Former Valve dev talks about firings, productivity, cliques, bad management, office

Jun 29, 2013
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#1
A couple of people here might be familiar with Rich Geldreich. He was part of Valve's linux dev group, worked on SteamOS and VOGL. Last summer he ranted about OGL's situation multiple times stirring up the hornets' nest while doing so. He then left the company. Occasionally I still look at his twitter feed, and today saw this:

Thinking about writing a "What It's *Really* Like to Work at Valve" blog post, to get it off my chest. Worried I can't do the topic justice.
https://twitter.com/richgel999/status/551074382982811648

This hasn't happened yet. Other things did. What set this whole event off was this. An article from WaPo, "Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace".

To which he wrote a post on his blog. Open Office Spaces and Cabal Rooms Suck. This is a general rant, but is mostly based on his time at Valve.

In case it wasn't clear: I really dislike large open office spaces. (Not 2-3 person offices, but large industrial scale 20-100 person open office spaces of doom.) Valve's was absolutely the worst expression of the concept I've ever experienced. I can understand doing the open office thing for a while at a startup, where every dollar counts, but at an established company I just won't tolerate this craziness anymore. (See the scientific research below if you think I feel too strongly about this trend.)

As an engineer I can force myself to function in them, but only with large headphones on and a couple huge monitors to block visual noise. I do my best to mentally block out the constant audio/visual (and sometimes olfactory!) interruptions, but it's tough. It's not rocket science people: engineers cannot function at peak efficiency in Romper Room-like environments.
In case you've never seen or worked in one of these horrible office spaces before, here's a public shot showing a small fraction of the Dota 2 cabal room:



I heard the desks got packed in so tightly that occasionally a person would lower or raise their desks and it would get caught against other nearby desks. One long-time Valve dev would try to make himself a little cubicle of sorts by parking himself into a corner with a bunch of huge monitors on his desk functioning as walls, kind of like this extreme example:
He also had little mirrors on the top of a couple monitors, so he could see what people were doing behind him. At first I thought he was a little eccentric, but I now understand.

After a while I realized "Cabal rooms" (Valve's parlance for a project-specific open office space) resembled panopticon prisons:

See that little cell in the back left there? That's your desk. Now concentrate and code!
took out most text from the following so it doesn't take up much space, go to the link for the rest.

Here's the list of issues I encountered while working in cabal (open office layout) rooms:

1. North Korea-like atmosphere of self-censorship:



Now at a place like my previous company *(he means Valve)*, pretty much everyone is constantly trying to climb the stack rank ladders to get a good bonus, and everyone is trying to protect their perceived turf. Some particularly nasty devs will do everything they can to lead you down blind alleys, or just give you bad information or bogus feedback, to prevent you from doing something that could make you look good (or make something they claimed previously be perceived by the group as wrong or boneheaded).

2. Constant background noise: visual, auditory, olfactory, etc.

3. Bad physical cabal room placement: Don't put a cabal room next to the barber or day care rooms people (!).

4. Constant random/unstructured interruptions.

5. Hyper-proximity to sick co-workers.

6. Noise spike in the afternoon in one cabal room, as everyone all the sudden decides to start chatting (usually about inane crap honestly) for 30-60 minutes.

7. Environmental issues: Temperature either too high or too low, lighting either too bright, too dark, or wrong color spectrum. Nobody is ever really happy with this arrangement except the locally optimizing bean counters.

8. Power issues or fire hazards due to extreme desk density.

9. Mixing electrical or mechanical engineers (who operate power tools, solder, destruct shit, etc.) next to developers trying their best to concentrate on code.

10. Guest developers causing trouble:

11. No (or bad access to) white boards.
from the comments

In my case, after my first year I decided to move on as soon as possible/practical because the open office layout was just part of the company's DNA: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131815/the_cabal_valves_design_process_.php

IMO Valve is successful *in spite* of the open office cultural nuttiness. I noticed the more tightly the devs got packed in, the lower our collective average IQ (and just plain common sense) dropped. If it wasn't for Gabe Newell (the CEO) making key adjustments/decisions the whole thing would have imploded a very long time ago.
Then as it happens nowadays, twitter...

