Valve is somewhat of an enigma. Everyone is well aware of how it got so big, thanks to milestone releases like “Half-Life” and “Portal,” as well maintaining the most popular digital distribution pipeline going, in effect shaping the very face of PC gaming. Yet the company as a whole remains a mystery; many have long wondered what the heck goes on behind the scenes. And not just those who have long grown tired of the wait for Half-Life 2: Episode Three.
Still, more than a few who wish to be involved in the industry, perhaps as an artist, programmer, or designer, would love the chance to work at a company that has such a powerful and well respected entity. The fact that it largely operates with a “flat structure” in which everyone is seemingly the boss is equally enticing.
Though Jeri Ellsworth, Valve’s now former head of their hardware division, recently lifted the veil of what happens behind the scenes, and the picture she paints is not a pretty one. The beans were spilled on the Grey Area video podcast, and which has also been detailed in vivid detail by Develop.
But first, some background: a while back, a “witch hunt” took place within Valve, to weed out those who belonged to “the undesirables” by management. Ellsworth, as it happens, was part of this mass purging.
Those actually responsible have much to do with the well-publicized manner in which responsibility is handled, and are the source of Valve’s problem in general Ellsworth states:
“Now we’ve all seen the Valve handbook, which offers a very idealized view. A lot of that is true. It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups at least in small groups you are all peers and make decisions together.
But the one thing I found out the hard way is that there is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company. And it felt a lot like High School. There are popular kids that have acquired power, then there’s the trouble makers, and then everyone in between. Everyone in between is ok, but the trouble makers are the ones trying to make a difference.”
Ellsworth cites various specific examples, like the overwhelming concern for maintaining the office corporate culture, even at the expense of progress on key projects. Another reason why nothing ever happens is tied directly to how Valve rewards their employees:
“They have a bonus structure in there where you can get bonuses – if you work on very prestigious projects – that are more than what you earn. So everyone is trying to work on projects that are really visible. ’Look at me, I am making all these great improvements to the latest and greatest video game’.
And it’s impossible to pull those people away for something risky like augmented reality because they only want to work on the sure thing. So that was a frustration, we were starved for resources.”
Ellsworth readily admits that she’s bitter. At first she was hesitant on joining the company, but was finally convinced with promises of having complete control of the hardware group. Basically… “they promised me the world and then stabbed me in the back.”
The entire transcription is a fascinating read, and if you have the time, try to check out the video in its entirety (the above is just part one of six).