Happy Birthday! Valve Turned 20 Yesterday

Happy 20th birthday, Valve! Yesterday. Happy 20th yesterday. Sorry, I only just saw the Facebook notification. On August 24th, 1996, ex-Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington made a beautiful baby who was mighty eye-opening.

In the dreamy game of “What if…?” one curious hypothetical is: what if Valve never existed? There can’t be many companies who’ve had nearly as much impact. Steam (eventually) revolutionised digital distribution, changing the entire landscape of PC gaming. Half-Life was seminal; its mod scene was legendary. That’d be plenty, but Valve have made a load of other really good video games too.

Half-Life. Counter-Strike. Left 4 Dead. Team Fortress. Dota. Portal. Day of Defeat. Flipping RICOCHET mate! Valve have some of the biggest and best games of the past 20 years, helped by working with or picking up mod teams, student teams, and studios.

Look, you don’t need me to tell you Half-Life was influential. You don’t need me to explain the many ways that retail shops were rubbish at PC games or how Steam (eventually) brought so many more games to such a wider audience. Those reshaped PC gaming as we know it quite visibly, so I won’t bang on about them.

Less visible, and therefore maybe more interesting, was an effect Robert Yang got into in A People’s History of the FPS. The Half-Life mod scene grew into a training ground for developers who’ve since dissipated across the entire games scenes, taking a bit of Half-Life spirit with them. That’s both good and bad, mind. I’m sure games were a bit weirder before the homogenisation of the HL mod scene. Fewer AK-47s. Heck knows how I’d unpick that from history in a “What if…?” scenario.

I am still a little surprised that Valve managed to pull Steam off, mind. Steam was rubbish – super rubbish – for years. It was slow, it was buggy, it ate half my RAM, the Friends system was offline for yonks, and… Steam was mandatory if you wanted new updates for Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, and loads of lovely mods. We started using Steam because we had to. We were displeased. It improved very slowly, while Valve sprinkled us with freebies like the weird Quake quasi-remake Deathmatch Classic and RICOCHET, MAN! Then they started selling games made by other people. I couldn’t tell you at which point I no longer thought Steam sucked but it happened. It’s quite nice, isn’t it? Very useful. Beats flipping Fileplanet.

Valve still have no clue how to handle Steam being the de facto storefront of PC gaming but hey, give ’em another twelve years (twelve!) and maybe we’ll see.

Oh yeah, and they’ve helped improve and spread Linux gaming, they tried to make the Internet better for games, and I suppose they’re making some sort of opaque spectacles now?

Sorry, no rubbish jokes about Half-Life 3 here – only FLIPPING RICOCHET YEAH! references.


  1. Herzog says:

    But Fileplanet had all the Quake mods!

  2. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Wow, that makes me feel old. Fair play to them, they’ve done alright. Could have made a few more games though.

    Isn’t it odd that looking back Portal was probably their best game?

  3. Halk says:

    Pretty sure the Valve from 96 died a few years ago.

    • Emeraude says:

      I wish.

      One thing for sure, the day the company dies I’ll take a second plate of pasta.

      • criskywalker says:

        I’m going to eat a lot of lasagna myself when EA dies.

        • Emeraude says:

          For EA I’ll be brewing coffee off my special reserve.

          Less would be mean spirited

    • Plank says:

      Maybe Valve were possessed. I haven’t seen that squirmy git for a while. What’s his name? The one that manages press activities? Doug Bullbardi? Liesbardi? Totalhonestbollocksbardi? Lombardi? Actual quote: “Half-Life 3? I wouldn’t know anything about that.” What a twat! Hey! RPS! Next time you get to speak to LiesMcBardie, ask him about hats, wanking or this comment. I dare you! Don’t mention dares to the Bard though. He’ll probably report back to twatquarters and they’ll shove dares into twatfortresstwo.