I'm not good at screencapping stuff, if anyone wants to do it, be my guest, I'll post them here:

Ivan-Assen Ivanov ‏@ivanassen
Wow. Remember how everybody wanted to work at Valve a few years ago? “ Open Office Spaces and Cabal Rooms Suck http://richg42.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/open-office-spaces-and-cabal-rooms-suck.html …”
7:34 AM - 2 Jan 2015

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 6h6 hours ago
@ivanassen Yup, I remember well. There's been a massive amount of talent flight (not to mention "cleansings") over the prev. couple years.

michael_marks ‏@michael_marks 6h6 hours ago
@aras_p @ivanassen ignoring culture issues, I had same problems with open office at Junction Point, I couldn't function.

Aras Pranckevičius ‏@aras_p 6h6 hours ago
@richgel999 @ivanassen open offices aside, the stack ranking that you write about sounds incredibly toxic

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 6h6 hours ago
@aras_p @ivanassen +1, it was insane. I'm proud of the products/platforms we shipped but I still want the prev. 5 years of my life back.

Casual Effects ‏@CasualEffects 6h6 hours ago
@kenpex @aras_p @antumbral @ivanassen I really like 4-6 person pod/shared offices, though. Camaraderie and quick feedback are good.

Ivan-Assen Ivanov ‏@ivanassen 6h6 hours ago
@aras_p @TheJare My thoughts exactly. I kinda like our kinda open office (which is itself kinda voluntary). The culture sounds horrible.

Matthäus G. Chajdas ‏@NIV_Anteru 6h6 hours ago
@ivanassen @LiaSae Yeah, seems like a serious lack of leadership -- shallow hierarchies are fine, but no hierarchies can easily get abused.

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 5h5 hours ago
@aras_p @ivanassen The official Valve blogs and manual are pure marketing. Without the genius of Gabe it would have collapsed long ago IMO.

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 5h5 hours ago
@aras_p @ivanassen But I better keep my mouth shut or I'll have another patent fight of doom on my hands!

Conor Stokes ‏@xDirtyPunkx 5h5 hours ago
@TheJare @aras_p @ivanassen Yeah, it sounds pretty much like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1YV2sNRK4I …

Aras Pranckevičius ‏@aras_p 5h5 hours ago
@richgel999 but then, doesn't Gabe see the problem(s)? can't the situation be improved?

brian hook ‏@HookTM 5h5 hours ago
@aras_p @richgel999 not without cost to the culture. They're stuck at a local max.

Leonard Ritter ‏@paniq 5h5 hours ago
@HookTM @aras_p @richgel999 ask a game studio to maximize its profits and it turns into a shop ;-)

Aras Pranckevičius ‏@aras_p 5h5 hours ago
@HookTM @richgel999 to get to the other mountain, you need to go lower a bit. or so someone said.

brian hook ‏@HookTM 5h5 hours ago
@aras_p @richgel999 the problem is that they're pretty happy with their current mountain, even if it means some things suck

brian hook ‏@HookTM 5h5 hours ago
@aras_p @richgel999 the risk is changing things and everything gets worse, then people second guess "Why'd you change a good thing?!"

Fersis ‏@Fersis 5h5 hours ago
@ivanassen Dang, if you read some of the other posts, he's clearly not happy with Valve's culture. :0

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 5h5 hours ago
@HookTM @aras_p +1. Completely stuck. I learned a lot about psychology there though. NPD runs *rampant* and unchecked there.

Tom Forsyth ‏@tom_forsyth 5h5 hours ago
@paniq @HookTM @aras_p @richgel999 I love open-plan offices and find them extremely productive. The other issues are a big problem though.

Tom Forsyth ‏@tom_forsyth 5h5 hours ago
@paniq @HookTM @aras_p @richgel999 In the VR group the constant tours from both external and internal people were a bit of a hassle.
https://twitter.com/ivanassen/status/551038792388579328

@richgel999 You should! Obviously it's not as good as it's made out to be, but did you enjoy your time there?

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 2h2 hours ago
@skinlo01 "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Overall I was massively let down. I believed the marketing for the 1st year

Simon ‏@skinlo01 1h1 hour ago
@richgel999 How does it compare to other AAA developers (if you've had experience with those)? Better or worse?

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999

@skinlo01 Well, I didn't realize how awesome it actually was to work for Microsoft or DICE until I had the pleasure of working at Valve.
https://twitter.com/richgel999/status/551127246837014528

Per Vognsen ‏@pervognsen 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 Thanks for writing that, Rich. The public silence from ex-Valve employees on this subject has been harmful to the industry.

