Sunday, October 3, 2010

Videogame Industry done right

Next week (hopefully) we will get the new (and completely free on the PC) release of another campaign of Left 4 Dead / Left 4 Dead 2. I will take this as an occasion to use Valve Corporation as an example of how video game companies can do it right.

Valve Corporation is probably best known for their long-running franchise Half-Life, which maybe became even more famous through the fanmade mod of Counter Strike. I don't think you can call Valve an ordinary game company. Because of them we have invented terms like "Valve-time", coined after lots of delays in production and release of new content. But even though Valve isn't always the quickest in churning out sequels (like SOME companies) they do make sure that what they publish will fufill certain quality standards.

Valve hasn't released a lot of games but all of them are really good. Half Life, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Portal, all of those games are wellknown with gamers for a reason. To go into detail of the awesomeness of each of these games would be too much for a single entry, so I am going to focus on the way in which Valve perceives their task as a game developer and thinks about the desires of their customers.

One of the best things about Valve are their free updates (at least if you are on the PC) that keep games alive even years after their release. Probably the most changing updates were those made to the game Team Fortress 2. Since the game came out in 2007 (eight years after its predecessor, by the way), all character classes have received new specific items and also funny little collective items like hats have been added to the game. Furthermore, the game started out as a game with a rather cryptic (some may say non-existant) storyline of two companies that are for some reason fighting against each other, having to deliver bombs and capturing points. Through the years its storyline has been fleshed out through comics and character videos, being a story of two feuding brothers and the motives of another force in the background (the Announcer) still unknown. The overall tone of the game seems to have changed a little bit as well, with items like a brainslug, a fake beard and a monocle, an Elvis-esque hairdo it now comes across as rather amusing.

The free updates for Left 4 Dead are much more epic. Entire new chapters are revealed that drive the story on and recently Valve has started using comics for storytelling in L4D as well. That comic really is surprisingly good. If made into a movie, I think it would turn into one of the best zombie movies out there. A twist that has been foreshadowed but never in a too obvious way is slowly being revealed: The survivors, which we know to be immune to the zombie virus, are actually carriers of the virus and thus, highly contagious. Now where can they go to escape the zombie apocalypse if even the safe zones won't want them? This is where The Sacrifice seems to start out.

Also, when it comes to content, Valve is very innovative. A lot of games require shooting in some way shape or form but Portal, for example, is pretty much violence-free and was a big hit when it first came out, as a refreshing new genre: first person puzzle game. The famous companion cube quickly became a meme, just as the saying "The cake is a lie". How many people are even aware that this saying came from Portal? Another thing that I think is really worth mentioning is the portrayal of female characters in Valve games. None of their videogame females are scantily clad or the inappropriate attention magnets that videogame girls usually are. In Half Life 2 you have the sympathetic Alyx as your main sidekick. She's the person that Gordon Freeman interacts with the most and plays a big role in the story. Portal even sports a female main character, you play as the test subject named Chell. Based on the same face-model, the character Zoey from Left 4 Dead is probably my favourite female character made by Valve. She is a young college student, majoring in film studies but already on the way to dropping out. She stayed in her dorm for the majority of the previous semester and watched zombie movies, which in the end were a nice preparation for her facing the zombie apocalypse. She also has a strong relationship with her father, with whom she used to watch those movies together and who keeps defending her even if her mother criticises her for dropping out. Zoey, to date, is probably the character that I can most identify with. Left 4 Dead 2 also sports its female character, Rochelle, a tough reporter girl from the South who was supposed to do a report about that new flu when the zombie apocalypse decended on them. I really think that Valve does good, probably better than ANY game company I know, in the portrayal of females in videogames. I can easily identify with all their female characters.

Gabe Newell once said that videogame pirates are nothing more than unsatisfied customers, people that you have to win over by offering a good product. This is the most constructive approach to the issue of videogame piracy that I have heard of to this day and Valve seems to be the first company that actually understand what they are doing. When their games come out, they sometimes can be little more than bare bones (as was the case with Left 4 Dead 1) but the loyal customer buys those games because they know they can rest assured that Valve will keep on supplying them with new content soon. That's why people were extremely upset when they heard about the sequel, Left 4 Dead 2, so soon after the first installment had been released. They feared that Valve would stray from their reasonable path and I have to say I was highly suspicious of this new game as well. I have to say though, that I have been completely blown away by the trailer and all my doubts were erased when I finally got to play the game. It really was more fun than its predecessor and worth buying in every regard.

Now with the next update Valve assures us that they aren't abandoning L4D1 as a game. They have developed new content for it for the second time now and continue to do so free of charge. Recently they also released a whole game for free, Alien Swarm, which is a nice little 4 player co-op game about shooting aliens. There have also been periods of time when Portal was completely free and you could get yourself a permanent copy of that, or weekends where Team Fortress was free to play or drastically reduced in price (3€!!). I think that was especially done as an experiment to see how a videogame company can profit from making their products much cheaper and their sales shot through the roof. Even though the individual unit price was lower, they did make more money in the end because of the sheer number of copies they sold.

Valve thinks about what customers really want, what is fair to them and they keep their promises. That is why I still trust Valve, even after I was highly suspicious of their business with Left 4 Dead 2. When I attended gamescom 2010 it also became obvious which videogame companies were generous and which weren't. Valve gave away free t-shirts of Portal 2 AND free codes for full-price, full-version games and not just one but one for you and one for a friend that you could invite. How awesome is that? In the end I can say is that I support Valve and the way they are working and I think they might probably be my favourite videogame company ever. Even if I am not that interested in Portal 2, I will continue to support Valve in whatever they do.

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