Valve, gaming’s Uber

Read the full article here: www.polygon.com/2017/5/16/15622366/valve-gabe-newell-sales-origin-destructive

From the article: “Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a ‘platform that connects gamers to creators.'”

Good to see Polygon provide a forum for someone to “speak truth to power” for once. Makes a change from their endless brand promotion for Netflix, Blizzard, etc. I have had similar thoughts about Valve for some time now. I would add to this that Valve’s incorporation of gambling mechanics in and around games like Dota 2 and Counter Strike is also profoundly irresponsible and deeply troubling.

Valve, gambling, and video game addiction

Recent disclosures about the less-than-honest nature of certain eSport gambling websites have heaped pressure on Valve, owner of Steam and publisher of Counterstrike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, two of the world’s most prominent eSport games. Today, Polygon published an article highlighting a lawsuit against Valve which alleges that the company has allowed an illegal online gaming market to flourish around CS: GO.

Now, the lawsuit refers to specific issues which I’m not going to comment on here. Rather, I want to say something about Valve’s broader approach to the issue of gambling and betting. I have never played CS: GO, but until last year I was an avid player of the free-to-play game Dota 2. I noticed, between 2013 and 2015, that Valve was increasingly introducing elements of chance into the game’s economy, particularly around the question of cosmetics. So, instead of buying a particular set of cosmetics for a hero, you’d buy a ‘treasure’ or ‘chest’ with a chance of containing one of, say, four or five sets. To guarantee getting the set you want, you’d have to buy the chest multiple times. They also increasingly used systems where you’d have a small chance of getting a ‘bonus’ item when opening the chest, some of which would be super-rare.

Valve also increasingly allowed players to bet in-game currency, or some kind of tokens, on the outcome of matches, usually in connection with some kind of seasonal event. So, you might get a ‘charm’ as part of a paid-for bundle which allowed you to predict the outcome of a game; if you win three in a row, you get a treasure, but if you get too many wrong predictions (say, two or three), you get nothing and lose the charm. In a game with an already competitive and highly addictive algorithm, such mechanics add another layer of investment and pressure to what is often a toxic gaming experience.

Personally, I strongly object to the casual inclusion of gambling mechanics like this in a video game. One obvious reason is that it potentially introduces children to real-world betting mechanics in an environment where they (and their parents) don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for. Dota 2 is played by a lot of teenagers and grown-ups, but any look at the aesthetic of the game tells you it is also intended to appeal to children. We don’t normally associate this kind of look and feel with such a controversial issue as gambling–indeed, I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to advertise gambling to kids, and you have to be 18 to gamble in the UK.

Moreover, Dota 2 is already an unbelievably addictive game. You can say that individuals make their own choices about how to spend their time, which is fair enough for the most part; but nevertheless, deliberately or not, the mechanics and aesthetics of Dota 2 lend themselves to addictive behaviour. Adding gambling mechanics on top of that is, in my opinion, irresponsible and damaging. You’re adding another level of compulsion to what is, depending on the individual, an already toxic situation.

I’ve spoken before about my disillusionment with Valve. Over the past few years they seem to have become ever more conceited and self-regarding; and what I have interpreted as their increased use of gambling mechanics in-game in Dota 2 has been one of the strangest aspects of their development (or degeneration) as a company. This year’s Steam Sale was widely derided as offering relatively little in the way of value or incentives compared to previous years; and in general, the company just seems to have lost its compass. Obviously, there’s still plenty of money in the bank, and Valve remains enormously powerful and influential. But as these latest allegations suggest, this is a company which no longer looks to be on the side of the angels. And I’d wager to say there are a lot of people out there who would be quite happy to see them taken down a peg or two.

The Million Dollar Question: Valve and esports

Until its problematic migration to the Source 2 engine in September this year, Dota 2 had experienced two to three years of uninterrupted and impressive growth in its player base. It is currently by far the most played game on Steam and one of the most popular MOBA (Multiplayer online battle arena) games around. One of the reasons for this success is the huge publicity regularly garnered for the game around the time of its annual flagship event, The International (TI). The prize pool for TI increased from $1.6 million in 2012 to $2.9 million a year later, rocketing to just shy of $11 million in 2014 and $18.4 million this year. This resulted in huge grand prizes for the winning 5-man teams of TI in 2013 ($1.4 million to Alliance), 2014 ($5 million to Newbee) and 2015 ($6.6 million to Evil Geniuses).

