The PC doesn't have a platform holder, and that's a blessing. But there's no denying that Valve's role is an important one in the industry, and that its decisions often have a tremendous impact on our hobby. With great popularity comes great responsibility: here's how we'd like to see Valve apply itself this year.
Make TF2 exciting again
My favourite Valve thing of 2014 was the anticipation around the release of Love and War update. There was excitement, there was speculation, there was a funny Source Filmmaker video. It was everything a TF2 update used to be, with one exception: the update. There was a time when TF2 updates warranted the amount of excitement they received. The class events were significant. They dramatically changed the way you could play a class—giving new, divergent tactics to familiar operators. Also maps. TF2 launched with six maps. It now has over 70.
The Love and War update didn't have that game changing feeling... Sorry, I'll try that again. With the exception of the Conga taunt, the Love and War update didn't have that game changing feeling. The weapons were good, but I don't think weapons—even something as well-defined and desirable as the BASE Jumper—carry the same weight they once did. When there's only one way to play a class, a new item set has massive ramifications. Now there are multiple ways to play, and one more doesn't make as much difference.
In all, 2014 was a quiet year for TF2. Even the long-anticipated End of the Line community update was muted by Valve's decision not to include the Snowplow map. Their reason, supposedly, was that it was deemed “too confusing and challenging for new players”. And this is from the people who made Hydro. This is my worry with Valve now. It feels like they're afraid to take risks. The most exciting new inclusion of the year was the grappling hook, and that happened without fanfare as part of the Mann Co. Beta initiative.
Imagine if the same energy and excitement leading up to the Love and War update was rewarded by a new game mode, new maps and a goddamn grappling hook—all definitively released, rather than hiding away in beta. TF2 would, once again, feel like an event. Yes, maybe one of those maps would be terrible, but that would only make it more exciting when more maps appeared—these ones learning from past mistakes.
Aside from the Halloween event, every map added to TF2 in 2014 was released into beta. In 2015, I'd love to see the confidence come back. To see the TF2 team declare something ready—not just with a release, but with a week-long build-up that showed how a seven-year-old game could still feel fresh, exciting and essential.
Make the Steam Controller work
It feels like ages ago that we were all talking about Steam Machines and the Steam Controller. It wasn’t really that long ago, but Valve went pretty quiet on both fronts after a generating a lot of interest. I’m still interested—not so much in Steam Machines, because if I stick a PC under my TV it’ll probably be a laptop or something I build myself, but in the Steam Controller.
I’m fascinated by what Valve’s trying to do with the thing. Back when Evan tried it last year, he found the trackpads unwieldy, but if Valve can really design a new kind of controller that both emulates a mouse (and it’ll never be as effective, of course) and works for games I’d rather play with a d-pad or analog stick, then we may have a new best PC gaming controller in our hands. It’s promising that, after we were a bit unimpressed by the first demos, new mockups keep appearing, which suggests that Valve is still tinkering with the whole design. I hope we see the latest prototype soon, and I’m betting we will at this year’s GDC.
CS:GO became, with plenty of breathing room, the second-most played game on Steam in 2014, hitting 400,000 concurrent players for the first time this month. A lot of that growth is owed to CS:GO’s reawoken popularity as an e-sport: more people than ever are watching competitive Counter-Strike, and the recent DreamHack Winter tournament (even with a bit of controversy) was an exciting watch.
But Valve’s content updates, patches, and e-sports aid hasn’t come close to the support given to its flagship game, Dota 2. CS:GO’s support isn’t proportional to its popularity, and Valve faces a playerbase that’s hungry for anti-cheat fixes, new maps, weapon skins, and ways to engage with the game they’re invested in if they want CS:GO to retain its position as the most popular FPS on PC against games like Evolve and Rainbow Six Siege.
Valve needs to continue to keep pace with hackers, and it needs to look to the old days of TF2 for ideas on launching in-game events that don’t simply feel like money-grabs veiled in playfulness. But what would really propel CS:GO is a proper, The International-level major tournament—something that Valve owned and operated itself rather than relying on CS:GO’s great-but-fragmented leagues to build interest around it as an e-sport.
Beyond that, I’d love to see a CS:GO API opened up. Part of Counter-Strike is eliminating bad habits, and right now there’s no easy way to track your match history (beyond watching your last few replays) or dig into meaningful stats.
A full year of Dota 2 updates
In 2015, I'd like to see the Dota 2 team continue to open up about their plans and processes. At the same time, I really hope that they're able to make this a bigger year for the game than last year. A lot of time has been invested in an engine update that will introduce custom game modes and make it easier for Valve to develop new additions in the future. That's great news - and user-generated content represents a potentially exponential increase in the game's scope. At the same time, I don't think I'm alone in wanting a stronger run of official updates. That means more new heroes in 2015 - potentially the first Dota 2-specific heroes - and proper seasonal events.
Valve may not see it the same way: they could argue, convincingly, that the future of Dota 2 was and should be in the hands of its community. Be that as it may, I think the last couple of years have shown that leaving everything up to the wisdom of crowds creates confused expectations and entrenches divisions. From the pro scene to the potato bracket, the Dota 2 community could use a bit of stability - and a solid year of official updates from Valve could help establish that.
Steam would benefit from a visual overhaul
Steam’s feature set took a big step up with the addition of curators and, er, the colour blue in the client’s basic skin in 2014. I would like to see a bit of housecleaning on the design of it—maybe contemporise the fonts a little bit. Reskinning is obviously an option, but I’d like Valve’s basic layout to be little more up to date. It’s still very similar to when I first signed up years ago. On the one hand, that familiarity is nice, but on the other, Big Picture Mode and the Steam app on iOS show how much cleaner the basic layout of Steam could be with a refresh.
The thing we all really want
Let's address the strider in the room. For years now, every single bit of Valve news and every update Steam pushes through has resulted in a fresh round of sarcastic yet subliminally hopeful chatter: Half-Life 3 confirmed!
To which I say: slow your roll, Internet. We've got some unfinished business to attend to. A broken promise. A missing chapter. A little something called Half-Life 2: Episode 3.
I'm confident this is, deep down, what we all really want: another two-to-three hours of content using the same assets and enemies from Half-Life 2. We want to fight more slow, stupid Combine soldiers while they issue their familiar barks. We want to solve yet another giant see-saw puzzle with the gravity gun. We want to stare at a brick wall waiting for a new level to load, then run through the new level for three minutes, then stare at another wall while the next level loads. We want to climb back into that rusty, ugly-ass car and hit the gas only to immediately hit the brakes because the radar is showing a supply cache. We want to spend more time watching Alyx Vance do a bunch of cool things like bashing zombies with the butt of a shotgun or using a sniper rifle or climbing over walls, which we, as Gordon Freeman, cannot do ourselves for some reason. Most of all, we need to hold Valve accountable for their promise, made in June of 2006, that the three episode series will conclude by Christmas 2007. That's the "three" that's important, here. Not Half-Life 3. Episode 3. Make it happen.
j/k, of course. This year, Valve, just announce something, anything genuine about Half-Life 3, even if the announcement is that it's never going to come.