My visit at Valve's HQ: What I learned about the state of Dota 2

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Our reporter CozmikMonkey paid a visit to Valve's headquarters in Seattle, Washington. He wanted to find out how exactly Valve operates as a company and came to a drastic conclusion. In the following, you read his experience report. This doesn't necessarily represent the opinion of joinDOTA. It's a sunny day in Bellevue, Washington as I walk through the revolving doors at 10400 Northeast 4th Street—the building that houses Valve's headquarters. The uninspired street name adds an air of ambiguity, almost secrecy, to the chrome Brave New World-esque foyer.

I spin through the automated directory and find that there is no "Valve" listed. Deciding on the empirical approach, I take the elevator to the 14th floor where their office is supposedly located. After a short ride, the elevator doors ding open and I am greeted by a large stencil painted on the far wall of the Heavy from Team Fortress 2.

I have arrived at Valve.

The lobby and waiting area at Valve.

I walk by a literal red valve in the centre of the floor and approach the receptionist. The first thing I notice is that the parking validation machine has three cutesy Dotakins figurines atop it: Juggernaut, Sven, and Lina.

The receptionist tells me that the tour will start shortly and I take my place in the waiting area. The foyer is large and open concept and a staircase ascends several stories (Valve owns floors 14 to 19). I thumb through a coffee table book of video game concept art while another visitor demos a VR headset. The office is girded by windows and light rolls in like liquid gold; next to the entryway by the elevators, the Aegis of Champions sits in a clean glass case, gleaming in the sun.

The Aegis of Champions - Valve

Finally our tour guide arrives and introduces themself. I won't divulge the employee's name, but I will say that they were very friendly. For the sake of ease, I'm going to call them Catalyst.

Catalyst takes us back to the elevators and up to the fifteenth floor. On the walls of each elevator anteroom is a stencil from one of Valve's games. Floor 15 features Tidehunter from Dota 2, floor 16 features the Terrorists from Counter-Strike, floor 17 features a Boomer from Left 4 Dead, and so on.

The inscription plaque underneath the Aegis.

On each floor, on the ground directly outside the elevators, is large compass pointing in all four directions with North highlighted in red. This functions as an immediate orientation tool because, in actual fact, Valve's headquarters resembles the office complex from Half-Life and I am constantly searching to find my bearings.

Catalyst takes us to the cafeteria where employees are eating and talking and it feels like highschool. There are endless caches of chips and chocolate and gum and, nearby, several large refrigerators hum with every kind of drink imagineable inside. Catalyst invites us to take whatever we want, but only one person takes a bottle of water. I could not spot any beer.

Floor 15

We walk by what looks like a professional kitchen and down a long hallway toward a series of large windows from which Seattle can be seen in the distance. Here, Catalyst begins to tell us the history of Valve. Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, once Microsoft employees, something about Half-Life, yadda yadda; we all know the story.

Truly, I didn't care about any of this. I came to Valve to find out one thing: How is the company run? How is one of the most profitable video game companies on Earth so terrible at delivering products on time? And why is it they can never seem to properly communicate with their fans?

Valve has no managers

"Valve has a flat hierarchy," Catalyst tells us as we are led down another long hallway. "That is why it's very difficult to get hired here. There are no bosses."

It is further explained to us that, in essence, no employee at Valve has an actual job. Every single person works on whatever they want as it interests them.

Hearing this, a host of questions well in my mind, but I hold them for later as we enter a room full of workers. There are approximately ten people inside, all of them privy to two large monitors, most of them typing with some manner of frenzy. One of the employees casts us a detached acknowledgement. Near him, on the floor, I see a few paintings for the card art in Artifact.

Lion vs. Death Prophet Artifact Official Artwork - Valve

"This is the Steam cabal," Catalyst says; every working team of employees is known internally as a cabal—the connotation giving the labyrinthine hallways of the office a somewhat cultish feel. "For everything Valve releases there is a cabal."

"The upkeep of Steam rests on the shoulders of ten people?" I think to myself. "What happens if maintaining one of the world's biggest software distribution platforms no longer 'interests' them?"

We soon depart and are off down yet another hallway, but in this one are three trophies I recognize instantly. The Eaglesong from The Frankfurt Major, the Mystic Staff from The Shanghai Major, and the Reaver from The Manila Major. All of them are a lot smaller in person than they seem in video.

