As some of you may already know, I had the opportunity to visit Valve Software today, by way of a Digipen Summer Workshop. It was a unique experience and one I h ope to have again, because that place is so full of interesting and exciting things that I couldn’t possibly remember all of them. This blog post will cover some of the salient points.
So we pull up to Valve’s building – a nondescript skyscraper in the middle of Bellevue. There isn’t even a sign for them anywhere on the bottom floor or the surrounding street. We walk in, and take the elevator up to the fifth floor – Valve owns 4-9 of the building, and the lobby is on 5. There, we enter the lobby. It’s smaller than it looks it pictures, but just as awesome – pics coming at the end of the post. After waiting around for a bit, our tour guide came in. She introduced herself as Christina (looking at the Valve people page, I don’t see her – it’s possible I misheard and she’s Christen Coomer, though she said she worked on internal stuff at Valve which doesn’t match up) and then we started through the door labeled with the Mann Co. Label.
The first thing we passed on the tour was a testing room, equipped with 5 or 6 of the famous mobile desks, each with computers sporting a range of biofeedback sensors. I think we would have been using this room or one similar later in the day, but alas, we were unable to do the playtesting part of the session due to their machines being configured for a Dota tournament.
Next thing we passed was their ITG – that is, IT group room. They had a slew of half-assembled computers, bundles of peripherals, and various sized monitors lying around. The tour guide told us that they change out all the employees’ computers every 6 months, to keep them up to date and because, apparently, they fill up fast (hard drive space, I think is what she was referring to). She also said the parts from used computers are repurposed for their testing machines – computers where they test software compatibility on any given hardware setup.
We then walked down a couple halls with a bunch of neat concept art. In one, they had tacked up a whole bunch of fan art and letters they’ve received. I noticed at the end they had that Valve Time clock – pretty sure that one’s a permanent installation. In another they had about 35 portal 2 concepts – including some I’ve never seen before and I’m pretty sure have never been released. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed outside the lobby, but luckily some of them were reproduced in a book in the lobby – pics at bottom. Here we stopped and she talked about Valve’s management structure. I won’t reproduce it in detail here since it’s already been covered other places, but basically, employees work on whatever they want by moving their desks into cabals, and they try to eliminate all sense of failure – there’s no deadlines, and they don’t put their name on anything they’re not completely and totally proud of. That bit about no deadlines, even though I have heard it before, did catch my attention. That’s why Valve Time is a thing, and it’s integral to their whole structure.
After passing through a couple more of these – with some tantalizing arts from Left 4 Dead, and concepts of the steam 10′ UI (more on that later) – we hit the famous Valve Snack Bar. It wasn’t exactly what I expected – it’s more of a convenience store than a restaurant counter. But the variety of stuff that they had there was impressive, and apparently it’s kept stocked according to employee demands, which is cool. They also have food stations on every floor, which are more tailored to whoever happens to be working there at the time. We weren’t fortunate enough to eat in the iconic lines of orange chairs, but we did get to have pizza down in the conference room. On the way down we passed what was labelled the “Pinball Zone” – a collection of 11 or more pinball tables that immediately made me realize that Mojang was probably copying them.
So then we had lunch in the conference room. This was the end of the tour, and I was a bit dissapointed to not have seen anything potentially leakable – I guess that was all on floors 7 and 8, which the tour didn’t touch at all. (Floor 9, the tour guide mentioned, was under construction at the moment because they are building a sound studio where they can have bands play and have voice actors come in). After eating and enjoying the view, we waited around a bit for the next part – a Q&A session with a Valve programmer.
Tom Bui’s official bio pretty much covers everything he told us about himself – he graduated from UC Berkley with a degree in Computer Science, he worked on Spore and the Sims, and once he joined Valve he worked on some parts of TF2 (mannconomy) and Portal 2 (presumably, the bot enrichment). He’s currently working in the Steam cabal – apparently he contributed to the workshop, among other things. Then we got down to the really interesting bits.
I asked three questions here (more than any of the other students, made me feel a little awkward). The first was kind of stupid, I had earlier mistaken the 10′ UI concepts for some kind of windows 8 metro UI concepts. I asked about that and he corrected my assumption, and mentioned that they didn’t have anything planned for a special “app” version of steam for windows 8 – I guess that makes sense with what Gabe said in an interview recently. The second, more relevant here, was to ask when SFM was getting Portal 2 support. He said that the SFM team is mostly focused on fixing bugs right now, but the next game they’re officially supporting is Left 4 Dead. Dissapointing. And finally, the third, and probably the juciest – is there going to be an update or replacement for hammer coming? His answer: Yes. Well, he amended, they’re working on the next gen tech (he stuttered and said engine – not sure whether this means they’re trying not to refer to it as a new engine, or what) and it will, in fact, have a new set of tools to go with it. He didn’t clarify any further, but it’s cool to get confirmation of that.
In response to some of the other questions (mostly from the workshop instructor, Keith) there was also some interesting information. For example, he mentioned that Valve hires based on experience rather than education. Having shipped several games is preferable to having a piece of paper that says you’re a game designer. Also, he said that Valve doesn’t do internships because their flat management structure means that no one has the micromanaging skills to keep an intern busy all the time.
That was just about it. After this wewould havehad that playtesting session, but again it was cancelled. Instead we went back out into the lobby and they gave us goody boxes – cardboard companion cubes with some Valve swag inside. I got a plush companion cube, an aperture science iPhone gelaskin, and a Dota sticker. I snagged a couple pictures of their impressive trophy case and magazine display, and then we had to go.
I really enjoyed it there, and I think I would love to work at such a weird, but awesome game company. Guess I have to get a head start making games – and so should anyone else who wants to, it would seem.
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To see the pictures, check out the album here.