  4. Darth Gangrel says:

    Two of my favorite games were made on the Source Engine: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and Dark Messiah. Two games that are above and beyond Half-Life 1 and 2 in so many ways. Haven’t tried any other of their games, but they gave away Portal for free years ago. Might start it up when I feel like playing some of the more unusual/weird games of my backlog.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      It is one of the best games ever, you really must. Only a few hours long too, you can blast through it in an eve.

      It’s classic Valve in that it’s probably nobody’s favourite, yet most everyone would say it’s one of the best ever. Just so well constructed. If you taught games in GCSE it would be the set text.

    • Emeraude says:

      Never found why people like Portal so much myself, feels like the painstakingly overextended tutorial to a game that was never made. The game ended exactly when I thought it was finally going to start.

      I guess if you’re going in knowing not to expect anything but a cool demo, it’s charming enough.

      • Sarfrin says:

        Except Portal 2 was made.

        • Emeraude says:

          Didn’t play it, so couldn’t tell.

          Anyway, I know it’s Valve we’re talking about, but I’m still not in the habit of expecting a game to start in its sequel.

      • Vandelay says:

        I think you are forgetting that a small demo was pretty much what everyone WAS expecting. The Orange Box was hyped as Episode 2 and a new version of one of the most loved multi-player games. Oh yeah, and some little experimental puzzle game that no one cares about.

        Turned out that little puzzle game was the most inventive and enjoyable things in the package.

        • Emeraude says:

          I’m not forgetting, that’s why I mentioned it.

          Problem is “best game ever” is closer to what players past that first wave were – still are just look the post above – being sold. And I don’t think it can live up to that.

          • Premium User Badge

            zapatapon says:

            It is not the least achievement of Portal to feel like a genuine indie game. I can’t help but classifying it mentally in the same place as Braid and World of Goo, despite this being totally unfair when one considers the resources Kim Swift had access to. (Still, now looking at the trend of big publishers pushing their own “in-house indie experiment” titles, one can only conclude that Valve was there again ahead of its time.)

            When people refer to it as “one of the best games ever”, I suspect most are implicitly qualifying “as a quirky indie game”. I’m afraid you probably won’t agree even with this qualified statement. As far as I’m concerned however, Portal ended exactly at the point it needed to not to overstay its welcome.

      • Marclev says:

        Yes, that’s the point. All those “tutorials”, as you put it, build up to a great huge request and the final level where everything comes together. For what everybody thought would be a simple little puzzle game, that’s completely mind blowing.

        And then you have challenge mode … and steam workshop … and Portal 2.

        Yep, one of the best games ever.

        • Marclev says:

          Request = twist. Damn autocorrect and lack of an edit button!

        • Feedim says:

          Let’s not over complicate things. Portal is the best game ever. Portal 2 is also the best game ever. The end

  5. Captain Narol says:

    So Valve is entering its 3rd decenny of existence ?

    Half-Life 3 confirmed !

  6. engion3 says:

    I’ve still never worn my hl2 shirt that came with preordering the game back then. Perhaps I’ll frame it.

    • haradaya says:

      I wore it once. Then it got ripped to shreds in the washer. Turns out it was a very low quality t-shirt.

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    If there was no Valve, someone else would have stepped in to fill the role. Steam emerged at a time when the entertainment was being decimated by P2P file sharing, and provided something of a solution to the problem, driven as it was by convenience (why would you drive to the store and pay $50 when you could download a game for free?). Of course Steam didn’t eliminate illegal filesharing altogether, but it laid the groundwork for a restructured video game distribution model that cut out the middlemen. In time, new legislation and technologies helped to finish what Steam started by increasing the risk to those engaging in the file sharing, and brought us to the point we’re at today, where Valve has a virtual monopoly on game distribution.

    TL;DR: A virtual storefront for video games was an inevitable response to the significant losses entertainment companies were seeing at the turn of the millennium.

    Stratfor actually published a great article today on P2P economics that specifically mentions Steam. I’d link it, but I think it’s behind their paywall.

