words) is that a Valve employee “also known for being the Head Admin and creator of STS, has been harassing, lying, discrediting, creating an oppressive, intimidating environment, and overall doing questionable things that have finished with several mods being kicked, a strike of the whole Spanish team that’s still going, and another Valve employee being illegally fired for complaining about these unlawful activities.”
In short, Valve were using the community to translate their games for free. This isn’t exactly unheard of; paying for full translations often costs more than it’s worth, particularly outside of the “major” languages like English, French, German, Italian, Russian, etc. I mean, paying money to professionally translate an entire game into, say, Uzbek… well, I’m not certain you’d make your money back.
It’s a sticky situation. Getting people to do, for free, what others actually do professionally is hardly ideal, particularly for those who are trying to make a living out of it. (It’s the same with games journalism, even. Plenty of people are willing to do the work for free, or in exchange for free review copies, which kinda devalues the entire market for those of us who try to make money out of it. Why pay someone for an article when you can have someone shit one out for free, if they’re going to get you the same number of hits and the same amount of ad revenue?)
But on the flip side, paying a large amount of money to translate something into a relatively minor language probably isn’t fiscally sensible, so either that language doesn’t get a translation, or fans do it themselves. Setting up a community and a system for fans to actually do this… well, that seems vaguely sensible.
Not only that, but some of the “official” translations have reportedly been utterly bloody horrible. As I’m only fluent in English I can’t verify that, but a few others in the same thread backed that up, along most of the other details within the initial post. Alas, I don’t have concrete proof of any of it. The subreddit mods apparently do.
(With all of that said, I don’t think Spanish is a “minor” language, so it’s somewhat mind-boggling that such a thing is necessary, even with the multitude of dialects and little alterations to the language in each of the countries that speak it.)
To clarify, I’m not saying that people translating games for free, out of a love of the game, is a bad thing. It’s a very, very hard call to make, with positives and negatives for a lot of people. Fan translations are how we played Final Fantasy V before it finally got an official Western release on the PlayStation a full decade later. On the other hand, Valve getting people to translate Dota 2 into Spanish for free… well…
What I am criticising is the methods allegedly used by said Valve employee to get this done. I strongly suggest you read the full thread for yourself, but it involved false promises of paid contractor work, unexplained removals of long-standing community members, an (alleged) illegal firing of a Valve employee for whistleblowing, and then the removal of the entire STS team. And, naturally, absolutely no comment from Valve.
Which, in the simplest possible terms, is total bullshit if there’s any truth in it. This is the first little debacle.
The second debacle is one I actually followed myself as it unfolded, which was Dota 2‘s Shanghai Major tournament.
In the simplest possible terms, the Shanghai Major has been a complete clusterfuck from the start to, um, right now. Massively delayed matches, streams randomly going down, streams lagging, issues with audio levels, mics not working, mics being left on when they shouldn’t be, mics being replaced with loud static, interviews being muted, teams being able to hear the Chinese casters inside the booths, delays because of the staff losing equipment, the arena closing before the matches can finish, the opening ceremony being cancelled, and so much else I could honestly write an article about it…
Seems there will be no more games played before the crowd tonight. Fans have to leave at 10 pm and Ramzes keyboard won't be here in time.
— David Gorman (@LDeeep) March 2, 2016
… and then there was one rather big event when the English stream’s host was fired, mid-broadcast, on day two.
James “2GD” Harding has been involved in eSports for rather a long time. He hosted numerous Dota 2 The International tournaments, and is a large part of why that particular scene is as big as it is now. He brought in a lot of the talent that currently works in broadcasting Dota 2, sorted out numerous problems, and generally improved matters for pretty much everyone involved. It’s fair to say that his resume should probably include “made Dota 2 casting big and profitable.”
He’s primarily an entertainer rather than an analyst, which was what made him good as a host: he’s charismatic, and is very, very good at getting people into their comfort zones and open up. He’s also rather like a gigantic schoolboy: when he’s hosting, you can expect swearing, light-hearted insults aimed at players and casters, dirty jokes, and razor-sharp wit. And, yes, he often goes too far, but then that’s pretty subjective.
