At Valve "three people can ship anything"

Greg Coomer describes the limits of Valve's self-directed corporate culture

Valve's Greg Coomer has claimed that the company's famously flat structure means that any three employees can effectively create and ship a product without interference.

Speaking at the Seattle Interactive Conference yesterday, reported by GeekWire, Coomer detailed Valve's self-directed corporate culture, which gives employees total freedom to plan their daily activities and choose which projects to work on.

"Three people at the company can ship anything," he said. "And the reason it is three people - because really it is one person can ship anything - but the work gets better if you just check with a couple of people before you decide to push a button."

"If we are going to hire these incredible people, and we are not going to put constraints on them, then we can't be afraid to let them actually take charge and ship"

Greg Coomer, Valve

"If we are going to hire these incredible people, and we are not going to put constraints on them, then we can't be afraid to let them actually take charge and ship. That takes a lot of courage and trust."

Coomer joined Valve from Microsoft in 1997. As such, he is one of the company's longest serving employees, and was involved in the creation of the employee handbook that leaked earlier this year.

"There are attributes that other companies have quoted about themselves, that they allow their [employees] to spend some fraction of their time actually deciding on their own what to work on, but at Valve that percentage of your time is 100 percent," he said. "Every single person is responsible for deciding what they do every day.

"That can be pretty daunting. Everyone is constantly making big decisions for the company, and deciding where we'll go and what products we should build and so forth. It can feel like an exercise and an experiment in cooperative leadership."

If it is an experiment, it's certainly working. GeekWire reports that Valve now has 320 employees, and generates higher profits-per-employee than Microsoft, Amazon or Google. Nevertheless, Coomer acknowledged the difficulty in making outsiders understand Valve's process.

"We are trying to learn to talk about it in a way that doesn't make us sound crazy," he said.

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Latest comments (15)

Brian Smith Artist 9 years ago
You'd think that in that company culture you'd see more releases from Valve with 300+ employees and rules like that. I can't decide whether the talk of how they run is complete BS or partially true in some way. I'd be hard pushed to believe it's like they say regardless of how 'Special' their people are. Not that it doesn't sound good. It does however sound too good to be true.
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Sam Brown Lead Audio Programmer, TT Games9 years ago
I do wonder though if this doesn't lead to people not working on dull but necessary stuff.

For instance, when I was playing Portal 2 and Black Mesa recently, I was once again struck by the elephant in the room: If Valve is a place where the employees basically choose what they want to do, what one of them needs to choose to do is make the Source engine loading less totally dreadful. It's ridiculous in this day and age having supposedly seamless loading punctuated by long pauses and a misaligned loading bar.
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Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz9 years ago
Interesting point. I wonder if that's behind the emergence of Greenlight as the principal way for new developers to get their games on Steam.

I mean, Valve clearly has the resources to hire a larger team to screen games and still make enormous profits, and the work-load isn't even close to that on mobile app stores. Perhaps there just weren't enough takers.
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Show all comments (15)
James Prendergast Process Specialist 9 years ago
Just because people tend not to be reckless and just throw out any old release or project - meaning that they do not release stuff all that often - does not reflect on the possibility of it happening. Let's face it - I think that as soon as you put people in positions of power and responsibility they make more cautious decisions because they are directly responsible for it.

One of the things we've tried to pioneer in our workplace is "agency": giving the employees the feeling that they have responsibility and can make decisions. Now, there are, of course, limits to this and these decisions but one of the problems has been working out how to give people the knowledge and confidence to do this. It's no easy task because everyone is different and everyone is able to constrain themselves in different ways (e.g. What makes *you* feel like you have sufficient responsibility and knowledge or power to make a specific decision? etc. etc.).
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Pier Castonguay Programmer 9 years ago
Sam Brown : Black Mesa was not done by Valve. They recreated all maps exactly the same size as HL1, hence why they were small with lot of loadings.
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Sam Brown Lead Audio Programmer, TT Games9 years ago
Black Mesa was not done by Valve. They recreated all maps exactly the same size as HL1, hence why they were small with lot of loadings.
I know that, which is why I mentioned that Portal 2 does it as well - Black Mesa was just the last game I played. Besides, the problem exists regardless of map size or not - the bigger maps in later games just have longer loading times spaced more widely apart. The Portal games hid it using lifts, but more open-spaced games like the Half-Lifes really suffer.

