Inspired by the Nerdist podcast interviews with the head of Valve Gabe Newell and the fact that Gabe is to be given a fellowship by BAFTA today, I thought this week instead of the usual game review, I would do something a little different and compare and contrast two of my favourite games developers around – Valve and 343 Industries. In particular I thought I would touch on each developer’s approach to their respective communities and then discuss how 343 Industries could improve as a company if they could take a page out Valve’s book.
So first things first, the community management by both companies are some of the best in the industries. Since 343 inherited the mantle (accidental pun) from Bungie they have really made an effort to stress the importance of their community in their success and have done so in a number of ways – interacting and seeking constant feedback on their own forums on Waypoint or others such as Neogaf, using social media tools especially twitter to create conversations with and between community members and having a great track record of actually hiring community members such as bsangel and more recently MLG’s Bravo. The fact that Microsoft created 343 by hiring Halo fans really has paid dividends in regards to having an enthusiastic team and that enthusiasm is certainly something that has rubbed off on the community.
Of course Valve are equally well known for the importance they place in the happiness of their community, although they go about it slightly differently to 343i. Rather than having a dedicated team whose job is to look after all things community, Gabe believes that everyone at Valve should listen and interact with their community, no one has that job because it is everyone’s responsibility. Ultimately this type of approach is best for both company and community alike because at the end of the day the community are the customers and without their support Valve would not exist. This is obviously why Gabe thinks that any interaction with the community should be entertaining and is a big fan of easter eggs, like putting the announcement for a game in another of their game’s code for their fans to find. Similarly 343, like Bungie, have a fondness for this type of communication, having hidden things in web code for treasure hunters to uncover. Both developers do the same throughout the games they make and I think they both do so for the same reasons and that’s to create a connection with their fans. Fans spend some time in their games looking for them, so by the effect of mere exposure the fans feel a deeper connection with the game and by-proxy with the developer, but also once discovered the fans feel like they are in on some secret put there just for them, whether it be a tidbit a of story, a reference to another game or some in-joke that only the hardcore fan would get.
Again, both companies encourage the creation of content by their respective communities. For example, Valve’s TF2 has so much community content, way more than Valve could ever imagine to make themselves and the diversity of mods and maps is astounding. Similarly, 343i have again kept Forge in Halo 4 to encourage the same type of content creation, of course given the hardware constraints between PC and the Xbox obviously the Halo community can only take baby steps in comparison, but still it’s certainly a good thing to give your fans the tools to come up with new ways of playing the game.
So, in terms of their community these two devs have a great ethos with regards to community. However, if we examine how each of each are arranged hierarchically they could not be more at odds. 343 Industries is of course a subsidiary of Microsoft, one of the largest, most successful and some might say one of the most traditionally corporate organisations around today and this is reflected in the way 343 is structured. Within 343’s camp there is a definite pecking order, Bonnie Ross being the General Manager and top of the pile at 343 has various department managers reporting to her and they have their head designers and so on. Now this set up is the norm and is echoed not only in the games industry but companies the world over. Of course there is always an exception to the rule.
When Gabe Newell set Valve up he envisioned something much more radical, perhaps something that may have been inspired in part by his time at Microsoft. To say Valve’s hierarchy is different would be incorrect because a hierarchy simply does not exist. Sure Gabe is the ‘head’ of the company but the way he sees things is that everyone at Valve is equal. People are responsible for their own work at Valve because Gabe believes that no-one should be the gate-keeper of someone else’s work. The upshot of this is that it gives Valve the ability to adapt quickly when developing a title. A corporate structure can slow the whole creative process down. For example, Halo 4 is a great game but it shipped as an unfinished product. Hypothetically, if 343 had had less line managers and more people physically working on the game would the file share been in at launch? Possibly. Would the servers have been a little more reliable at launch? Maybe so. The point being, art and business are in-congruent and Gabe recognised that, and minimised the corporate so it would not interfere with Valve’s mission – to focus on innovation as oppose to profit and growth. Now I am not saying 343 are not focused on creating quality content and innovating within their Halo landscape, but ultimately they are there to make Halo successful by moving units for Microsoft. I do not mean that cynically, it’s just the truth. Triple AAA titles on consoles are there to make as much money as possible by appealing to as many people as possible.
For fear of this getting a little dry I think I will just finish by saying that both of these companies do their utmost to involve their communities but in a perfect world, if 343 could emulate the set up of Valve, even more quality Halo based content could be created. At least, in my opinion, 343 create some great things – despite the constraints they have. If other large games companies were to take notes from Valve, they might actually come up with something innovative and exciting rather than yet another slightly upgraded version of the same game each and every year.
This article was something I have thought about for a bit and would really love to hear what you, the reader, thinks about the content here. Please leave a comment or get in touch with us via twitter. Thanks
– The Quim Ninja