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Valve On Steam: Part Two

Jason Holtman and Doug Lombardi talk marketing, Portal 2 and Steam for Linux

Last week, GamesIndustry.biz talked to Valve's director Business Development Jason Holtman and marketing VP Doug Lombardi about the company's plans following the launch of Steam for Mac.

In this second and final part of the interview, the pair discuss Steam's business in general, the issues of marketing in a multi-format age, how Half-Life 2 remains their internal benchmark for success, and whether Steam will move to Linux.

GamesIndustry.bizHow much more loquacious and open to publishers are you with your figures, given you have a policy of never revealing sales data to the public?
Jason Holtman

Well what they're seeing is their own numbers. So that's the feedback loop. So once you see that and you have one title come out because it's an old port, you go "oh, there's some customers out there I just made happy." And then it's really easy for them to translate that. So that's where they're getting their feedback loop from, it's really very one to one, it's with their own customers.

Doug Lombardi

But then there's also a certain level of information that is shared in business meetings that isn't shared with the public. You have to let people know what the risks and the opportunities are in any business discussion. So we try to do our best to share at least our own data on our games and what have you, and help them understand what's possible there. Because there are some folks who have really huge catalogues and have thrown some Mac titles into the mix and they get it. And then there are some people that don't, so we try to do our best to educate everybody to the opportunities and risks that are out there. Like I say we have a pretty decent catalogue of our own that we can use in those private discussions.

GamesIndustry.bizHas there been any specific resistance from anyone who hasn't got any Mac titles up there yet?
Jason Holtman

Oh yeah, it's going to take time. It's obviously going to take time. But nobody's resistant to it, everybody who sees it goes "oh, that's really interesting, that's something new." Nobody's fighting it, but everybody's wondering what they do over the next year or two with their titles. It takes time to play a title and to fund a title, so they're thinking about it and they're incorporating this new data and this new way of thinking about their target, their target hardware, into these plans they're making for a year or two.

Doug Lombardi

Yeah people were opposed [laughs] to Steam when it first happened in 04 and 05, but nobody's opposed to Steam for the Mac today in 2010. But to answer Jason's point, there are people are trying to figure out which title makes the most sense and when can they do it simultaneously with their other releases. Because that's something that I think people are getting true religion on. People are looking at their titles for this holiday and saying "a Mac version would screw with my schedule or I'd have to ship it late. Neither of those is super-desirable. But the titles that I have in Spring of 2011 or in holiday of 2011, let's have a discussion and let's see those numbers and start to figure it out."

So that's when folks can really start to see the advent of simultaneous releases on new Mac releases really start to kick in, now that the foundation has been laid this year if you will. You'll see some new releases coming in 2011 – including our own one, Portal 2.

GamesIndustry.bizI was going to say, looking from afar it seems like the list of releases has declined somewhat, but I did wonder if it was a sign that people were beavering away on a second wave following the proof of concept?
Jason Holtman

That's exactly right. The things that you saw come out, we tried to collect as much as we could that made sense that could come out then, and now I think you're honestly going to see this lull for a year or so while people think about what to do. And then we're going to come out first –we always tend to move first – with Portal 2, but it will take time. It will take time for people to incorporate this into their dev schedules and their production schedules.

GamesIndustry.bizSo when this happens, at the mid-point next year, is that the paradigm shift for Mac gaming?
Jason Holtman

Yeah, you'll see it happen. I'm sure you will. Because there are people out there with Macs and they're playing games. It's just going to take time to build on it.

Doug Lombardi

And this follows Steam's momentum patterns of the past. We came out with Counter-Strike Condition Zero, first title sold on Steam, March 2004. And we sold a few units. Half-Life 2 came out November that year, we sold a few more, and we had a bunch of problems, a bunch of stuff we had to fix and then by the time we got to Orange Box, we had figured out how to sell our own titles. Around that time we really started selling third party titles, and it really wasn't until two years or so ago that you saw third-party games really on Steam. Like, a lot. And today you see them all.

So it's always been that something comes out, it opens the door, it works as the test example, then there's the second iteration of stuff, and that second iteration or really third iteration is, all of sudden it's holy cow, that happened really really fast. So it depends whether you're looking at the first couple of months of it or three years out. Having said that, going from Condition Zero to where we are today in six years, there's a lot that's gotten done. There are 1200 games on there now on two different platforms, etcetera. That's pretty good pace. Again this Mac thing, it follows the same characteristic. There's the launch period, things get proven and then you can feel this revving up for the second wave, and that's really where the big momentum hit happens.