    • Avus says:

      Not really… Valve saw the need for a game client so it is easier apply game updates/anti-piracy/anti-cheat measures specially for online games (like Counter Strike). The first thing Valve did was “asked” Microsoft (the biggest software company), Yahoo (one of the biggest online company at that time) and RealNetwork (biggest digital distribution company at that time) to build one but NONE want to do it. So Valve had to build it from the ground up! Remember how many people hate Steam at the beginning?? And for M$, they started Xbox division (2002) and treated PC gaming on their OWN platform (Windows) like shit for the next decade. The biggest game developers at that time like EA, Activision and Ubisuck were busy making money on consoles and gave PC shitty ports. Remember how many times you read Ubisuck said PC gaming was dying. So Valve is 1000% deserved for the current success and become the de facto choice. EA and Ubisuck finally made their own game client because they saw Valve can make sh!t loads of $$ on PC. Without Steam’s success, they are still making console games and shitty PC ports…

      MS (the biggest software developer on planet Earth) should always be ashamed that most Windows users nowadays are buying game online from a relatively small software developer (Valve) and buying media stuff (music/videos) from a NON-PC HARDWARE company!! (Apple itunes)

      • hpoonis says:

        What make you connect itunes with Windows? I would suggest that most users running windows will be using something open source (or provided gratis) for their tunes; Foobar, Winamp (once upon a time), or even (ugh) windows media player.

        (All capitals for the respective software deliberately lowered out of utter disdain)

        • Avus says:

          Do you know you can use itunes to buy music and movies? That is what i am talking about – digital distribution. Apples itunes is the most used software for it even on PC, not WinAmp or Windows media player. On MS Windows most people use Steam to buy games and iTunes for music…

    • hpoonis says:

      @TheAngriestHobo – The ‘virtual monopoly’ you mention appears to be a side-effect of their business model. I get a lot of my titles via Steam but I have a collective of Assassin’s Creed which, even if you get from Steam, still requires a uplay account, and I am not a fan of double-dipping. If I am after a new title I will hunt down a cheaper option through one of the game-key vendors and, unless it is a title that is exclusive to a particular game client, I will opt for Steam every time, for the convenience more often than not, of having everything in one place.

      Believe me, if I could avoid uplay altogether I would be a happy bunny. GOG have their game client (optional), ea have their atrocious, tortoise-like ‘origin’ which raises my hackles every time I want to tinker with something exclusive to that thing. The only other solution: dodgy pirating which is not that appealing as it would mean keeping a library of stuff lying about.

      I have not yet had occasion to avail myself of any of the benefits of the steam store (refunds, technical wobblies, etc) as everything I have in there runs just fine and I avoid early access. Aside from the inevitable adverts which pop up in front of the library, everything is hunky dory (it was stalking time for the moon boys).

      Whatever else you may say, the global originator of one-stop shopping online is probably Amazon.

      People being the indolent creatures they are, may grumble and harrumph but the fact that they can perform most of their consumerism online appeals to them. After all, why would your average dark-room, sallow-complexioned, pimply gamer waste time going to a store when he can save gaming time by sitting right where he festers and get it done online?

      • Cederic says:

        I have a simple flat ‘no uplay’ policy. If a game needs it, I don’t play it.

        Means I miss out on a few games I’d love to play, but my steam backlog is at around 190 so it’ll be a while before I worry about it.

      • Cederic says:

        You can disable the adverts. Explore the options a bit, can’t remember where that one is, but I haven’t seen them for years.

  8. yogibbear says:


    No wait! How come there’s no HL3 news leak today! DAMMIT!

    GabeN! My crystal ball will have to come up with the next countdown date of significance. Ok people when is Gordon’s birthday?

  9. Lobster9 says:

    The thing I most miss about the Doom/Quake/Half-Life mod scenes is how inviting they were to total conversions. Modding still exists for some shooters today, but usually it’s limited to individual pieces of content or mutations to the base game.

    One reason for this is the explosion of the indie scene after Steam. Nowadays engines release their SDK as a raw low-budget platform for constructing full fledged games from scratch, and this is definitely a good thing, but I do think there is now a strange gap between those making hack content for existing games, and those making standalone games.