So far every game using the Source Engine has displayed this problem, which is why I'm surprised nothing appears to have been done about it. Streamed loading should be the norm these days.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 30th October 2012 1:20pm

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Matt Hackett Game Developer, Lost Decade Games9 years ago
What's depressing is that this is notable. ONE person should be able to ship something at any video game company.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Matt Hackett on 30th October 2012 5:53pm

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Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie9 years ago
I've worked at a smaller studio (which I won't name) that attempted to work like this. That studio struggled to ship any games, until they started putting in place actual hierarchy... the model is unworkable and politically stressful (although you could argue that's true of standard studio models too). What happens in practice, is human nature. Stronger willed, more confident individuals always take over or get involved in power battles. In fact actual owners of the company (the difference between staff, and co-owners always becomes a factor) end up wielding their (subconcious) power over others. Valve are being nice and idealistic, and the fact they have it written in stone helps a lot, but it all becomes personal if there are no impersonal restrictions (old fashioned job titles, and hierarchy). Meaning- if you want your game idea to get made, I'm betting you have to be very very chummy with someone that actually runs the company. In my experience, like a pack of dogs or chimps- humans will always try to position themselves within a group, so it's totally against human nature to have a flat structure. Valve's hiring process must be incredibly sophisticated, to get even close. To find people that fit into this unusual culture must be very difficult.

edit: Just to add, I'm very impressed that they even try this type of structure. It may or may not be PR BS... but it's well meaning, and if they genuinely have achieved this... they should be running the United Nations perhaps?!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Lee Walton on 31st October 2012 9:20am

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Jonathan McEnroe Freelance 2D artist 9 years ago

@Tom - Two artists and a coder have been working on Routine since last September and only just recently they hired a sound designer/composer. It's an incredibly high end looking game with an intriguing gameplay style. It's totally possible to do all of that work in a short space of time with very few people if the development is focused enough. Routine is expected to ship next spring on Steam after being accepted through the Steam Greenlight system :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jonathan McEnroe on 31st October 2012 9:57am

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Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie9 years ago
On this subect, there's a nice article on the New York Times site talking with Gabe Newell.
[link url=""][/link]
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Jonathan McEnroe Freelance 2D artist 9 years ago
@Tom - yeap, its great that a small team can just grab some existing tools and go create a game. I'd love to see bigger developers and publisher taking some risks to fund little micro game projects like that and just let the teams have fun and be creative without any major interferences :) Voted for Routine on Steam Greenlight too, looks fantastic, this podcast is worth checking out, very interesting take on the survival horror genre:
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development9 years ago
@Lee: Valve seem to be creating a sense of autonomy, it's quite ingenious because they are not really working on their own products, they will be Valve's, and people will automatically organize themselves, leaders and order will emerge naturally.

Perhaps they are guided in some way, maybe there is regular communication that helps focus attention on or inspire work in certain areas, but in my opinion if you have 300 employees developing for fun and being paid for it, they're going to self organize and create something good.

If they are all respectful communicators focusing on a common goal then they will collectively work in greater accord and potentially even make financial decision harmoniously without argument because although they might want to release 10 games per year, they are able to accept the insight from Marcus who keeps an eye on Finance and Economics. That's my take on it.

I'm sure there's plenty of order within that chaos.
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Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie9 years ago
Keldon: yes, agree with you- that was partly my point too, that there must be organisation, and that also means hierarchy (if only temporarily). Some of the better old-fashioned company structures actually change and adapt hierarchy just as fast anyway, but more formally. My own company is a virtual one, and we have aimed to combine our experience of old fashioned systems, and more radical flat systems to inform our own philosophy, which is perhaps something of a hybrid. Being virtual, it already gives challenges to overcome- such as motivation to work. Each of us is literally free to do whatever we want day to day. We have no working hours, no strict timetable, we're not even in the same timezones. We operate a task based system, rather than an "hours put in" system. The important thing is motivation, as you say! I'm sure that is the key to Valve's success. That is something we struggle with, without having face-to-face communication, but all companies will always struggle to motivate every employee.
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Wojtek Kawczynski Managing Director, Studios, TransGaming Inc.9 years ago
Hey, Valve employees! Can 3 of you please get together and ship the next Half Life. Thanks.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago
As soon as you toss out an idea while you are under a company roof, being paid, it becomes their idea. After that, the company can do whatever it wants with it. It could strip out one concept from it and leave the rest to die. It can put it on a shelf. It can take it away from you. Etc.

I would never discuss an idea that I really wanted to do - *needed* to do - under a company roof. (I would discuss such an idea outside the confines of employment, but never as an employee.) I don't know why a true self-starter would. If you are a self-starter, you *need* to make your ideas come to fruition. Why would you jeopardize them?

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 1st November 2012 8:28pm

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