By Kevin Kelly
You know it’s a treat when you get to hear the somewhat reclusive Gabe Newell talk two days in a row, and while he was J.J. Abrams-less for his second D.I.C.E. keynote, Newell decided not to focus on talking about sales-oriented things, or announcing new products (damn!). Instead, he talked about two tenets:
• The PC ecosystem is going to expand into the living room. Obviously this is what Valve has been moving towards with their Steam Box system that will attach a gaming PC to your television.
• He thinks there is going to be a fairly significant sea change in what we think a game is. This will expand throughout the video game ecosystem, and will wind up in your living room, and will incorporate people who don’t tend to think of themselves as “gamers.”
“A lot of people have an outdated notion about what is possible with a PC,” Newell said about bringing computing power into the living room. With the movement towards mobility, PC manufacturers have gone way beyond what would be required for a similar experience in the living room, where you don’t have to worry about things like thermal envelopes and power consumption.
Some issues are left to be filled, with audio synchronization and controller input, but he thinks that the price points for these solutions will be far below what is typically involved in a console gaming setup. But it’s not open transition to get in there. “It’s actually scary to think what Apple is going to do,” going on to explain that he thinks that Apple has a more natural progression into the living room, which is a large threat to moving PC gaming into the same space.
What he thinks will lend credibility to the experience itself is the fact that PC gaming systems are easily adaptable, and that the sheer horsepower you can get out of them will dwarf what you can get out of a console. This is already the case, obviously, with PC gaming, but for the millions of potential future consumers, it’s a fact that needs to be illustrated and grasped.
In regards to the Cloud, which most people would tout as feature for moving powerful gaming into the living room, Newell thinks that the Cloud isn’t the best solution, and posits that it is probably left for functions like spectating or streaming video.
How will video games need to evolve to encompass the living room? Newell told a story about how that they added a riot shield to “Counter-Strike,” and noting that the player numbers went up. Then they took the riot shield away, and noted that the numbers went up again. It’s a simple thing, but helped informed how they thought about multiplayer gaming vs. the single-player experience, and pushed them towards creating Steam in the first place.
On free-to-play gaming, Newell said “If you had talked to me in the past about giving our games away for free, I would have said I don’t understand that model at all.” But he has seen numbers increase greatly with the free-to-play model, and said that based entirely on your development costs, it makes sense in some cases. He pointed out that it feels like Photoshop should be a free-to-play game, in a sense, as there isn’t that much difference between building content in a game, and using Photoshop as a productivity tool. He says that it would make sense if Photoshop was a free product that then shared in the revenue streams that it generates, it would change the economy of that ecosystem.
On user-generated content, the Valve game community makes ten times as many pieces of content as Valve done, “And it is often as good as or better than what we make.” Apparently there are people making $500,000 in the Steam Workshop off of UGC, which has caused Valve to take a step back and look at their games. He also noted that in Team Fortress 2, people have been using keys for the Apple Earbuds you can add to your characters as currency in the game, which led to a miniature economic crisis.
“People spend hundreds of hours in these games, and work at it and get better at it, but when they move to a new game, it all goes away.” He thinks that each game should be thought of as maximizing productivity, and remaining persistent. They are realizing that other things in the game need to be goods and services as well, like Championships, and Friends, and so on. They are in the process of adding user-generated music as a creatable item, and expanding into other areas as well, so you’re not just talking about a new hat for your character.
He talked briefly about eSports as well, noting the challenges that it faces (and will face, if that expands into the living room) and they are working on solutions to make this a better experience. For example, he said they are looking at adding banners to teams, so that each member of that team will have a banner over them, showing their team affiliation. MMOs tend to do this, but what Newell was illustrating was a more integrated and obvious indicator.
So what is Valve doing in order to move things along? “We’re working on input hardware … We think that’s a big hole.” Their goal is to move things forward, not to sell a bunch of hardware, as that isn’t the business they are in. Valve is dependent on the success of the PC, and right now with multi-touch, motion, keyboards, mice, and game controllers, which are all good for different purposes. They are looking at input devices and seeing what they can change holistically about them.
Valve is also looking at the vendors in the space, but these vendors require them to do some work in order to insure that the customer experience at home is seamless. “We’re developing console form-factor PCs,” he said, noting that while the goal is for them to have the openness of a PC, but work so that they look and feel like a typical console experience to the user.
Coming back to user-generated content, he said that Valve is starting to fundamentally look at how they curate current content, and that in the initial stage they worried that UGC would result in things like a lot of pornographic items in-game, the flipside is that users are now creating content that is better than the things they make, and at a much faster rate. They also want to explore things like quests, “Why can’t I give a quest to someone that I meet in-game? Like, ‘Go Kill My Brother 20 Times’”.
These are just some of the key points that are influencing their thinking and the decisions they make. In conclusion, Newell said, “If we’re wrong, at least it will be spectacularly entertaining as a failure.” Only time will tell, but we’re eagerly awaiting the Steam Box, and we’ll have to see what changes it brings with it.