Valve Corp fosters unorthodox thinking through a corporate culture unusual even by the quirky standards of technology companies. While many start-ups pay lip service to flat organisational structures, Valve emphasises that its workplace is truly 'boss-less.'
Every way I look, the scene shifts, the battle unfolds. I have a crazy contraption strapped to my head: a boxy set of goggles that looks like a 22nd-century version of a View-Master. It immerses me in a virtual world. I whirl one way and see zombies preparing to snack on my flesh. I turn another and wonder what fresh hell awaits.
Behold the future of video games. Or at least the future as envisioned by a bunch of gamers, programmers, tinkers and dreamers at the Valve Corp. This is the uncorporate company that brought us the Half-Life series, the hugely influential first-person shooter game.
The Valve guys aren't done yet. Founded 16 years ago by a couple of refugees from Microsoft, Valve makes games that wild-eyed fans play until their thumbs hurt and dawn jabs through the curtains. But what really makes Valve stand out is its foresight on technology.
A decade ago, long before every media executive figured out that downloading was the future, Valve started an online service, Steam. It has since become for games what iTunes is to music a huge online distributor, in its case one with more than 40 million active users and that, by some estimates, accounts for about 70 per cent of the PC games bought and downloaded from the Web.
Through Steam, Valve effectively collects a toll on other companies' online game sales, in addition to making money from selling its own products. Soon, the company will begin a public test of a new television-friendly interface, Big Picture, for buying Steam games and playing them on computers in the living room.
"They're on the cutting edge of the future of this industry," says Peter Moore, the chief operating officer of Electronic Arts, a big games publisher that is both a Valve competitor and partner.
Now Valve executives think they may be onto the next big thing in games: wearable computing. The goggles I'm wearing reminiscent of the ones Google recently unveiled to much hoopla could unlock new game-playing opportunities. This technology could let players lose themselves inside a virtual reality and, eventually, blend games with their views of the physical world.
It's one thing if a bottomless money well like Google wants to sink its profits into Project Glass, its own wearable-computing initiative. But for a 300-person software company like Valve, developing eyeball computers seems an absurdly ambitious some say foolish enterprise.
Valve's exploration of new forms of game hardware comes as the PC, the device on which it has depended for much of its history, is changing in ways that could undermine its business. With a new PC operating system, Windows 8, coming out in October, Microsoft will start its own online marketplace for distributing software, including games. The move could take some of the, well, steam out of Steam.
Valve fosters unorthodox thinking through a corporate culture unusual even by the quirky standards of technology companies. While many start-ups pay lip service to flat organisational structures, Valve emphasises that its workplace is truly "boss-less."
"We don't have any management, and nobody 'reports to' anybody else," reads Valve's handbook for new employees, which generated buzz this year when it leaked onto the Web. Forget silly-sounding Silicon Valley job titles like code jedi or chief listener. Valve has no formal titles. The few employees who've put titles on business cards do so to satisfy outsiders apprehensive about working with people without labels. The same applies to Gabe Newell, one of Valve's founders.
"I think he's technically the CEO, but it's funny that I'm not even sure of that," says Greg Coomer, a designer and artist who was one of Valve's first employees. (For the record, Newell is technically Valve's chief executive.)
To spur creativity, Google management created the concept of "20 per cent time," the portion of employees' schedules that they could commit to entirely self-directed projects. At Valve, it's more like 100 per cent time. New employees aren't even told where to work in the company. Instead, they are expected to decide on their own where they can contribute most. Many desks at Valve are on wheels. After figuring out what they want to do, workers simply push their desks over to the group they want to join.
A few years ago, a Valve hire who had worked in special effects in Hollywood balked at wheeling his desk. The news reached Newell, who promptly picked up the desk himself and carried it to the new location, to the new employee's embarrassment. The man, whom Valve declined to name, is no longer with the company.
In an interview in a conference room at Valve's headquarters, Newell says that relatively few people have left Valve over the years. When they do, it's often because a sick parent needs help. In one case, Valve moved an employee's parents to the Seattle area, where one of them was also able to receive better cancer treatment.
"I get freaked out any time one person leaves," says Newell, a bearded bear of a man with John Lennon-style glasses. "It seems like a bug in the system." The company has been among its industry's leaders in engaging its audience. Valve won credibility early on with gamers by not merely tolerating the modification, or "modding," of its games with players' own creations but encouraging it.
The consistent originality of its games, too, has resonated with players. Portal 2 is a brainteaser that hinges on a mysterious weapon called a portal gun that a player can use to open entrances through walls, floors and ceilings, along with corresponding exits somewhere else. Players can use the gun to propel themselves across a chasm by jumping vertically into a hole and out a portal position on a wall.
The game has inspired an amusing string of fan videos in which gamers use homemade portal guns, and a dose of special effects, to cross a busy street and jump through walls of their homes.
Valve's teams, dedicated to games and other projects, are clustered in open spaces around the five floors of the skyscraper the company occupies in this city, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Vintage pinball machines are arrayed around its corridors, and doors throughout its offices are etched with tributes to Team Fortress, a Valve game that features an evil virtual corporation that hates its customers and sells them inferior products.
"Mann Co. We sell products and get in fights," reads the sign on the door in Valve's lobby.
Valve has an eclectic workforce. The company became interested in hiring one artist only after learning that his pastime was spray-painting graffiti art in Britain. It recently hired Leslie Redd, a school administrator, to lead an effort to use "Portal" to teach physics and other subjects in schools by offering a more engaging way to present ideas like escape velocity.
Redd said that more than 2,000 teachers worldwide had registered to use the game in classes. This year, Newell hired Yanis Varoufakis, a Greek economist, after being impressed with Varoufakis' personal blog, which he fills with commentary on the European financial crisis.
Nick Wingfield/ The New York Times News Service