He stopped hosting Dota 2 after TI4, back in 2014. He was invited back to host the Shanghai Major, which I rather liked; although I’m relatively happy with the slightly more po-faced nature of the recent tournaments, there’s a certain chaotic camaraderie to James’ hosting that makes all of the between-game segments worth watching. Obviously, that’s also subjective; quite a lot of people hate his hosting. He is, to put it mildly, a divisive figure.
He opened up the Shanghai Major with the word “cunt” and a joke about disabled pornography. Probably not ideal for China, and he was warned for this, after which he backed off from that sort of comment. On the second day, one match was delayed for nearly two hours; he kept the panel going for a further hour, asking the panel which member of which team they’d most like to stand in for, etc. It was an interesting, off-the-cuff segment that offered a bit of insight into players and teams, while also being hilarious (assuming you’re into that sort of humour). Eventually, he cut to a break. As it turned out, he was meant to have cut to a break a long time prior.
At this time, most comments online were that the Major was a complete shambles, but at least James was keeping it alive and making it worth watching. After all, seeing the panel banter in light-hearted fashion was an awful lot better than seeing a still screen with SHANGHAI MAJOR written on it for a couple of hours. In the eyes of most, he’d gone above and beyond to make the tournament worth watching. Indeed, barring chatter about the (eventual) games, pretty much all positive talk about the Major was about him, even with some of the controversial stuff he said.
Sorry to say I won't be returning to the Shanghai major, I was let go after that last segment. We'll always have day 1 together. 🙁
— 2GD (@follow2GD) February 26, 2016
During that break, he Tweeted that he’d just been fired, and wouldn’t be returning as host. At first, this was assumed to be a joke. Then it was confirmed by multiple other parties. People assumed that it was down to Perfect World (the Chinese partner for Dota 2, responsible for the running of this tournament) and that they’d put pressure on Valve. James Tweeted that, no, it was Valve who fired him.
Regarding the Reddit thread comments, it was valves decision. before the event, I was told to be myself. 🙁
— 2GD (@follow2GD) February 26, 2016
James noted that he was going to make a statement explaining his side of things, but he wanted to sleep on it. During the period in which he was asleep, Gabe Newell – co-founder and managing director of Valve, and patron saint of the PC – went onto Reddit and posted the following:
1) James. We’ve had issues with James at previous events. Some Valve people lobbied to bring him back for Shanghai, feeling that he deserved another chance. That was a mistake. James is an ass, and we won’t be working with him again.
2) As long as we’re firing people, we are also firing the production company that we’ve been working with on the Shanghai Major. They will be replaced, and we hope to get this turned around before the main event.”
Which, um… wow. At the time of writing, this is the only response Valve have made, publicly, about the situation.
It gets slightly worse when you read James’ response, and discover that (apparently) Valve employees asked him to put his public statement “on ice” for the time being. Hoping this could all be sorted out privately, he did so. And then he woke up and read that post from Gabe.
At the time of Gabe’s post, we assumed that James must’ve publicly fucked a cat backstage or something. I mean, Gabe seems angry. And “James is an ass”? Jesus.
But, um… no. From what we can tell – and this is all from James’ account published a little later, because as I said, Valve have made no other comment – it’s basically because of what we saw. Now, maybe James’ suspicions that a particular Valve employee has taken offence at James and done his best to get James blacklisted are correct. Maybe Gabe saw the stream and hated the jokes. Maybe there was pressure from China. Maybe lots of things, and I could write a lengthy post on what he did right and wrong, and so on. But the thing is, for the purposes of this article, it doesn’t actually matter.