GamesIndustry.bizHow are things going on a technical level? Not the platform itself but the games that have come out so far – is there some degree of DirectX emulation going on there?
Jason Holtman

On our stuff we've done native versions, an Open GL layer for Source and it's not an emulator, but we're taking other games that are doing a variety of different approaches, whether it's a subset of what we're doing or using some of our code or they had native Mac versions out in the past or they've done some of the other porting processes. From Steam's standpoint it's agnostic to it. From our standpoint we think there's value in doing native versions as it makes it easier for us to update them etcetera and hopefully get the best performance out of them as there's OS changes and driver changes.

GamesIndustry.bizYeah, there's been some observation that some of the Mac versions have higher system requirements than the Windows ones. Is there a universal reason for that, or is it people getting used to the new platform?
Jason Holtman

They're just different versions and they're going to have different requirements. But right now as we look at customers experience on that Mac, it's just like any other version that we have. They're universally pleased, right. They like playing, they're having a good time, so we're going to continue doing what we're doing with all versions of our games. We'll look, see the feedback, we'll autopatch, autoupdate as it goes along.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat about the issues of Macs in general having lower system specs, especially in terms of graphics? Does that present serious impediments?
Doug Lombardi

Well, you've got a marketing guy and a business guy on the phone, I don't want to try and even pretend I can talk about that super-intelligently. There's common knowledge stuff though. The Pc has been targeted as... look at the amount of software that's been sold PC games over the years. NVIDIA and ATI and the other guys that make the graphics cards have been chasing that and working with those vendors for years and years and years for multi-billion dollar businesses. That hasn't occurred on the Mac over the past couple of years, so their systems are tuned for different applications.

Doesn't mean we can't run our applications on those systems, but they're not tuned for that ultimate high-end gamer who wants the fastest frame-rate: and a framerate that most people can't even detect the differences between. Yeah, that's still going to happen on PC given the current state. What Apple does in their next couple of refreshes, they may close the gap there. There's certainly been a lot of momentum since the Intel CPUs were brought in to their systems and their architecture. I don't know that we could have done this prior to that move. So we'll see what happens.

GamesIndustry.bizYeah, you've got to wonder what ATI and NVIDIA are up to for the Mac. It seems impossible that they won't be all over it, given the boom in ownership lately and that graphics board sales are down on PC...
Jason Holtman

[Laughs] Yeah, I don't think any of those guys are allergic to doing business, so wherever there are opportunities they're going to be there and making fast parts. That's the business they're in. Again, I don't think it's "oh, it's a total freakin' ghetto." That was the case a while ago, today it's the difference between whether or not you drive a Maserati or a Ferrari", and frankly I'm not even sure which one goes faster, so it's not applicable to me.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat's the plan for updates for you guys, outside of whatever Apple may end up doing? Is there any kind of divergent path for how you plan to or have to evolve the Mac version as opposed to the PC version?
Jason Holtman

It is platform agnostic. Steam goes with you wherever you are and it's the same Steam wherever you are.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat about the reception from the audience? I know you've said they've been universally pleased, but do they seem to have fully grasped what Steam in its entirety is? As you were saying there've been these jumps in it evolution – multiplayer, a story, then a universal store, then Steamworks... The PC guys had a chance to get used to the platform as it evolved, but in this case you're launching them straight into this huge and complicated thing.
Jason Holtman

In terms of the experience of Steam themselves for an Apple user, I don't think there are any bumps at all. I think people are very, very used to it, they understood it, they know the features, they know what's good about it. So it wasn't anything like when we first launched the platform back in 2004. You didn't have that great experience. These are seasoned folks who know exactly what it means to get a service.

I think the only negative we got from folks was everybody wants more content. If you can call that a negative reaction. We constantly get these torrents of mails, kind of like when we first launched third-party titles on Steam, from customers saying "I see this mac version can you go get it, I wanna do this." So we're feeling that pressure from customers and that's a really good pressure to have. That's what people want from it now, they want more games.

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Alec Meer


A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.