Gamers dislike many things and many people, but if theres one company that they have (almost) universally come to revere, its Valve. Its pretty easy to see why. Its the company behind Steam, the most popular PC gaming platform in the world and the bearer of irresistible game sales. Its the company behind Half-Life, Portal, Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead.. And its the company run by Gabe Newell, who is, somehow, the most mocked and the most beloved figure in the gaming industry.
So Valve is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential gaming companies around, but its taken 17 long years to reach the point its at today. Believe it or not, there was a time when people werent so willing to create websites like this. To find out why--because, really, that sites great--we went back to the history books, and took a look at Valves roots. Heres what we found.
Two Microsoft millionaires venture out on their own
It may seem weird given their somewhat antagonistic nature today, but Valve as we know it today would not exist without Microsoft. There, a Harvard University dropout named Gabe Newell spent thirteen years helping to produce early versions of the Windows operating system. Naturally, he learned a good deal about the software business working under Bill Gates and crew, and financially, he amassed more than a million dollars as a result of Microsofts desktop dominance.
But by the summer 1996, Newell was looking for a change. So by that August, he and his fellow co-worker/millionaire Mike Harrington took their fortunes and used them to start their own gaming company. They called it Valve, LLC, and they moved their operations to Kirkland, Washington--about five miles west from Microsofts headquarters in Redmond. Once they were situated, they got started on their first game: Half-Life.
Half-Life makes for a grand introduction
Three years before Newell and Harrington left Microsoft to make games, another Microsoft (and later Valve) employee named Michael Abrash did the same. He joined up with Doom developer id Software, and later, helped his former co-workers get a license to use ids Quake engine. With that toolset in tow, Newell, Harrison and their team dug in to create a sci-fi-themed first person shooter of their own.
Valve had big ideas for Half-Life, and it initially had some troubles finding a publisher for the game because of it. Washington-based Sierra On-Line were the one who ended up taking a chance on the young company and its new IP--and when Half-Life launched in November 1998, the move paid off in spades. Half-Life succeeded by almost every metric imaginable, breaking new ground for shooters with the way it seamlessly melded its smart narrative with its smarter gameplay. Millions of copies were sold; Gordon Freeman and his trusty crowbar became iconic; and Valve was firmly on the map.
Half-Life has a life and a half...
For about the next six years, Valve laid dormant when it came to developing and launching completely new titles. There were multiple reasons for that, but one of the biggest was merely that the company wanted to get as much life out of Half-Life as it could. For one, it had future Borderlands makers Gearbox Software develop two expansion packs for the game--1999s Half Life: Opposing Force and 2001s Half-Life: Blue Shift.
In 1998, it acquired TF Software PTY, which was the team behind the popular Team Fortress mod designed for Quake. A year later, it released Team Fortress Classic, which was effectively that same mod redone in Half-Lifes skin. Valves ulterior motive in buying TF was to develop a sequel to Team Fortress, so it got to work on that too--but like many Valve releases, that game wouldnt come to fruition right away.
...and it has an eternitys worth of mods
But more significantly, the late '90s and early 2000s saw Valve encourage an enthusiastic modding community around Half-Life by releasing the games software development kit (SDK) for free. A veritable truckload of user-created mods soon spawned, and Valve helped foster more than a few of them into becoming more polished releases. Moves like this greatly helped bolster Valves reputation amongst hardcore gamers, earning it a vocal and loyal fanbase thats still crucial to its success today.
Many, many Half-Life mods--and fuller games that started as Half-Life mods--were churned out during this period, including Deathmatch Classic, Ricochet, Gunman Chronicles and Day of Defeat. The most successful of the bunch, though, was a multiplayer mod dubbed Counter-Strike. Developed by Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, the tactical shooter was first released in beta form in 1999, and gained a sizable audience right away. Valve took note, hired the two devs, and released Counter-Strike 1.0 in an official capacity a year later. The game promptly exploded in popularity, becoming the most popular multiplayer FPS not named Halo or Call of Duty for the next decade. It would be updated numerous times in the following years.