When explaining esports or Dota 2 specifically to friends and family, mentioning these huge prizes certainly helps pierce their scepticism. The prize pools also helped generate significant media attention for the events, which has surely drawn more people to play the game. However, the question remains: is the concentration and distribution of these prizes actually good for the Dota 2 esports scene as a whole, and will it help grow the sport over the medium to long term?

Note: all stats taken from http://www.esportsearnings.com/

At time of writing, well over half the prize money awarded in the four years of professional Dota 2 has been won in the two TIs in 2014-2015, amounting to almost $30 million of a total of $51 million. Adding in TIs from 2011-2013, plus the major Valve-backed Dota Asia Championship in 2015, around $38 million has been awarded from just six tournaments; the overwhelming majority of which has gone to a relatively narrow pool of teams and players. The remaining $13 million has been distributed across around 500 tournaments.

What this means is that the benefit of most of these prizes has gone to a very small number of professional players. The list of highest-earning players is of course dominated by players who have won TI, especially those in the last couple of years. At the beginning of November 2015, there are 10 Dota 2 dollar millionaires, with one more player (‘Puppey’, real name Clement Ivanov) on the cusp of joining them. There are a further 25 players who have made over $500,000. At this point, one might expect the numbers of players in each earnings bracket to increase, but this doesn’t happen. There are 22 players between $250k and $500k and just 19 between $250k and $100k; compared with 17 between $750k and $500k. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the most successful players are from China: five of the millionaires are from China; 12 of the top 20; and 23 of the top 40.

What’s the problem with this? First, Dota 2 has a large geographical divide, with little crossover between Chinese and Western teams, for technological, geographic, cultural and political reasons. The upshot of this is that among Western teams, the lack of equality in the distribution of winnings makes for a very stark feast or famine situation. A few players have been hugely successful and made millions of dollars in their early twenties or even as teenagers; while others have made peanuts despite devoting a lot of time to the game and even becoming minor esports celebrities. While many players supplement their earnings with sponsorship and income from streaming content online, there is nevertheless a very unequal distribution of tournament-related income that is quite odd considering the relatively small population of professional players.

The automatic reaction of a lot of people to this scenario is to say ‘tough’: competition is the way of the world and the attitude of ‘winner takes all’ is pretty common to all mainstream sports. That’s true to an extent, but what is significant here is that Valve seems to have made a decision, consciously or not, to try and recreate the rampant inequality and first-past-the-post mentality of billion-dollar mainstream sports in a fledgling esport. It’s curious. This works in major sports because they tend to be deeply embedded in wide sections of the population for historic reasons and because they have been played for generations. But in order to build a new spectator sport that will appeal to wider audiences, it is important to try and raise the general level of competition. This is done by maintaining a healthy size of player pool as well as ensure players are of a high skill level and also work well as teams.

One of the problems of this once a year, winner takes all model is that teams had to devote everything to a one-shot tournament. This has a variety of consequences, the most obvious being that it promotes a conservative and sterile attitude towards tactics and strategy, with an ever-narrowing pool of heroes and strategies being employed as tournaments go on. It also contributes to a musical chairs approach to roster management, as teams constantly rotate players looking for that ‘magic formula’ to help them be successful. Valve seems to be tackling this to an extent, with a forthcoming six-month roster lock as well as the introduction of several ‘Major’ tournaments each year, the first of which, in Frankfurt this November, has a prize pool of $3 million. This may alleviate the problem, but is unlikely to solve it, especially if the same teams keep winning.

One wonders what the stress must do to some of the players. Speaking of which, one minor but obvious aspect of this situation is: what happens when you give millions of dollars to young men who are famous for playing video games and spend their whole lives doing so? The public pronouncements and profiles of most of these individuals are more or less what you would expect, which is to say, uninspiring at best and dismal and unedifying at worst.

Is there an alternative to this approach of making Dota millionaires? Perhaps, in the West at least, Valve could consider a system of giving stipends of a few thousand each to young players to encourage them to train and play while continuing their normal studies and lives. It shouldn’t be the case that players should be unable to perform as Dota players to a high level and not pursue productive lives in the ‘real world’. Such an approach to making ‘Dota scholars’ would surely help the profile of video games in our culture at large, and would ensure a broader pool of players playing to a high level. It might also help encourage those from poorer or non-traditional backgrounds (eg, women and people from certain ethnic minorities) that a life in professional esports might be for them. At the moment the demographics of most esports players are exactly what you would expect–middle class, male and white or Asian.