OG hoisting the Eaglesong at the Frankfurt Major - Valve

We turn a corner and I see something huge and orange-red. It's an approximately six-foot real-life Dota 2 logo statue—we have arrived at the Dota 2 cabal. Catalyst begins to inform the tour group of what Dota 2 is and also that there is a very large, multi-million dollar tournament upcoming; however, their words fizzle in my mind as I peer inside.

There are again around ten people working in the the room, all of them doing seemingly innocuous things. One person—I presume an artist—is altering the official splash artwork of Bane while another is working on hero models in some way. The rest had nothing telling on their screens. I wonder immediately if Icefrog is present.

Bane Elemental Official Artwork - Valve

"The prize pool is over 20 million, I think," Catalyst says to an awestruck group. "26 million," I correct with the best humour I can muster; at the time, it was 26 million and not more than 30 million as it is now.

I ask Catalyst why there are so few people working on Dota 2 when The International was so close, and the response was exceptionally nonchalant: simply, people work on what interests them.

If I had to guess, everyone had gone to work on the Dota 2 spin-off, Underlords.

Valve's approach to game design is extremely indirect

As Catalyst said, employees at Valve work on what interests them, but it is a little more complex than that.

For a new product to be created, or for a product to be updated, an employee will have to convince other employees to work alongside them. In many of the cabals I saw there were nearby whiteboards with several scribbled notes and diagrams on it. Dozens of ideas are worked upon and then scrapped. The entire system at Valve is one that encourages experimentation.

The literal valve in the lobby.

Further, Valve does not hire people with singular skills—so, for example, they will not hire merely a concept artist or merely a software developer—rather, they hire people with a broad suite of skills precisely so that they can move around to any project. Everyone's workstation is attached to a mobile desk on wheels. If an employee wants to move to another project, only two cables—the power cable and the ethernet cable—separates them from rolling their entire station down the hall to another cabal.

Once an employee begins working on a project, however, there is a corporate cultural expectation that they work until their duty is finished. For example, if you are working on Dota 2 and helping to implement balance changes, the expectation is that you stay around until the update drops before carting off to work on another project.

Spoils of War Update Artwork - Valve

Valve has an intensive multi-stage interview process to try to ensure that employees can function in this environment and will contribute properly once they are hired. Catalyst tells me that "bad actors" are hard to root out in the company because it could be months before it is discovered that they are not working properly.

If employees have a difference of opinion on how work on a product should proceed, it effectively becomes a democratic vote in that specific cabal, wherein the majority determines the decision. Apparently this happens all the time, but I had the sense that Catalyst—and Valve as a macrocosm—enjoyed this dynamic tension.

Valve's underlying goal in this flat structure is to ensure that everyone enjoys what they are working on and also brings value to the product. Every employee I saw seemed very happy to be working there, but this utopian veneer seemed a far cry from the experience of so many who have poured thousands of hours into Dota 2.

Valve has limited internal communication

I finally ask Catalyst the most pointed question: "Why does it take Valve so long to respond to fans?"

"A lot of the time I find out about what Valve is doing through the internet," Catalyst says with a small laugh. Their meaning is that, at Valve, the discrete cabals do not communicate with one another. If a product is released, there is no internal memo or message between colleagues announcing the launch. So, for example, when Underlords was released, the only people who knew about it were the people working directly on Underlords. Everyone else found out at the same time as the consumers.

Valve's new game Underlords was originally a Dota 2 modification.

In other words, if employees do not know what their own colleagues are doing, then they certainly do not know how the fans feel.

There is a sort of irresponsible irony about Catalyst's response. If the only way for employees to gauge how their work is being received by fans is to check the internet, then one would expect Valve employees to constantly be checking the internet. But they aren't. From what Catalyst told me, there is astonishingly minimal interaction between Valve employees and the fanbase unless an employee feels particularly intrepid and seeks it out. Overall, the people working on Dota 2 are not aware of how the fans feel.

The Collector's Cache is a popular lootbox featuring community-made cosmetics - Valve

The reason for this is simply because there is no oversight—no bosses and no managers, as mentioned before. No one is forcing the employees to communicate, so they choose not to. Months of collective frustration for the Dota 2 community might only be discovered by an errant employee stumbling upon the situation through Reddit or some other online outlet. As far as I can surmise, the only factor that increases the certainty of news reaching Valve is the size and volume of fan outcry, like some of the recent scandals.