    Take Counter-Strike or Team Fortress for example. Both grew out of using a lot of the pre-existing content from the base games (Quake and Half-Life) so a lot of the focus could be on creating the raw mechanics that set them apart. Nowadays the only option for creating something like this is to start from scratch and investing a huge amount of time and skill creating an entire shooter from the ground up on Unity or Unreal.

    I know it’s a small gripe, and there are probably good arguments for it being this way, but I kind of miss the days when something like Action Half-Life could carve out a niche for itself by reskinning GMAN and SCIENTIST in black suits and having them bullet time around the map with gold pistols.

  10. dahools says:

    Wow FilePlanet. . . .

    Is that still going? I cant remember the amount of noCD patches I downloaded from there over the years (mostly for games I bought too, just too lazy to keep all the discs to hand swap them about)

    That was when gaming was great back then no £40 pre-release DLC back then even if steam was absolutely pants by comparison to today

    • Feedim says:

      We all only got noCD patches when we already owned the games. ?

  11. eeguest says:

    What about WON? No mention?

    • Aspirant_Fool says:

      Here here. My Steam account turns 12 this year; WON went offline in 2004. That isn’t a coincidence. Steam was hot garbage up until then, and for a good while afterward. Today, it serves its purpose, and it’s still the best product of it’s kind. No one has been able to beat it to the top of the heap for at least 12 years, which has to say something positive about what they’ve built. Still, if I could choose, I’d rather have a binder full of discs that I need to keep handy to play my games in exchange for the ability to trade or loan them with friends, sell them, or even just give them away.

  12. GenialityOfEvil says:

    Actually, they’re 21. They skipped their 3rd birthday.

    • Runty McTall says:

      Would make then 19, no?

      And yes, I get that this is a joke…

      • Feedim says:

        21 would be correct, assuming on their 3rd birthday they insisted they were 4. (I also get that this is a joke (valve not being able to count to 3 will always be funny (no, that is not a joke))). Wait, I’ve confused myself.

        • Runty McTall says:

          Ah, interesting – I was coming from the perspective that if they said they were 4, they were 3, and if they said that they were 20 then they were actually 19.

          But it’s that, having started in 96, they’d consider this their 21st birthday.


  13. Al__S says:

    It was really CounterStrike, above all else that drove people to actually putting up with the early Steam

    • Rikstah says:

      This, haha and Day of Defeat.

      Steam was a pile of annoying junk for so long. Switched cos forced.

      Now its fantastic. The steam sales mean more people discover new games you wouldn’t have taken a chance on or even seen at a bargain bin in the retail shops.

  14. Asbjoern says:

    I have been a bit concerned about Valve and Gabe Newell lately. When did he last make a public appearance or interview? How is he doing? He used to be quite often in the gaming media. The last singleplayer game Valve published was Portal 2 in spring 2011.

    It feels like Valve and Steam is running on automatic these days. I hope Gabe Newell is OK.

    • Premium User Badge

      zapatapon says:

      The kickstarter trailer for Psychonauts 2? Don’t know if that counts in your book though.

    • hpoonis says:

      Maybe his historical idol was H Hughes, and the Valve guy is holed up somewhere with nothing but a small hand towel keeping his plums covered, a mountain of kleenex keeping the germs from his feet, and the curtains perma-closed.

      • basilisk says:

        Considering Valve’s trajectory and philosophy in the last couple of years, I strongly suspect he’s currently building a city at the bottom of the ocean.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      Their last game in general was DOTA 2 in 2013. I sure hope they didn’t spend all that time on The Lab…

    • Raiyne says:

      His last appearance was 2 weeks ago at Dota 2’s The International 2016 at Key Arena in Seattle. Valve employees take time off to work on running the event every year, and they seem to love it. Dota 2 is clearly the main project of Valve at the moment, and I think they’re quite comfortable to mainly focus on it, on top of managing steam and CS GO.

  15. lordfrikk says:

    I wish they still made games.