All this might seem ludicrous to some but, until recently, Valve had a history of defying mainstream expectations and business practices. One of the interesting things about the current position of esports is that there is a lot of freedom–in the West at least–compared to major sports as there are no bureaucratic institutions or mainstream interests to deal with. And this is why it is so disappointing to see the most unequal aspects of established sports aped in such a literal fashion.

Thoughts on the Steam Link and Valve

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The cats help me unpack my order from Valve

I pre-ordered the Steam Link and the Steam Controller the day they were made available, so they were delivered several weeks ago. I’ve barely used either, though, so can’t really justify devoting a “First Impressions” column on them. However I do have a few thoughts about these products and also some broader ones about Valve that have been on my mind for some time. I’m planning some other pieces on Valve at a future date, with a particular emphasis on Dota 2 and Valve’s attitude towards the eSports scene.

But first things first. The Steam Link is a small black box and is very easy to set up. I had it up and running and streaming my PC to my TV in a couple of minutes. I installed the controller at the same time as you can’t really use the Link on your TV without it. The graphic and sound that plays when you boot to your TV is all very nice, futuristic, and relaxing, and the picture on my HDTV from my PC, streaming wirelessly from the next room, looks pretty good.

Now, I haven’t really tried to use it much, partly as I have a bunch of PS3 games I’m trying to blow through before Fallout 4 comes out and I finally buy a PS4. So my patience with the Steam Link is zero because I don’t need it for anything and it’s just a curiosity to me–for now. It’s a good job too, because the three times I’ve tried to play a game on it via my PC, it has crashed. (The game in question is Hitman: Absolution.) The picture is terrific–very crisp and clear–but the animation chugs and frequently freezes completely for 30 seconds or so. Each time I’ve tried to play the game I’ve failed and ended up having to reboot my PC. Not really what you’d call a success. I imagine things would probably work a bit better if I played around with it for a while, but like I said, I have no reason to do so at present and I don’t care. So for now my Steam Link is redundant and my PC gaming takes place where it always has, in the spare room rather than the living room, which still belongs to the Playstation and Xbox.

As with any discussion of Valve we come, inexorably, to the subject of Half Life 3. I heard a few people speculate that the Steam consoles and all this other hardware might be connected to HL3, which of course seems to be no more than wishful thinking at present. But the whole situation put me in mind of comments from Gabe Newell which were reported earlier this year (http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/03/19/gabe-newell-discusses-possibility-of-half-life-3). Newell had the following to say:

“The only reason we’d go back and do like a super classic kind of product is if a whole bunch of people just internally at Valve said they wanted to do it and had a reasonable explanation for why [they did]… But you know if you want to do another Half-Life game and you want to ignore everything we’ve learned in shipping Portal 2 and in shipping all the updates on the multiplayer side, that seems like a bad choice,” Newell continued. “So we’ll keep moving forward. But that doesn’t necessarily always mean what people are worried that it might mean.”

When I first read this in March 2015 there were a number of things I thought were strange, and I still do. It has been clear for ages that Valve is moving away from developing its own games to instead publishing those of others and now even releasing its own hardware. Nevertheless, Valve remains a business rather than, say, some kind of a cult or something, and businesses usually have an interest in something which can be referred to in layman’s terms as ‘making money’. And you have to think that by not making Half Life 3 Valve is kissing goodbye to countless millions of dollars (and don’t give me any ‘opportunity cost’ crap please. This is Half Life 3 we’re talking about).

Second, even laying aside the question of money, there’s a phenomenon known as popular demand which companies other than Valve have been known to acknowledge in the past. While Half Life 3 has acquired a kind of memetic status which renders a term like ‘popular demand’ rather outdated, one could still argue that the mere fact that millions of actual living people want Half life 3 to exist is a good enough reason to make it.

But, apparently, not for Valve, or at least not for Newell. Money (a lot of it) is not a good enough reason, and neither is the interest of millions of people. No, what Newell specifies as the key criteria is that “a whole bunch of people just internally at Valve said they wanted to do it and had a reasonable explanation for why”. We don’t know what a reasonable explanation would be, and it would seem to exclude the examples I give above (making a profit or making people happy). So what would the reasons be?

Am I the only one to see significant elements of conceit and pretension in these remarks?

For a long time Valve had a sort of mythic reputation among gamers and commentators alike and received many plaudits for its products and services, and even for things like its workplace culture. But it feels like we are entering a period when there will, ultimately, be an accounting for the decisions Valve has made and for the approach the company has taken over the last few years. If things go wrong they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves.