Valve is, without doubt, one of the most unique games companies in the world – and today Steam chief Jason Holtman revealed why. And it’s not just because it owns a digital store.
In the opening keynote at the Develop conference in Brighton this morning, Holtman talked through the developer-publisher-retailer’s famously ‘flat’ management structure that eliminates team hierarchy and makes everyone accountable for shipping content.
It’s a different way of thinking that is totally contrary to the way many of its publishing partners are likely structured.
"If you let business problems be solved by everyone you solve business problems better," he said."It makes better content as well.
"As the content creators are thinking about business, they will make more fun things – they will be thinking about getting more people to play."
Valve has built a huge passionate community through its very good games, and over the last few years has used Steam to involve them and their thoughts into games development.
That stretches from basic stuff – for instance, Portal 2 was announced via easter eggs and content updates in Portal 1 which the community pushed out to a wider audience – to the more complex, such as Team Fortress’ move to free-to-play and embracing microtransactions.
Team Fortress’ use and sale of avatar hats and items has become such a massive business the game is effectively a "hat manufacturing game" he said.
Elsewhere the developer team – which is just a handful of people – have turned to the community to make in-game propaganda style artwork. In that instance, the community has been making the marketing collateral.
Doing things like this "teaches people to respond to and listen to customers and keeps customers very close," said Holtman.
"You need to be thinking about ‘What will the customer want? What will they buy? What wil they use?’
"It’s not some abstract, ‘I have adeadline to hit’. It’s not just about selling more units, it’s about player fun, and it broadens everybody."
The same thinking also impacts where geographically, workers sit together – Valve doesn’t keep marketing and developers separate.
"Physical proximity really, really helps. It is often organised around the product we are making."
Holtman himself sits next to some engineers. This "removes internal friction" between developers and marketing people.
"If you reduce that friction by having everyone together, that friction doesn’t happen because they know each other"