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Gabe Newell Hints at His Regrets About the ‘Half-Life’ Franchise in Reddit AMA

Valve President Gabe Newell took to Reddit for an AMA this week, giving us another brief peek into the world of the hugely successful developer-turned-storefront.

Newell admitted that customer support is where Valve most needs to improve, but made sure to highlight the changes the company has already made to its gaming distribution platform Steam:

Since the last AMA, we’ve introduced refunds on Steam, we’ve grown our Support staff by roughly 5x, and we’ve shipped a new help site and ticketing system that makes it easier to get help. We’ve also greatly reduced response times on most types of support tickets and we think we’ve improved the quality of responses.

We definitely don’t think we’re done though. We still need to further improve response times and we are continually working to improve the quality of our responses. We’re also working on adding more support staff in regions around the world to offer better native language support and improve response times in various regions.

He’s also not entirely happy with the current state of Steam trading and wants to see it improved. When asked about the disappearance of the time-limited “flash sales” from the marketplace during Steam’s storewide sales throughout the year, he explained that the limited time they were available “made it difficult for many people to participate.” Steam is apparently erring on the side of caution, so that “users can count on finding the best deals whenever they are able to visit the store during the sale.”

Steam’s library increased by 40% in 2016 alone, but a huge portion of that increase was due to terribly rated shovelware titles like GASP. When asked about the increased pollution of the store by low quality titles, Newell waffled a bit. He considers handling the influx of low-quality content more a question of organizing games so that the “right” titles are recommended to consumers:

There’s really not a singular definition of quality, and what we’ve seen is that many different games appeal to different people. So we’re trying to support the variety of games that people are interested in playing. We know we still have more work to do in filtering those games so the right games show up to the right customers.

Will the “right” games include uncensored adult content? According to Newell, addressing uncensored content on the platform first requires solving two problems. First are the challenges of “a completely uncurated distribution tool for developers,” but perhaps even more important is a “toolset” by which customers can both “find and filter content,” so that your kid’s front page isn’t flooded with pornographic visual novels.

This answer is just vague enough to offer a potential opportunity for the adult game industry. The strength of a trusted platform like Steam could open doors for content that would otherwise never become profitable enough to develop. Whether that would be good or bad for the industry at large remains to be seen, but Valve is apparently already loosening their grip a little, with titles like Ladykiller In A Bind launching on the platform uncut.

On the future of Valve in the gaming industry, Newell had a lot to say. The company is focused on the promise of new technologies, rather than staying safely within the confines of their previous work:

The big thing right now is broadening the range of options we have in creating experiences. We think investing in hardware will give us those options. The knuckles controller is being designed at the same time as we’re designing our own VR games.

Much more narrowly, some of us are thinking about some of the AI work that is being hyped right now. Simplistically we have lots of data and compute capability that looks like the kinds of areas where machine learning should work well. Personally I’m looking at research in brain-computer interfaces.

But while Newell ponders jacking a Steam account directly into your brain, that doesn’t mean we’ll know about it before it’s ready. Many of the questions tried — and summarily failed — to extract information about the future of franchises like Left 4 Dead and Half-Life. When a user specifically questioned the company’s tight-lipped approach to development, Newell gave as clear an answer as he ever has about the way Valve as a whole likes to function.

He claims that the way Valve makes decisions is “way more conditional than most other companies,” and that they are determined not to waste customers’ time and money in the process. Because of that, they’re much more likely to “cancel or change stuff much later in development.” He thinks that “tracking [Valve’s] choices would be annoying and frustrating.”

Interestingly, Newell stated that he had many regrets about the Half-Life franchise when asked about the games: “The issue with Half-Life for me is that I was involved in a much higher percentage of the decisions about the games, so it’s hard for me to look at them as anything other than a series of things I regret.”

If you are involved in a game, everything ends up being a set of trade-offs. Anything in a game is a sacrifice of things not in the game. I just feel those more personally about Half-Life for a bunch of reasons.

There were a variety of other questions answered. Among them: Steam will consider an option to toggle off the tray notifications. Newell confirmed the J.J. Abrams movies based in the Half-Life/Portal universe are still coming. He’d like to see harsher punishments for Steam scammers. He enjoyed a visit to Amsterdam. The Valve snack bar has gotten healthier. And he’s going to sign a copy of the now-famous Lord GabeN art, for the original artist.

For the full text, check out the Reddit AMA.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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