You don’t fire your host mid-stream. You don’t fire him by texting his best friend and telling him to do it. You don’t leave him to work out if he’s getting paid for this, or if he’s getting a flight home, or what. You cite contract, or clause, or reason. And you definitely don’t announce it on Reddit, publicly calling the guy out as “an ass.” Was he an ass? Sure, that’s part of his charm! But I don’t think that’s how Gabe meant it.
Asking someone to hold off on their statement so that you can attack them on Reddit is a dick move, but I’m also fairly certain it wasn’t intentional. I suspect it’s simply a case of Valve not knowing what Valve is doing. Someone, completely independently, asked James to hold off. Someone else, completely independently, called him an ass on Reddit. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of which makes any sense.
As an aside, it’s also worth noting that – according to James’ statement – he was sharing a hotel room with someone else; back in TI2 days casters weren’t being paid; back at TI4 there was discussion of the hosts and casters only being paid based on how many digital signatures they sold on items, essentially making the hosts of the biggest eSports prize pool in the world work for a crowd-funded commission…
But, again, I’m not here to talk about that. It’s just the second bit of proof I mentioned. And to clarify, I’m also not talking about whether or not James should’ve hosted. That’s a whole other thing. This is just me pointing out that Valve handled the situation unbelievably poorly for a company of their prestige, in their position.
Here’s what I want to talk about: Valve simply isn’t working. For all the talk about how Gaben is the patron saint of PC games and Valve can do no wrong (except for their inability to count to three), Valve does a lot that’s wrong, and I think a large part of this is down to their famous corporate culture.
Most of what follows is based on old information, so things may have changed. Bear that in mind, although I’ll still sprinkle a few “apparently”s throughout.
Valve apparently has a flat management structure. If you work at Valve, you don’t have a “boss.” Gabe is in charge, but you don’t “report” to him; everyone is a peer, and everyone decides on things together. Which sounds perfect.
This is actually sort of like how PC Invasion operates. Paul is in charge, but most decisions – particularly anything editorial – are joint decisions between all of us. We’re all responsible for the site and its direction. We don’t always agree, but we usually manage to work things out between ourselves. The difference is that there are only a few of us, and we’re not a multi-billion dollar company.
To quote former Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth’s infamous discussion about Valve’s structure on the Grey Area podcast: “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 in the company, then there’s the trouble makers, and everyone in between.”
I think that this has been highlighted both in these decisions, and in some well-known decisions of old, like the wondrous Paid Mods debacle. At this point, Valve seems to be completely out of touch with their community. They’re out of touch with the public, and quite possibly the real world. They make very, very silly decisions without thinking things through, and repeatedly backpedal. There’s seemingly very little communication within the company because there’s no management or structure, and there’s almost no communication outside of the company.
This is, let’s not forget, the company that runs Steam, the digital distribution platform that essentially has a monopoly on digital distribution… and they still haven’t gotten around to decent customer support. They have a veritable money-making machine in Steam, which is why they can experiment with concepts and take all the time they like releasing games… and they still try to crowd-fund their casters. Which is actually understandable, because companies don’t tend to get rich by being generous, but by appearing to be generous, which Valve is really good at.
It also highlights the problem with the flat structure – namely, that it really only works either when your company is small and tight-knit, or when absolutely everyone is honest and above board. The first example above, if accurate, indicates exactly what can happen when someone abuses the power. The second example does so too, if James’ belief that one single person who dislikes him was responsible for his firing is accurate. As I said: Valve doesn’t know what Valve is doing.
I don’t know if it is true. I probably never will. Valve doesn’t comment.
I suspect that the utter shambles Valve repeatedly makes of things can be traced back to both a lack of communication (in and outside of the company – and for the record, I have never received a response to any of the emails I’ve sent Valve) and a lack of management. As far as I know, they don’t have a dedicated PR department; I believe there is one single person who deals with PR. I’m assuming they don’t have a department for managing eSports tournaments and the like. There isn’t one person who’s in charge of, say, making sure that the company running the English stream for the Shanghai Major knows what the hell they’re doing, or decides whether you want a serious host or an edgy host, or coordinates caster contracts, or does any of the other stuff that a major company is actually expected to do.