Valve gets incorporated and moves (slightly) away
As it continued to support Half-Life and its hungry community, Valve made a few notable moves as a business. In 2000, Harrington departed from the company he co-founded, which left Newell as the lone head honcho. In 2003, it dropped the LLC from its title and became Valve Corporation.
Around that same time, it moved its headquarters about five miles south to Bellevue, Washington. And while all this was happening, Valve started work on two new endeavors that would take it beyond mere game development: Source and Steam.
Steam makes Valve more than a game developer...
Steam was first unveiled at GDC 2002. When it launched a year later, it was far from the all-encompassing behemoth that we know it as today. In fact, it was first posited as a simple digital distribution surface whose main purpose was to deliver patches and other updates to online games more easily. Before, said patches had a nasty habit of crashing games like Counter-Strike and rendering them unplayable for days at a time. When it was out and about, though, people quickly realized Valves angle--and they werent entirely pleased.
Though most of us dont mind now, more than a few Valve loyalists werent happy with Steams online authentication, game launching, and DRM requirements to start. And they were doubly unhappy when Valve announced in 2004 that all of its future games would require Steam to be played. You see, Steam was a bit of a buggy mess at the time, frequently buckling under duress and causing games to crash along with it. Its offline mode was cumbersome for those who didnt want to be forced online all the time, and while it could host multiplayer games and deploy anti-cheating software, it wasnt nearly as featured as it is now. Valves own games and mods were the only ones available for the platform at first, and to top it all off, its UI was ugly. So it had a rocky start.
...and it eventually overcomes its early struggles
But like all things that arent food, Steam got better with age. The technical kinks that marred the platform in its early days got smoothened out, and it soon became speedy and reliable. In 2005, Valve made its first set of distribution agreements with third-party publishers, allowing it to diversify Steams game catalogue beyond its own titles. The platform soon became profitable, and those profits only increased as more and more publishers and PC gamers turned towards digital distribution. From 2007 to 2009, it continued to roll out a range of new features--soon you could store game saves and profile data to the Steam Cloud, fill out achievement lists, or chat with your Steam friends in Steam Community networking groups.
In 2010, the clients UI got a sorely needed and much-improved visual makeover. Mac and Linux clients was later released. And now, you can shop for user-generated content in the Steam Workshop, buy non-gaming apps, check your profile from the Steam smartphone app, vouch for intriguing new titles on Steam Greenlight, and more. The service suffered a nasty hack in November 2011, but, all things considered, its generally been secure. The Steam Store is now the premier PC marketplace for triple-A and indie games alike; and of course, it gives you those delicious Steam sales every now and again. All of this is to say that Steams success snowballed into something thats now Valves greatest asset. It serves tens of millions of users today and takes up an enormous amount of the PC market--and its only getting more robust as time goes on.
Valve unveils a more modular game engine...
The second of Valves big post-Half-Life endeavors was a major update to its GoldSrc game engine. For nearly five years, the company worked on a toolset that would not only be more powerful than before, but would also lend itself to continuous, organic updates. This, in part, explains why Gearbox and others handled Half-Lifes post-release content. When Valve showcased the first footage of Half-Life 2 at E3 2003, the fruits of its labor were revealed.
The engine was named Source, and it officially arrived in August 2004 with the launch of the appropriately-named remake Counter-Strike: Source. Although the revamped physics of that game threw off CS diehards at first, Valve would continue to showcase Sources capabilities in remakes like Half-Life: Source and, later on, Day of Defeat: Source. When Half-Life 2 was finally released later in 2004 (more on that in a few), Sources graphical and physics power were on full display, impressing the masses in the process.
...and it powers a new generation of content
Source brought the usual (but nonetheless impressive) upgrades--better lighting, more realistic physics, smoother graphics, etc.--but its big draw was its heavy modularity. To this day, it doesnt get updated with the usual point releases; instead, it gets more featured through a series of constant, downloadable releases. Its still rooted in the GoldSrc engine--which in turn is rooted in the old Quake engine--so it isnt as powerful as the Unreal Engine 4s of the world, its toolset is a little dated, and its never been very widely used by third-party studios.