When I brought up Valve time and asked whether there was any pressure on Valve to launch games and features on time, the response was curt: "No." Valve does not mind blowing by release windows to better the quality of their projects. This, as an isolated idea, is one I think very few would argue with; however, when coupled with the fact that no one at Valve communciates with consumers, it becomes a deeply frustrating notion.

There is no vision that dictates Valve's actions

When we arrived at the sound editing room—a small padded space with giant speakers in the walls, as well as one of the last stops on the tour—and whilst queuing the Dota 2 Reborn orchestral video for us to watch, Catalyst remarked how excited they were to learn from the cabal doing sound design on an unnamed project.

It was in that moment that I had a realization: the employees at Valve are perpertually on paid vacation. They are employed to learn new skills and find new hobbies and maybe, if it suits them, if it interests them, deliver products.

This is the reason why Valve is notorious for bad communication. It is no one's job to listen to the fans or consider their opinion precisely because there are no managers. This is also the crux of why Valve releases so few original games (the last one being Half-Life 2 back in 2004) and why, instead, they only produce games that are essentially upgraded mods.

At least in terms of video games, Valve is no longer an inventor, they are an investor, and the monetary implication of that word is important. There are many who consider it childish to complain about Dota 2, as it is a free-to-play game, but there are also many who are angry that when Valve is paid for a service (e.g. The International Compendium), that service frequently under-delivers.

There is no timeline for when Compendium rewards and features will be released.

Many current Compendium challenges are either bugged or impossible, and features—when they are finally rolled out—are often unplayable; the recent Mo'rokai game mode is utterly boring even if not completely unplayable because of connection issues. Furthermore, ubiquitous problems like account smurfing, international coverage, and region conflation—while seeing some intervention by Valve—have borne zero long-term solutions.

With no core ideal at the heart of Valve aside from the incredibly ambivalent notion of "bringing value to the product", there is no firm guide for Valve and its employees to act in any way aside for what they happen to find fanciful. Again, invention versus investment: when any party sells a product, there are certain expectations about performance and administration. Valve clearly does not see it this way, or—worse—they are ignorant about their responsibility as game inventors exactly because they are fundamentally no longer game inventors.

The future is in our hands

There is a lot of talent at Valve and history has shown that, generally, when they do finally deliver a product, it is of high quality (let's ignore Mo'rokai for the moment and recall Siltbreaker). But does that excuse their negligence on so many different fronts? Basic quality of life improvements are likely to never be fixed because Valve is not listening to fan outcry—there is no reason for them to.

Siltbreaker Official Artwork - Valve

With The International 2019 becoming the highest paying eSports tournament of all time, serious consideration needs to be placed on how we—as the Dota 2 community—give money to Valve. Every extra cent they recieve increases their freedom to ignore the everyday state of their games as well as the people who play those games.

Dota 2 is—in a very real way—not Valve's game, but the community's game. The Dota 2 community reared it and keeps it alive through interest and money while Valve facilitates its maintenance. This is a sensible system if both parties do their job. Players are the lifeblood of Dota 2. If change is to happen, there is only one feasible avenue: the community must act not merely with its words, but with its wallet.

That is, if the community really wants change.

The International 2017 Main Stage - Valve

There are no more heroes

As we returned to the lobby, I think again about the scandals that have marred Dota 2 in the last year. I always had this sense that Valve was as this omniscient watcher, patiently biding time, waiting for everyone to speak before giving their immutable verdict on any given situation. The truth, however, is far more disappointing. Valve is not proactive in terms of what happens outside of their walls, they are reactive, and that is why it takes them so long to address even the most elementary—and often necessary—subjects.

When the tour ends I thank Catalyst and head for the elevator. As I wait for the cab doors to open and take me back down to reality, I look again at the compass on the floor. This time it strikes me differently—this time, it is a symbolic juxtaposition for the company itself.

Valve's laissez-faire philosophy has resulted in a company with no unifying vision or concrete purpose at its core; it is a company with no direction.

Do you think anything needs to change about how Valve adminsters Dota 2?

Photo Credit - The International 6

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