  16. Premium User Badge

    zapatapon says:

    I’d go so far as to compare Valve to Apple’s trajectory in three aspects:

    * vision / ability to seize good and important ideas slightly ahead of others
    * maintaining as much as possible an image of cool and decontraction
    * ruthlessness in the implementation of their vision

    Of course, the two last points are maybe common to most actors in “the new economy”. Still, Valve did not just have one good idea, but several over the years, which de facto places them above most such actors.

  17. Marclev says:

    I seem to remember Steam basically being the DRM for Half Life 2 for a very long time, and completely unknown before that game forced it’s installation.

    I also seem to remember there actually being quite an upset about HL-2 needing an internet connection to activate and play, that was unheard of in those days.

    I, like many others I suspect, started using it regularly more out of desperation than anything else, as high street shops stopped stocking PC games. Then their library started to grow and grow and they started to carry major AAA releases.

    The rest, as they say, is history. But if the consoles hadn’t taken up all the shelf space, things might have turned out differently.

    • Urthman says:

      Yeah, I remember buying the Orange Box in a store and then having to wait almost a week of Steam downloading updates all night through my dial-up modem before I could play anything.

      Has there ever been a more insanely great package than Half-Life 2 (plus Episodes One and Two), TF2, and Portal all in one box? Any one of those games by themselves was better than just about anything else on the shelves at that time.

  18. milligna says:

    Nice little bit, but I just read it as ” The Half-Life mod scene grew into a training ground for developers who’ve since disappointed across the entire games scenes, taking a bit of Half-Life spirit with them.”

    • Viral Frog says:

      I have yet to be disappointed with any of their titles. And I’m willing to bet the good majority of people who play their games would say the same. So I’m not exactly sure where you’re coming from here.

  19. caff says:

    Valve can be pretty proud of their games catalogue, but their biggest achievement is surely saving the PC platform from being killed by piracy. Steam presented players with an immediate and safe way of downloading games. Happy birthday Gabe & co.

  20. Chillicothe says:

    They saved gaming. Digital download would still be under the porous bootheel of “treat customers like pirates”.

    And with the shriveling of Japan, the self-LCDing nature of the rising Mobile, and the horrifying narrowing of the AAA space on consoles, we would be in a much MUCH poorer video gaming world without these sometimes maddening, usually benevolent, and always brilliant folks.

  21. syllopsium says:

    I’d be upset if everything Valve suddenly disappeared off the planet, but others would have created an alternative.

    I’m pretty certain Stardock’s software management/storefront predates Steam.

    Half Life is pretty good, and Portal is on the very short list of ‘instabuy’ games if Portal 3 ever comes out. For Portal and Portal 2, I love Valve.

    Even though SteamOS is a bit rubbish, I respect that they’re trying to change things, even if it is in their own self interest.

    • Plank says:

      “even if it is in their own self interest.”

      Yeah, that’s Valve alright.

  22. Plank says:

    And nobody gave a toss. Valve have become twats. What I mean by that is, Valve have become twats. To truly understand the level of twatism involved, you have to study the twat that is Valve.

    Imagine you developed a game called Half-Life and then Half-Life 2. Now, picture yourself on some rock in the middle of a lake of imaginary money. You stand on the rock already loaded to the gills with money. Do you need more? Not really. But Gabe did. It was water to him. He dove in and became the twat that is Valve today.

    The End
    (Based on actual events)

  23. SaintAn says:

    Amazing how far a once loved and trusted corporation can fall in 20 years. They put PC gaming on the map, then they lost their way, got corrupted by greed, and have begun to destroy it.

  24. iRaphi says:

    wait a second here…
    you said twelve years which means twelve=12=1+2=3 => HalfLife 3 confirmed ;P

  25. peda says:

    Valve is 20 years old.
    Valve entering 3rd decade of operation.
    3rd decade.
    Half Life 3 confirmed.

  26. Unruly says:

    Man, I miss the old Valve splash screen. I don’t like the bald guy that they’ve been using since HL2 or whatever. The eye valve guy is so much more awesome.