But you could argue that was never the point anyways. Source has powered every Valve game since 2004, and those constant updates have helped it hang in there from a technical standpoint today. And since Source is free to the public, its been used by the thousands of modders whove made games out of Valves releases over the past decade. Some of those mods, like Dear Esther or The Stanley Parable, have gone on to achieve notable success on their own. Source is no Unity, but its always been something of an engine for the people, and thats worth something.
Half-Life 2 creates quite a tease...
But even with its ventures into Steam and Source, Valve still hadnt forgotten about its roots. It just seemed like it did. But at E3 2003, the company finally revealed the follow-up to its beloved Half-Life. With the new Source engine and the anticipation of millions behind it, Half-Life 2 quickly became one of the most desired games of the year after Valve said itd launch in September 2003.
But then September came and went, and no game was released. Then Valves fans got upset. Then it continued to deal with an elongated legal battle with Vivendi Universal over VUs alleged copyright infringement (which Valve would later win). Then Newell revealed the company had been hacked, and that pieces of Half-Life 2s levels and code had been leaked on the internet. Then the fans got worried. Then the game got delayed until later in 2004. Then people got angry.
...but proves to be worth the wait
But in November 2004, Valve stuck to its word and finally released the long-awaited sequel to the public. Half-Life 2 immediately achieved, and arguably surpassed, the success of the original, wowing audiences and critics alike with its looks, atmosphere, and inventive combat. A vocal minority of players were peeved about being forced to run Steam in order to play the game, and Steam itself had some crashes with millions of players trying to authenticate their copies at once. But those concerns would eventually die down. Half-Life 2 has sold more than 10 million copies and won innumerable awards and commendations since.
When the dust was settled on the big launch, the same post-launch flurry of mods and expansions that followed Half-Life 1 arrived again. The most successful of those is a simply-named sandbox tool called Garrys Mod, which has since made more than $22 million in sales and has been behind a large number of machinima-style videos. Various other Half-Life 2 mods continue to be built and released by the community today.
Valve sets up a big package...
By 2007, Valve was making moves. The stream of Half-Life 2 content continued to flow; Steam continued to expand and improve; and Source had established its place in the community. Two years earlier, Newell and company hired a young group of graduates from Washingtons DigiPen Institute of Technology after taking interest in a small puzzle game they developed called Narbacular Drop.
In 2006, Valve launched the first in a planned trilogy of narrative-based Half-Life 2 expansions: Half-Life 2: Episode One. And while all of that was happening, the company continued to plug away on that old Team Fortress follow-up it had promised seven years earlier.
...and delivers it in an Orange Box
All of this came to a head with the October 2007 release of The Orange Box, which to this day is considered one of the best bargains in gaming history. For the price of one game, you got five: Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, the new Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the hotly-anticipated multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, and the spiritual successor to Narbacular Drop, Portal. The whole package launched on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (though the latter version was handled by EA and horribly ridden with bugs) along with Steam, which helped bring Valves catalogue to an even wider audience than before.
Every game in the collection was well-received, but particular praise went to Portal. It was a master class of game design and something legitimately unique in an homogenizing market; and many people (ahem, ahem) now consider it to be one of the greatest accomplishments of the medium. Team Fortress 2s new cartoony look was derided by some fans after it was first revealed at E3 2006, but its developed a large, dedicated and hat-loving player base that only expanded when it went free-to-play in 2011. And Half-Life 2: Episode Two ended on a thrilling cliffhanger, setting up a highly desired conclusion to the trilogy.
Left 4 Dead shoots and shambles its way to success...
In 2006, a California-based developer named Turtle Rock Studios announced that it would use the Source engine to create a new zombie-themed survival game called Left 4 Dead. Valve, as it had done numerous times in the past, soon took an interest in the project, and in January 2008 it acquired Turtle Rock with the explicit purpose of finishing and releasing the title. And once again, it proved that it had good taste when it came to picking out potential projects.
Left 4 Dead formally launched on Steam and Xbox 360 in November of that same year, and when it arrived it was a campy zombie FPS with a particular focus on co-op play. It only had four levels to start, but they were each dictated by an adaptive AI that changed item spawns, music cues and zombie types each time you played. It didnt have much of a written narrative beyond survive and shoot zombies, but the gameplay could legitimately be called dynamic, and its co-op bent made it a hoot to play with friends. Like Portal, Left 4 Dead felt like something fresh. It sold well, and it achieved widespread acclaim.