They decided to put James in as host of the Shanghai Major, with Icefrog – gaming’s own version of Banksy, and the designer of Dota 2 – telling James to “be himself.” A day and a half into it, they decided they didn’t like James and summarily fired him via a text message from Gabe Newell, after he’d been hosting tournaments for them for years. They must’ve known what he was like. If they didn’t, that’s their own silly fault. If they wanted him to behave differently, then they probably should’ve said so, rather than the only Valve representative noted as giving him any direction saying “be yourself.” The fact that they couldn’t even wait until the end of the day, or until the end of the group stages, is even more bizarre and otherworldly.
They decided that paid mods were a brilliant idea with absolutely no problems, and then backpedaled on that decision within days. They decided that what Steam really needed was an MP3 player built into it, and not, say, the ability to sort your games catalogue by date of purchase, or installed games by file size. They introduced Greenlight so that they didn’t even have to curate Steam anymore. They forgot about Diretide, and only responded as to why there was no Diretide a week after people started complaining. They’ve made countless boneheaded decisions, again and again, as though they have no clue as to what people want or how people are going to react.
Mind-bendingly stupid decisions are nothing new for large companies, but most of these decisions are exceptionally bizarre, as even a cursory glance at their community would give them some indication about what is or isn’t important, and what is or isn’t liked. But Valve is out of touch with everything but themselves. They seemingly exist in a bubble, completely secluded from the outside world, and seem mystified when their grand decisions aren’t lauded as genius. And even within that bubble, Valve doesn’t appear to know what the hell the rest of Valve is doing.
And just as a reminder to some twitter users, SteamDB (Steam Database) is not affiliated with Valve in any way.
— Steam Database (@SteamDB) December 25, 2015
The most useful and regularly updated source of Steam news: not affiliated with Valve in any way.
Valve appears to be a company where everyone is in charge and no-one is in charge, and this tends to mean that important decisions can get stalled forever, and terrible decisions can be made as snap judgments.
Valve is a company that doesn’t pay attention to its own fanbase, and doesn’t communicate with it. It’s a company renowned for absolutely appalling customer service. It’s a company that seemingly craves mainstream coverage for Dota 2 over pleasing the people who contribute daily to the game’s popularity. It’s a company seemingly struggling under its own bloat, lack of management, lack of direction, and lack of communication. If it weren’t for the fact that their actual successes – Steam, Dota 2, Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – still make them an amount of money that can be measured in metric fucktonnes, I suspect they would’ve collapsed years ago.
It’s weird to say this, but what Valve really need is some degree of management – or at least a couple of independent departments with actual management, like a PR department, a customer service department, and some sort of eSports department. There need to be clear liaisons to the casters and hosts. There needs to be a lot of agreed-upon stuff. Valve might get by with a flat management structure, but unfortunately that’s not how the rest of the world does things, and this is clearly causing problems when Valve poke a hole in their bubble and try to interact with the rest of the world.
It’s weird to say this, too, but the fact that they aren’t a publicly traded company also probably contributes to this. Yes, we all hate it when companies make terrible decisions because shareholders demand high profits… but Valve have no shareholders to answer to, and with the amount of money their products appear to bring in they can essentially do whatever they like, with the only checks and balances being the law and the public. And with Steam being so essential to PC gaming these days, the public abandoning Steam would be staggeringly self destructive. Valve are in a position of incredible power, and that’s a very, very dangerous thing.
Now, maybe they have all of these things hidden away in secret. We don’t know. They don’t talk to us. They don’t talk to anyone, except to make very rare statements – and, sometimes, to go on Reddit and call an employee an ass.
Valve is broken. But as long as they have Steam, they’ll keep making money, and nothing is likely to change. That’s bad for everyone, but honestly, I’d say it’s worst for Valve.
I’ll let you know if I get banned from Steam for this.
The Shanghai Major and Valve are also discussed in this week’s Podcast.