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[As the company begins to let Dota 2 into the wild, Gamasutra speaks to Valve boss Gabe Newell and to project leader Erik Johnson to find out both the decision-making process that lead to the game and also about how things work at Valve.]
Valve Software's Erik Johnson likes DotA -- and from that, a project is born. Can it really be that simple at Valve? According to managing director Gabe Newell -- yes it can, if things align properly. Relying on interest and talent much more than planning and business strategy, the developer has become synonymous with both quality and success.
In this interview, Newell and Johnson discuss the genesis of the Dota 2 project, the culture at Valve that drives the company's creative and financial success, and a host of other smaller but no less significant aspects of the company and industry.
When it comes to making games, says Newell, "the challenge is to find exciting, worthwhile projects for smart people to do. And then whether you're doing it as an individual, whether you're doing it as a small indie developer, or you're doing it as a larger group, if you can answer that question you're probably going to be successful."
That's Valve's philosophy summed up succinctly, and what follows is a greater exploration of how that plays out throughout the company's larger moves.
Well, Valve chooses very carefully where it treads, right?
Gabe Newell: [laughs] It may look that way on the outside.
Erik Johnson: I'd like to think we just lumber along. And usually run into trees.
So it's not as deliberate as it looks?
GN: Oh no. Hell no. I mean, Dota 2 is really a result of Erik and a couple other guys being huge fans of IceFrog. So that's not like this incredibly, deeply reasoned business strategy. It's like, "I'm a huge fan of this! Oh, we can build a sequel? Awesome, let's do it!"
Well, that makes sense, doesn't it? You already know the potential there.
EJ: Well, I was a huge fan of it, and saw there were lots of other people that were huge fans of it. And most importantly, meeting IceFrog, he was the kind of person that we all wanted to work with.
GN: But what about your marketing? Your market analysis?
EJ: There's no market analysis. I mean, I guess there is, but not in a traditional stupid line graph sense.
Just "a lot of people like this sort of thing"?
EJ: Yeah, a lot of people, here's a person...
GN: But you must've had a business plan!
EJ: [laughs] Yeah, there's no business plan. A bunch of people... It is rare for any single person to be entertaining tens of millions of people on his own. And that's kind of enough for [a business] to be awfully interesting for us.
GN: One of the things about Valve that sort of works for us is that we think about what we do as being a collection of people who really like and trust each other who build products.
So for us, you could come up with a really compelling business plan or a market analysis, and nobody in the company would pay any attention to you at all. But if you said, "If we do this, then we can work with Michael Abrash", then a whole bunch of people would say, "Done! That's it, we have a plan now."
And that's really how [Valve works]... It's a useful thing to know about us if you try to follow what we do, and what our decision-making is, to realize that that's the kind of thing, to us, that's really compelling. And lots of other things, which traditionally drive business decisions at other companies, don't really get much traction at Valve.
Well, I can think of a few obvious examples. One is looking at [Portal predecessor] Narbacular Drop and going, "Okay. We'll turn this into something because it's so good."
GN: Well, the thing there -- and I've talked about this before -- that was really scary to me, was that something had happened with this group, that would've been kind of sad if these people all went their separate ways.
Because a lot of times you can look at something and say, "Oh, it's successful because of this person."
GN: Yeah. Carmack is so clearly the heart and brain of everything that id does. But with the guys who worked on Narbacular Drop, it was like the magic was in the team, and if the team had split up... That was my read. That there were a bunch of games that wouldn't get made if these guys went their separate directions. So I was like, "That'd be a real shame, so we need to keep them together and see what they can do."
And that turned out -- we ended up making a ton of money because of it, but we didn't do it because we thought we're going to make a bunch of money. We were thinking sort of like, "Gee, it'd be a drag if these guys weren't able to do their next game together." You know, they were going to go off and like have testing positions at large publishers, kinds of things, and it seemed like a waste given what they were able to do together.