According to some yet unfounded rumours, Microsoft is considering an acquisition of EA, PUBG Corp, and Valve. One of our colleagues here at Backlog Critic has written a feature on why Microsoft buying Valve would make perfect sense. It would make perfect sense for Microsoft, no doubt about it. Microsoft could only benefit from such an acquisition.
It is not the first time someone expressed an interest in buying Valve, and it will not be the last. However, those who believe that Valve is just like any other company, simply waiting for an offer from the highest bidder, have a fundamentally mistaken idea of what Valve is about. A good introduction to what working at Valve is like can be found in their Handbook for New Employees. Valve’s culture and flat structure is unlike any other in the games industry. Michael Abrash, who helped John Carmack develop the original Quake engine, also wrote a long blog post on how Valve is different.
Valve is a private company, with no outside investors who could be “persuaded” to sell out, which would make it very hard for a buyout to happen, no matter how much money is on the table. Valve reps spoke out long ago on why they are and will remain a private company: “All [companies that go public] end up getting their customers changed. Any bad decision I ever see out there is because somebody created this different customer that was whoever funds them, and not the consumer of the product.”
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they grow jaded and give up on their loyalty to their customer base, what then? Then there will be conflicting interests. Valve’s flat structure and culture would clash with Microsoft’s vested interest in churning out exclusive games for Windows 10 and Xbox. It’s very likely that the majority of Valve’s employees would quit if they got bought out by Microsoft and were expected to give up their creative freedom.
The common argument often goes that Valve is just a storefront company now, as they haven’t released games like they used to since 2011, when they released Portal 2. Since then, they have focused on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2. And I agree, I would rather play their single-player games too. But this is not new: in between Half-Life and Half-Life 2 they also spent six years releasing multiplayer-only games based on mods, with the couple Half-Life expansion packs by Gearbox thrown in for good measure. They took their sweet Valve Time to work on the Source engine that made Half-Life 2 groundbreaking.
As of 2016, Valve had about 360 employees. So what have all these people been working on? Source 2, Vive, 3 VR games, and their established franchises. Plus whatever else they haven’t announced yet, which could be a lot. “But writers Mark Laidlaw and Chet Faliszek left Valve recently!” So what? That’s their choice. Major talent like Doug Church, who pioneered first-person games and coined “immersive sim,” is still working at Valve.
You can’t judge Valve by any traditional metric. What may be true of EA, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Activision-Blizzard, et al, will never be true of Valve.