Per Vognsen ‏@pervognsen 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 And the silence is understandable (who wants to burn bridges?), but it does mean that the Handbook is essentially uncontested.

brian hook ‏@HookTM
@pervognsen @richgel999 the frustrating bit is knowing so many current/former Valve devs that roll their eyes when the handbook is mentioned
https://twitter.com/HookTM/status/551095095991476225

Valve employee chimes in:

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque So far I've found that Valve is best not thought of as a "company". It's just people, with all that implies.
10:34 AM - 2 Jan 2015

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 4h4 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque The main benefit is that you can influence people by degrees with your ideas, unlike steering a company. The...

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 4h4 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque ...largest downside is that if you aren't good at influencing people in a positive way, you're probable doomed.

Riley Labrecque ‏@RileyLabrecque 4h4 hours ago
@BadMetaphor @richgel999 This reminds me, Get me in on this Inventory preview! tomb cc'd you like a month ago!

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 4h4 hours ago
@BadMetaphor @RileyLabrecque Most of these smart sounding Valve-isms are pure marketing. Wouldn't last if Steam wasn't there subsidizing it.

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 4h4 hours ago
@RileyLabrecque Sorry! :( Stalled out temporarily - was all hands on deck helping another initiative. Hoping to get things moving next week.

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 4h4 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque That is demonstrably untrue. DOTA is obviously profitable; CS:GO is a perennial bestseller and huge in Europe.

Riley Labrecque ‏@RileyLabrecque 4h4 hours ago
@BadMetaphor It's all good. I only want a preview if you're packaging it up for someone else anyway, I'm not in serious need of it.

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque I won't argue that the way some projects were handled wasn't terrible, but I think that's a consequence of...

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 3h3 hours ago
@BadMetaphor @RileyLabrecque Yes there are hits but Steam is the backbone. It massively distorts the entire "economy" at Valve.

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque ... not having a good culture of sharing (or having managers). Bad habits go unseen/unchecked, turn cancerous.

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque (And to be clear, I'm talking about group practices, not individual people's habits)

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque Agree, but could also write a blog post about why Valve is even weirder and more meta than that; the # 1 prob...

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque ...is people actually buying into belief that Valve "is" a certain way instead of just doing whatever to fix it.

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 3h3 hours ago
@BadMetaphor @RileyLabrecque +1. Bad habits *and people* go unseen/unchecked for way too long there. The Valve "HR feedback loop" is busted.

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 3h3 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque Hopefully not irreparably; work in progress :\ It is a hard problem, not just b/c of self-imposed no-structure.

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 2h2 hours ago
@BadMetaphor @RileyLabrecque I recommend you read the article "What Your Culture Really Says" http://tinyurl.com/nfuvszl A lot applies to Valve.

Riley Labrecque ‏@RileyLabrecque 2h2 hours ago
@richgel999 @BadMetaphor Culture doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing though. Some people fit in and others don't, oh well.

Rich Geldreich ‏@richgel999 2h
@RileyLabrecque @BadMetaphor The "Bonus to Bullshit" ratio at Valve was not high enough to justify continuing to "fit in".

Henry Goffin ‏@BadMetaphor 2h2 hours ago
@richgel999 @RileyLabrecque Have re-read it occasionally - I don't think of those culture bits as positives, just differentiators. Good+bad.
https://twitter.com/BadMetaphor/status/551084200426606592

@matiasgoldberg afaik Jeri only worked on the hardware/VR team. Trust me none of the VR/AR folks saw even half of what Valve is really like.

https://twitter.com/richgel999/status/551080250218528768

Rich Geldreich @richgel999 · 4h 4 hours ago
@Dr_Lasagna The way Valve used and tossed away Jeri was absolutely terrible. I knew after the 2013 Mass Cleansing that I had to go soon.

https://twitter.com/richgel999/status/551078721386344448

Rich Geldreich @richgel999 · 4h 4 hours ago
@RileyLabrecque I know. That's why I haven't written it. But somebody's going to do it sooner or later. Next round of cleansings is soon!

https://twitter.com/richgel999/status/551076808196513792
looks like Geldreich doesn't care about burning bridges, so stay tuned for more!

edit: screencaps!