...but Left 4 Dead 2 starts off shaky
So with that being said, youd think Left 4 Deads fans would be pumped to hear that a sequel was coming just a year later, right? Wrong. Indeed, Valve surprised the community by revealing Left 4 Dead 2 at E3 2009 and pegging it to arrive in November of that year. And indeed, some fans werent very happy. The backlash stemmed from Valves earlier promise to continue supporting the original Left 4 Dead with DLC and expansions after it launched. With a brand new title coming so soon, they thought, the first game would be abandoned, and theyd have to plop down another $60 to get all the new content.
Close to 40,000 fans even started a boycott of the game in protest (in a Steam community group, no less), but as usual with these kind of squabbles, things died down soon enough. Valve would go on to release a couple of DLC packs for the original game, and when Left 4 Dead 2 launched in November, most players had no problem paying for what was an improved, deeper version of an already fun title. Left 4 Dead 2 received expansions of its own in 2010, and it could safely be considered another all-around success.
Expected and unexpected sequels leave their mark...
Valve continued to supervise the releases of multiple new games after Left 4 Dead 2 launched. In 2010, it was behind the free, top-down multiplayer shooter Alien Swarm. In 2011, it launched Portal 2, which fleshed out the original into a longer adventure and added a co-op mode. It earned high praise once again, and was notable for bringing special Steamworks support to its PlayStation 3 version--a surprising move since Newell had called the PS3 a total disaster four years earlier. In 2012, it helped launch a modernized Counter-Strike dubbed Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Also in 2011, Valve launched the beta version of Dota 2, its first multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game and the unofficial follow-up to a popular Warcraft III mod called Defense of the Ancients. Two years prior, Valve hired IceFrog, one of leading guys behind that original mod, and set him to work on creating kind-of-but-not-technically sequel to the project (hence why its called Dota, not DotA, like the original). These blurred lines resulted in a lawsuit from Warcraft dev Blizzard, but the two sides settled in mid-2012, and Dota 2 formally launched this past July. It, too, was received well, and its earned itself a rabid, dedicated community of players.
...but theres one(+2=HL3!!!) game were all waiting for
Which brings us to the present, where past several months for Valve have been dominated by two questions. The first is simple enough: Whose headcrab do we have to smash to get Half-Life 3/Half-Life: Episode Three? Now, the fact that theres been a delay shouldnt come as a surprise; after the sagas of Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, Valves rightfully earned a reputation for teasing its fanbase with protracted development times.
But given that its been six years since Episode Two launched, and given that Valves kept almost completely quiet about any future Half-Life games since, this particular wait has seemed especially brutal for diehard fans. The most recent glimmer of hope came earlier this week, when a European trademark for a Half-Life 3 was leaked and confirmed to be from Valve. But officially speaking, we still cant say when well be able to write Half-Life 3 confirmed for real.
The play for the living room begins
The other major question thats been thrown around is a little less hazy: Is Valve making its own console? Rumors about a potential Steam Box swirled for months, and they were only intensified when Valve launched a living room-friendly Big Picture mode for Steam last year.
Thankfully, though, Valve clarified a great deal of the speculation recently. Now we know that there will not only be a Steam console, therell be many of them from multiple manufacturers. We dont know what they look like yet, but we know theyll come with a variety of price points and spec sheets, and we know theyll launch in 2014. We also know theyll run SteamOS, which is Valves brand new Linux-based operating system thats built around Steam itself. And finally, we know that these consoles will be compatible with Valves own Steam Controller, whose dual touchpad design is certainly different than typical gamepads. Select Steam members will get their hands on this new tech by the end of the year. We cant say how big of an impact this army of Steam Machines will have on console gaming, but one things for sure: After seventeen years of growth, Valve is still looking to expand.
The valves keep turning
So why do gamers love Valve so much? Well, probably because theyve been a winner. They drive you nuts with launch delays, yes, but almost all of their games have become instant classics. Steams DRM policies can be annoying, sure, but almost everything else about it is user-friendly. And Gabe Newells pinky might be worth more than your life, but whatever, hes, well, yeah, thats a lot of money.