Gabe Newell on his Dota 2 obsession, Half-Life protests and EA's Origin

Owen Hill

Gabe Newell interview thumb

This interview originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 232. Alternatively you can watch the video interview .

Valve are constantly surprising. One month they're making one of their most popular games, Team Fortress 2, free to play, and the next they're running a $1 million tournament for the upcoming Dota 2.

That makes any chance to speak to company co-founder Gabe Newell a pleasure, because you never know what you're going to get. I sat down with him during the Dota 2 tournament to talk about his obsession with his company's new game, his thoughts on EA's Steam-rival Origin, and what motivates him to come into work each day.

PC Gamer: You've said in the past that Valve's model is to experiment at every point. Is that still what's going on at Valve with Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive?

Gabe Newell: Absolutely. For example, we're here at Gamescom and this is the first time we've brought our own tournament, and in order to do that we've built a lot of client-side and server-side technology that allows us to host this.

Depending upon how it goes today, there are probably some changes we'll make, some improvements we'll make. Then it'll move into some of our other games to make sure we've thought through the issues.

You know, if something works in an action RTS, how does it work in a first-person game? And as that evolves, it'll go into Steamworks so it's available for all our partners to use as well. So we see ourselves always thinking about what the opportunities are to do a better job for our customers and our partners.

PC Gamer: With The International, the million-dollar Dota 2 tournament, was it your goal to cement it in people's minds as a competitive e-sport?

Gabe Newell: We think that we will really benefit as games developers from running this tournament. We already have. There's a very strong group of testers that IceFrog has been using throughout the development of Dota. We've been working with them on Dota 2 to address their issues and incorporate their feedback into the game, so we've already been through four or five different versions of the user interface. It's evolved. You'd try something, they'd react and then we'd go back to the drawing board.

For The International, it made a lot of sense at the point in time, where we were in development, to get a bunch of people who play at this level and make sure that we address all their concerns. That's going to get fed back – the stuff that we're learning today is going to impact builds that we do next week. It's just part of that process of iterating through development.

For the next step, we've opened up signups for our beta. We'll go through that and have an invitation beta, and then we'll have an open beta, and then the game will go out and we'll continue to iterate from there on out.

It's something that Valve have always done with our games and, if you look at IceFrog's history, it's the same thing. There are all these differences between Defense of the Ancients 647 and 631 where he's continued to evolve. This, for us, is the right step. It has already been a very valuable experience for the entire development team to put this tournament on.

PC Gamer: Do you think of Defense of the Ancients is a genre, considering how many games use it as a template? That includes League of Legends, Blizzard's upcoming DotA. What's your opinion on that?

Gabe Newell: I think that the action RTS genre is a great genre, so we're excited – we're fans of it. We got into this because a bunch of people at Valve were huge fans of what IceFrog had done, and it was great to find out that he was interested in doing the sequel that removed some of the constraints he'd been living with.

But you know, we're fans of the genre – we love to play these games ourselves, so we think it's great that there's more attention being paid and a lot of games are going to get developed.

PC Gamer: So you don't mind that you'll be competing alongside the already established League of Legends?

Gabe Newell: We've been around for a long time and there's always this assumption that videogames are a zero sum game; that if Quake does really well, Duke Nukem will suffer, and that's never the case. Gamers who play a good game want to play more games, not fewer games. So you're never hurt by the success of another games developer – you almost always benefit.

You know, when Zynga go out and gets 100 million people playing one of their games in two months, I think every game developer is benefiting. Not everyone should throw in the towel and say: “We've been defeated.”

PC Gamer: Does the same apply to digital distribution platforms? Does the existence of EA's Origin mean you're going to make more money?

Gabe Newell: I think right now there's always this temptation to assume that the way things are today is the way things are going to be, and having been through this long enough in the games industry, I think I and everyone at Valve know that you're only as successful as what you've done lately. So the idea that Steam is somehow the answer to digital distribution ignores the fact that every two or three years, something is going to change dramatically.

It's like, along comes the Wii and that overthrows a bunch of ideas; along comes social gaming and that throws over a bunch of ideas. If you stand still and you're not doing the things that you need to do to be valuable in the future, you're going to be left behind really rapidly.

PC Gamer: EA have recently said that Steam has restrictive terms of service. Can you shed any light on what they're referring to?

Gabe Newell: I don't really know what they're referring to by that. In general, with Steam and Steam partners, it's incumbent on us to create value for those partners, whether it's EA or Ubisoft or Take-Two, or any of the other developers who are using it. That's our goal, so we're going to keep trying to do that with EA and trying to convince them that it's worth it to have their games on Steam.

PC Gamer: Have you tried Origin?

Gabe Newell: I was talking to some people at EA about Origin, so I got an account before I came here and was trying it out. So yeah, I've tried it.

PC Gamer: What did you think of it? Did you like it?

Gabe Newell: I think it does some things well. I think there are still some areas where, as a customer, I'd like to see it improve. It's not that different from any other system like this. There are positive things and negative things.

PC Gamer: So what's your personal experience of Dota? Have you played it yourself and are you a fan of that genre?

Gabe Newell: I've played Dota 2 for about 800 hours. The cool thing about Dota 2 is that it's probably the game we've made that we're most obsessed with playing. As a games developer you tend to get pretty tired of the thing you're developing because you have to experience all the flaws and the difficulties. Dota 2? Every day after we're done working on the game, everyone goes home and plays it till two or three in the morning. So yeah, I love playing the game. I'm not even on the same plane as the guys who are playing here, so it's certainly exciting to see them play. After 800 hours I'm still pretty much a noob player when it comes to playing DotA games!