 

The Technomancer

card-carrying scientician
Jun 18, 2009
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#7
I've often been skeptical of the open office aspect of their design specifically. But then I've never been part of a work environment with that many people working on related tasks, so I don't know how do you do handle that sort of thing. My entire department is a dozen people and my exact duties are shared by one other person
 
Feb 4, 2010
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#14
Some of these complaints are really childish. Like "sometimes people TALK in the AFTERNOON about THINGS I DONT LIKE", lol

Sounds like there's some problems though. I wonder how much of that is just these particular people not meshing with Valve's system and how much of it is the system itself.
 
Jul 10, 2008
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#16
Open offices as a general rule are a detriment to productivity. There's way too much noise and too many impromptu meetings where no one respects when you're plugged in and you're constantly interrupted.

Larger walled in spaces with a couple of people at the most working on the same project(s) works pretty well though. Etiquette is much easier to contain at that level and impromptu conversations are usually relevant to everyone in the room.

There's nothing like a private office with a closed door for plain getting shit done though.

Some of these complaints are really childish. Like "sometimes people TALK in the AFTERNOON about THINGS I DONT LIKE", lol

Sounds like there's some problems though. I wonder how much of that is just these particular people not meshing with Valve's system and how much of it is the system itself.
It's work, not social hour. Talking and impromptu meetings are extremely distracting and a productivity killer.

 
Aug 28, 2013
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#20
As an engineer who worked at a "startup" with an open design it can be pretty fucking awful because its noisy and distracting. I read a study that the average engineer loses 15 minutes of productivity for every time they're interrupted, so you can imagine how many hours of up time are lost by these stupid open offices.

I think Joel on Software had some really good stuff in the past about how open offices are counter productive for software engineers.
 
May 11, 2011
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#21
I've often been skeptical of the open office aspect of their design specifically. But then I've never been part of a work environment with that many people working on related tasks, so I don't know how do you do handle that sort of thing. My entire department is a dozen people and my exact duties are shared by one other person
It has it's ups and downs. On one hand it's easy to talk with people on your team to get advice, thoughts etc which is useful. On the other hand, I'd argue productivity just goes down. It ends up being really easy to be distracted, between your team members talking about random stuff which you get involved in, background noise from other teams who happened to work in the same area, people getting up/moving and so on.

I think a mix would be best personally.
 
Nov 5, 2010
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#24
Certainly sounds like a producer issue as well, if he didn't feel productive working in an open plan office there should have been a manager there to get the best out of them.

I love open plan offices, my current workplace is like that and I've never worked better. Really important to have producers/managers in place to make sure every cog of the company is working at 100% of their potential, otherwise the machine breaks down.
 

Trickytoon

Neo Member
Sep 3, 2012
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#26
This guy seems to be a little highly strung.

I've worked for a number of different companies over the last 15 years, big and small, across multiple industry sectors and never once had the luxury of an office space with only 2 - 3 people in it - every setup has been a 'cabal' structure with multiple employees crammed into an open space. I just work from home if I have a project which needs 100% concentration.

I actually prefer to have people to chat to, even when I'm coding.
 
Sep 17, 2011
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#27
The only thing saving Valve is Steam. They have a similar work environment to the old 3drealms folks: ie very lax management with no real incentive to get anything done.

That's why I honestly don't think we'll see HL3 for a long, long, time.

Basically, no bosses, care free attitudes with running the company, no real sense of direction or deadlines.....Steam has given them that luxury.
 
Jul 6, 2012
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#29
The open offices are seemingly preferred by tech companies, and are seemingly very popular in game development too. I've worked in an open office, with everyone sitting along bench style desks, and I have to say I don't like it either.
 
Apr 12, 2013
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#30
Weren't open office spaces a reaction to the 'cubicle farm' style office, where everyone is their on little 4x4 world and never interacting? Seems like it has gone to far in the opposite direction.
 
D

Deleted member 80556

Unconfirmed Member
#31
Is this the ARG for HL3?
No, this is the reason we've yet to get HL3. (EDIT: And obviously because of other reasons nobody but Valve knows about)

But hey, they're happy, and Gabe knows how to manage them, so I don't judge them. However the only thing I'm seeing is a bubble ready to burst when Gabe retires.

And I find more problematic the high school popularity thing that one former VR/AR dev from Valve talked about. It seems more of a popularity contest rather than pragmatism for projects.
 
Mar 31, 2009
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#33
Ive lived in cooperative living places throughout college (coops). They are sometimes noisy, involve a lot socializing, and some people just hate it. It really is just a personality thing.

EDIT: Also who the fuck complains about professional places theyve worked at to thousands of people with their name clear in the open. So fucking dumb.
 
