The Valve Mod Marketplace Fiasco ARG

So I’d written a piece that painted the paid mod controversy as a new alternate-reality game by Valve. But since the whole thing is on hiatus, I guess it won’t work.

What can be said, instead?

I think Valve is right about the inevitability of paid mods and having a more fluid system for moving works online from free to paid. They just didn’t have a very successful rollout. Part of that was the 75% rake between Valve (30%) and Bethesda (45%), leaving the mod maker with the smallest share (25%). Sure, the money spends for a mod maker that would otherwise get none, but it rubs the buyer the wrong way.

There’s a lesson in that. If other semi-predatory industries like the music industry had a more prominent display of how little the artists get out of your $15 album purchase, it could shake things up a lot. And that goes for other industries like farming, clothing manufacturing, and so on. If people know that workers are getting screwed, they’ll at least make a stink. If they can just ignore it, because it’s not in their face, they’ll tend to ignore it.

There were issues with misappropriation of others’ mods. Valve will have a hard time working out a perfect model for derivatives and dependencies on the legal side of the issue. But they can at least push for better technological integration of mod dependencies in games.

And Valve is right to glimpse a future where games themselves might be seen as a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts assemblage of mods. Something like a patchwork quilt that you play on a computer. That future will come to pass in time. It won’t be exclusive, other non-mod-based games will exist. But it will live alongside those games, both feeding off them and feeding into them.

In the meantime, it appears that the factions I’d described in the hypothetical ARG seem to be here to stay. We will probably see mods that will license themselves only for use with free mods, for example. While others will say they’re happy to be used by paid mods.

But paid mods do give modders an incentive to work and a mechanism to buy work from others to make their own mods better. If you’re doing free mods exclusively, you might want to get some better textures or models, but have to take what’s free. If you sell the mod, however, you can afford to hire professionals to augment your abilities (e.g., if you’re writing code, you can pay other professionals can do the art) make that mod a bit better for customers.

The other thing this whole incident reminds us of is that we will undoubtedly see other monetizations come forward. You might earn gametime or rewards in future games by helping new players out (as a guide would through a dangerous environment in the real world), for example. Or you might earn real money for doing so, as some already do by streaming their gameplay.

The nature of gaming is so digital that it provides a key ground to try things that might not fly in other industries, and although Valve didn’t get it right the first time, I hope they keep working on it.


Half-Life 3 Speculation

Gabe Newell, head of Valve, recently gave an interview (SoundCloud: GameSlice: “#1: Gabe Newell and Erik Johnson from Valve”) where he spoke briefly about the possibility (or lack thereof) of Half-Life 3. This isn’t the first time he’s said things along the lines of, ‘we want to do it, but we don’t know how to do it with what we know now.’

Valve started out in the single-player world of games. The first Half-Life had multiplayer, but it was deathmatch only. Where the multiplayer code shined was in mods like Counter-Strike. Since then Valve has gone on to do more and more multiplayer and a lot of different market strategies with that.

It’s like seeing what you can do with the tools in a buddy’s woodshop with fancy powertools and then going back to a pocket knife and a stick. They don’t want to make another single-player linear game like Half-Life was, and they don’t know how to build into that universe in a multiplayer way (or if they do, they’ve not said so).

But they have a lot of data:

Team Fortress 2’s Mann versus Machine mode

They have some idea of how cooperative gameplay against an AI opponent can work. That’s not to say a potential multiplayer HL3 would look anything like MvM, but it is data they’d consider in building it.

Dota 2

They have some idea how cooperative and competitive go together, including AI friends and foes. All of these are present in Dota 2. It’s not clear if people would want to play as the Combine in a new HL3 game, but the possibility exists they would and could.

Others’ games

Valve also learns a lot from other games. Games like Borderlands 2 that feature cooperative play might give one possibility for a HL3 that isn’t all player characters, but where the core of heroes are people. Whether Valve would attempt a mission-driven game with maps like Borderlands 2 is an open question.

Valve also has content that never saw the light of day. Things like the commander class for earlier iterations of Team Fortress 2, which would have made it a partial RTS game might be something they look at and revamp for HL3 or it might not.