PC Gamer: Why do you think the formula of DotA is such a success?

Gabe Newell: The thing that really struck me when I played Dota 2 was that you're constantly creating and destroying plans in your head. You have a lot of expectations, but whether or not you're going to stay on that pathway is changing every five seconds.

As a designer I'm also struck by the fact that you go through this complete RPG arc in 40 minutes. I'm curious about the sense of incompleteness I always have after a match. The first thing you want to do after you've had a great game is play another game, and the first thing you want to do after you've had a bad game of Dota 2 is play another game.

I think there are a lot of lessons for game designers in it that are very complementary to the lessons from other genres. If you play a lot of MMOs, there's stuff you can learn that's in Dota 2. If you play first-person shooters, there's a lot of stuff you can learn, so it's a nice arrow in the quiver for game designers.

PC Gamer: Will we soon be wearing Dota-style hats in TF2?

Gabe Newell: I'm sure there will be Dota-themed items in TF2 at some point. After all, it is a wargame hat simulator. (Laughs.)

PC Gamer: What did you think of the protesters that appeared outside your office, demanding Half-Life: Episode 3?

Gabe Newell: We thought it was awesome! We wanted them to stay. We took them pizza – they'd only brought two sodas and they were planning on being out there for two days. They were very nice and very passionate about our games. At one point, somebody else in our building called the police and we were worried, but it turned out the police officer was a huge Team Fortress fan. He's like: “Oh yeah, I totally understand, let me go get my sign!”

So yeah, it was great for those guys to show up. We gave them a tour of the office and then they went back outside and protested.

PC Gamer: Are you worried you might get more protesters now?

Gabe Newell: I think it'd be great. They were very nice protesters so, definitely, we were all excited.

PC Gamer: They were obviously asking about Episode 3. Can you give us any news on that?

Gabe Newell: No, we don't have anything. If the protesters couldn't get it out of us…

PC Gamer: How many protesters would it take to get some Episode 3 news?

Gabe Newell: I don't know, but if they'd like to come out, we could find out.

PC Gamer: Do you think that Steam has a responsibility to promote the PC, in the same way that Microsoft or Sony promote their consoles?

Gabe Newell: It's a lot easier for me to think of it as having a responsibility to gamers and game developers. It's hard to test being the flagbearer for the PC. It's a lot easier to go out to customers and find out, “Do you like this? What do you dislike about this? How can we make this better?”

So we tend to be a little narrower in terms of how we try to think about what problems it needs to solve.

Obviously we love the PC, we love the openness of the PC, we value the hardware innovation. It wouldn't be possible to move this quickly if it weren't for the existence of an open internet client and an open hardware client like we have. It's why all the consoles are using PC graphics hardware now.

PC Gamer: There are always adverts on TV for the latest games at Christmas. There's a PS3 one and an Xbox one, and I'd love it if there was a Valve one, saying: “That's on PC, and it looks better on PC, and here are all the games you can play on PC."

Gabe Newell: The thing that we've been successful with are the Steam sales. The sales have done a really good job of creating a huge amount of support, for customers getting huge numbers of games, and for the developers. The thing that we tried in the last summer sale was to build a story and make the sale itself have entertainment value.

I think you'll see us do more of that in the future because it helps get people excited to try stuff that they haven't tried before. In other words, the revenue being generated by all games developers goes up when the vehicle that you're doing it by is in and of itself entertaining.

PC Gamer: So we can expect more things like the Portal 2 potato ARG on Steam?

Gabe Newell: Oh absolutely. Obviously you can't just do another ARG like that, but that cross-game cooperative promotion was super effective. And even if you didn't buy any of those games, you still got entertainment value out of it.

As much as the individual developers created entertainment out of it, all of the fans had room to participate. They were as much a part of the value as the individual developers, and that's a really good sign.

PC Gamer: Why do you think Counter-Strike is still so popular on Steam?

Gabe Newell: Counter-Strike is a really good game, and the value of a multiplayer game is embedded as much in the ecosystem as it is in anything. We're aware of that and we need to get an update out there to all those customers.

There are a bunch of people on the consoles who need an opportunity to play Counter-Strike and, you know, we've been doing regular updates of Counter-Strike: Source, but we need to make a larger investment and get something out to those players as well.

PC Gamer: Today, when Steamworks is on PS3 and there are more multiformat games coming out, why does the PC still matter? Why is it still an important thing to be around?

Gabe Newell: People like their PCs. There are huge numbers of them and each person gets to have the one that they like rather than the one that someone else has defined for them. There were 350 million PCs sold last year so the economies of scale are tremendous so you get great value for money.

PC Gamer: Have you, like Minecraft creator Markus Persson, stopped looking at the prices of groceries as Valve has become more successful?

Gabe Newell: I think that different things motivate different people and the most important thing for me has always been the social environment of the people that I work with. That's what motivates me. Some people are achievement motivated, some people are competitively motivated or financially motivated.

For me, it's always been about opportunities to work with people I really like and respect. And to build stuff. In that sense, as Valve has been more successful, it's brought in an even more talented and stronger group of people for all of us.

For example, Michael Abrash joined recently and everyone in the company got a little bit smarter that day. And Jeremy Bennett is this world-class art director who was the art director for King Kong. When he walks in the door, everyone gets a little bit better and enjoys coming to work a little bit more. That's what motivates me.

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