Sep 12, 2009
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#36
Now at a place like my previous company, pretty much everyone is constantly trying to climb the stack rank ladders to get a good bonus, and everyone is trying to protect their perceived turf. Some particularly nasty devs will do everything they can to lead you down blind alleys, or just give you bad information or bogus feedback, to prevent you from doing something that could make you look good (or make something they claimed previously be perceived by the group as wrong or boneheaded).
I'm guessing with previous company he means Valve? Sure sounds freaking awful
 

ISOM

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Feb 22, 2012
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#40
Weren't open office spaces a reaction to the 'cubicle farm' style office, where everyone is their on little 4x4 world and never interacting? Seems like it has gone to far in the opposite direction.
Yup, there should be a happy medium somewhere inbetween.
 

The Technomancer

card-carrying scientician
Jun 18, 2009
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#41
It has it's ups and downs. On one hand it's easy to talk with people on your team to get advice, thoughts etc which is useful. On the other hand, I'd argue productivity just goes down. It ends up being really easy to be distracted, between your team members talking about random stuff which you get involved in, background noise from other teams who happened to work in the same area, people getting up/moving and so on.

I think a mix would be best personally.
I guess? I dunno, I work in a big cubicle room at the moment and there's a good balance of privacy and openness there caused by the walls, but again its just like a dozen people.

EDIT: Reading other people's comments I'd say the reason why my office plan works, cubicles included, is because basically no-one has a really closed off cube. They all have at least one face missing, often two, and the primary traffic route runs right down the middle of things, so you don't feel boxed in
 
Dec 4, 2011
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#42
Some of these complaints are really childish. Like "sometimes people TALK in the AFTERNOON about THINGS I DONT LIKE", lol

Sounds like there's some problems though. I wonder how much of that is just these particular people not meshing with Valve's system and how much of it is the system itself.
That's twisting it a bit.

It's more like he's complaining that the "office" suddenly turns into something of a lunchroom/social club every afternoon when he's just trying to do a job that hinges on being able to focus and think.

Sounds like Valve is doing everything it can to spend as little as possible on their offices, which seems weird, because they should be absolutely *swimming* in Steam, TF2, DOTA and CS;GO money. They're not spending it on their physical workspace, they're not making any games, they're not improving Steam's servers or services... Where the hell is all Valve's spending going?
 
Jan 1, 2013
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#44
Some of these complaints are really childish. Like "sometimes people TALK in the AFTERNOON about THINGS I DONT LIKE", lol

Sounds like there's some problems though. I wonder how much of that is just these particular people not meshing with Valve's system and how much of it is the system itself.
Yeah the guy seems to think a bit too highly of himself, like "I'm an ENGINEER, I can't work alongside these non ENGINEER plebs making noise I don't like and being smelly". Big offices like that suck, but if that's how it is, suck it up and do your job.
 
Jul 10, 2008
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#45
Like, genuinely, who doesn't prefer to have their own office space? That's like a no brainer. No one wants to share a space, but less important folk have too everywhere.
I share an office with another developer, but I have visual privacy and we work on the same projects more often than not, so I'd probably prefer to be in this setup 9 times out of 10.

I've also worked in low wall 4 to a corner cube farms that were really really awful at getting anything done without constant interruptions.
 
Dec 6, 2008
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#48
Open offices are about saving money on office space than anything else.

Only a few companies can afford traditional offices. I think the only I know is MS, where even entry level hires have their own office.

Not sure if that's changed, though.
 
Jun 28, 2013
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blog.system11.org
#49
He's right - open plan offices are fucking awful to be in. Just constant noise, no space for yourself. I struggle to get any work done, my most productive days are when fewer people are in. It makes the petty minded middle management feel more in control of their underlings when they can see them buzzing around, this is the only reason it ever happens (and it's cheaper). Nobody who has to do actual work would pick this.
 
Aug 23, 2012
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#50
That's twisting it a bit.

It's more like he's complaining that the "office" suddenly turns into something of a lunchroom/social club every afternoon when he's just trying to do a job that hinges on being able to focus and think.

Sounds like Valve is doing everything it can to spend as little as possible on their offices, which seems weird, because they should be absolutely *swimming* in Steam, TF2, DOTA and CS;GO money. They're not spending it on their physical workspace, they're not making any games, they're not improving Steam's servers or services... Where the hell is all Valve's spending going?
HL3.