Ultimately, what HL3 will be isn’t as important as what it will contain:

  1. Freeman
  2. Scientists and allies
  3. Hostile aliens (headcrabs and zombies, plus others) and hostile humanoids (Combine or military)
  4. Gman

That’s the essence of Half-Life. The main challenge for multiplayer HL3 is that everyone wants to be Freeman. That was part of the appeal of the series, that you’re this lowly scientist that’s saving the world (and yourself). To suddenly break away from that and say “We’re all Robert Paulson” is a little cheap, but probably a necessity of a multiplayer Half-Life game.

It can be done, and done successfully. The message of mass movements is that everyone can carry part of the load, and that’s a very powerful message. But you still have the hanging string of Freeman to deal with. Is he dead? Moved up to management? Missing? Selling vacuums door-to-door?

Rise and shine, Mister Freeman. Your vacuum route awaits.


Why Valve is Doing SteamOS

Lots of people question why Valve wants to make SteamOS, Steam Machines, Steam Link, Steam Controllers. But Valve has been pretty open about their reasons. They are in several businesses:

  1. Making games
  2. Making game engines
  3. Selling games

They probably make the most off the third, but they still do the first two. But the third is a driver of decisions for them. They surely ask, as any business, “how do we expand?” To sell more games requires more people buying games. And as the PC declines a bit, that means other platforms.

Mobile, although increasing in power and certainly ubiquitous, is not currently a prime target. The living room is. The living room is a proven gaming environment. The living room has the big screen and the comfy couch. It makes a lot of sense for a gaming company to want to be there.

This same logic is driving decisions about engine design, not just for Valve but across the industry. Making content easier to create means a larger market with more lottery tickets to win consumer dollars. It makes the platform broader and expands what gaming means. So does game streaming, which is becoming more popular.

Other businesses could learn a lot from Valve and the gaming industry in this regard. Building out transport and lowering the friction to relocate to new opportunities would do wonders for the economy. Valve is doing both of those, in their own way, in their own market, with SteamOS.

By making a living room PC platform, they’re bridging a divide between two long-isolated groups: console gamers and PC gamers. With SteamOS in the living room, people will actually be able to play against mouse-and-keyboard gamers (either with a Steam Controller or with a mouse and keyboard).

At the same time, the console makers are pushing their own initiatives to do the same. But at present it’s not clear if you will be able to buy a game for a console and play it on a PC. And even if you can, how widespread will that option be?

Valve has some challenges. They have to make sure the SteamOS platform has feature parity with consoles. That means video streaming and music. It means actively courting games to be on Linux and making sure drivers are up to the job. It even means working on better APIs like Vulkan to ensure a cleaner development-to-market process.

But they have advantages as well. The Steam Machine market is a market, not a single offering from one company. Consumers can decide when to upgrade, how much to spend, and so on. They’re delivering competition and choice to consumers and betting the consumers will make the right choices for them.

At the end of the day, Valve is working to expand their market. They are doing that to make more money, but they seem to be doing it in a way that is smart enough to mean more money for others too. And that’s what good capitalism should focus on.


Source 2 and Valve’s History of Ports

Over a decade ago, Source, the successor to Valve’s original engine (GoldSrc) debuted with titles like Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source. Now that Valve has officially announced Source 2, it looks like it will see the light of day this year.

What will that mean for their existing catalog of games?

If we look back to the release of Source, they drew some lines for porting. They ported the original Half-Life, mostly as an example of portability between the engines. It was a loyal port, without taking advantage of anything new to the Source engine.

They did a less direct port of Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike: Source was a mild evolution from the original mod-turned-product version of Counter-Strike. They also ported Day of Defeat as Day of Defeat: Source. Although I never played the original Day of Defeat, my impression is this was another mild evolution.

They did not port Team Fortress Classic. They did not port Ricochet, either. They waited to make Team Fortress 2, which was a reimagining.

What has changed since the Source release is mainly the addition of economies to games. Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota 2 all have economies.

