The Multiplayer Divide
When Valve's most productive creators do take that initiative, interesting things can happen.
Some of the most unique advances in Valve's single-player games were discovered by the outside-the-box interpretation of simple heuristics — how players were immersed in Half-Life 1 because bullets left a permanent mark on the environment, or how Half-Life 2's characters were considered to be more relatable, simply because they were able to make eye contact with the player.
That kind of innovation, Newell said, becomes much more difficult when additional players are added to the mix.
"Single-player games are like a feature film where your lead actor is retarded and autistic, but you can think of it like a feature film," Newell said. "In a multiplayer game, these rules that you come up with don't work anymore. An example would be in Counter-Strike, we put the riot shield in, and our player number go up. We take the riot shield out, and our player numbers go ... up. How do you explain that?
"You start to think, after a while, that multiplayer games are all about externalities. They kind of look more like operating systems, or a sport. In terms of how they behave, they behave a lot more, and value is created a lot more like a spectator sport than a feature film."
Measuring success through metrics becomes tricky when dealing with a body of interconnected players, Newell explained. However, it also opened up opportunities for Valve to incorporate newfound productivity into their corporate architecture: It allowed them to democratize content creation among Steam users, and it allowed them to create robust economic systems within Steam itself.
"To be really concrete, 10 times as much content comes from the user base for TF2 as comes from us," Newell said. "So we think we're super productive and kind of badass at making TF2 content, but even at this early stage, we cannot compete with our own customers in the creation of content for this environment. The only company we've ever met that kind of kicks our ass is our customers. We'll go up against Bungie, or Blizzard, or anybody but we won't try to compete with our own user base, because we already know we're going to lose.
"Once we start building the interfaces for users to start selling their content to each other, we start to see some surprising things," Newell added.
Those "surprising things" are all microcosms of phenomena usually found on a macroeconomic scale. Some content creators shot to the top of the sales charts, earning immense wealth — one industrious user made over $500,000 in a single year, Newell said. User-made currencies appeared, inflated and collapsed. The service was no stranger to economic crises, but it also hosted economic boon, as well; so much so, that Paypal began to question their motives.
"The first two weeks that we did this, we actually broke Paypal," Newell said. "They didn't have, I don't know what they were worried about, maybe drug-dealing, because nothing generates cash to our user base other than selling drugs like this. We had to work something out with them, and say, 'No, they're making hats.'"
Content creators that were employed at other video game developers were making more money than they were in their full-time jobs, Newell said. Steam had fostered the economy of a middle-sized country.
"I like to tease Yanis [Varoufakis, Valve's resident economist] about the fact that Steam is five times the size of Greece," Newell said, "and that we have less debt."