Economies create a fresh challenge for porting of games. Previously, a port was a way to revitalize an aging game, to improve on its graphical quality, and so on. But with players having a set of game items, how do you move them to a new version without either entrenching game-wealth by porting their items (thus alienating new players), angering players that have game-wealth (by not letting them carry items over), and make adjustments to gameplay (by eliminating or modifying old items to fit the new game)?

Not all those challenges apply equally to each of the games. In CS:GO, for example, the items are skins only. They do not have gameplay implications in the same way that TF2 items have.

Other challenges exist because of the economies that exist. If the new game is more popular (as is expected), the old version’s items suddenly become less valuable. This means that players will seek to cash out rapidly, which crashes the old economy further, while the scramble for the new items creates a bubble in the new game.

How to handle the economy problem for new versions of existing games seems very difficult. But the incentive to create new versions of games for new engines is likely too great to continue to adding content to existing games while also creating new titles in those traditions.

I suspect the solution will be some mix. Players can carry some value from their existing items, but not the whole value. That may be done through crafting or similar mechanisms. It will likely involve PRNGs (Pseudo-Random Number Generators) so that some level of risk is involved.

But Valve is very creative, so time will tell what solutions they find and how they are received.


Thoughts About the Heavy (and Medic) in TF2

A lot of people think the Heavy Weapons Guy needs balancing in Team Fortress 2. Often seeming underpowered for gamers used to the pace of a Soldier or Demoman, the Heavy seems due for a buff (an increase in his abilities).

Meanwhile, the high-skill Heavy players present a huge challenge to that idea. They mow down whole teams, so the notion that a direct improvement of Heavy’s items can suffice misses the problem that Valve faces. If they direct-buff the Heavy, the skilled players will only become that much harder to beat.

Back before TF2’s Heavy update came out, Valve’s design problem was how to make Heavy less reliant on a Medic. The Heavy-Medic combination is very powerful, but lots of times there isn’t a Medic to help. So they added the Sandvich to compensate, and let the Heavy roam free of a Medic.

While that was itself a positive move, there was likely another side to that design problem: how to get more people playing Medic. Medic stands apart from the rest of the classes in being almost purely support. Medics do not get the same sense of achievement (that of actually getting frags). They can provide major help to a team, but without that reward of a kill it’s harder to quantify their ability.

If you play Soldier on a losing team, you can still see if you got a lot of kills and points. You made some difference. A Medic doesn’t have the same feedback, and being the one player that counts on others’ abilities makes Medic a niche class. Even using the Medic’s big ability of an Übercharge (making a teammate invulnerable for a period of time) still counts on them doing the killing.

A game like TF2 requires at least some damage-heavy classes. Too many Snipers or Spies sinks a team very quickly. There is something of a food pyramid to team construction. Roughly:

  1. Soldier, Demoman, Pyro
  2. Heavy, Engineer, Medic
  3. Scout, Sniper, Spy

It varies a bit by game mode, map, whether a team is attacking or defending, and a player’s skill in a class. But that’s the general shape of things. The first tier consists of classes that are good at dealing a lot of damage both offensively and defensively. The second group is area denial, slow pushes, support. The third is countering, distracting, and slowing the other team.

But skilled players can take their class of choice and push it up to the top tier, which is why Valve has to be careful about a buffed Heavy. If they found the right alternative (akin to Demoman’s shields), Heavy could straddle the line a bit more without making him too good for the skilled.

On the other hand, they could seek to tweak the Heavy to make him sit more securely in that second group. That would mean the players that can currently turn Heavy into an offensive powerhouse would find him in a more support-oriented role. It might not go over too well, but if that change involved new toys it might.

As for the Medic, it’s not clear what such an alternative would look like. Back in QuakeWorld Team Fortress the Medic could infect enemies. It’s not clear if that mechanic would do much or be something Valve is interested in reviving. Others have suggested making Medic a walking dispenser, but that would be overpowered unless the ammo dispensing capabilities were fairly limited. My guess is that a dispensing Medic is partly borne from the desire to see Medic have something more to do than just healing and Übercharging.

It’s also clear that the team pyramid is a good thing in itself. Small games need damage classes. Larger games need diversity of classes. I don’t think Valve will move away from that general landscape.