Developers like #RiotGames and #Blizzard have been among the best in the video game world at communicating with their audience. The two studios primarily crank out lifestyle games that dominate online gaming time for an entire generation of extremely passionate gamers.
In addition, their games are updated with increasing regularity, with #LeagueofLegends being updated perhaps more often than any other online game on the market—a regular patch cadence of every two weeks.
Valve - The Forbidden City
But there's another game developer that puts out lifestyle games with a different style. Contrary to what its competitors do, #Valve has almost no communication with its community and this isn't always thought of as a good thing. Games such as Team Fortress 2, DOTA2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will go a very long time without a patch, and the communities for these games are sometimes quite vocal about that discontent.
After all, why wouldn't Valve want to share the awesome things its working on, like Blizzard does with it's amazing Overwatch developer updates?
In Gabe Newell's recent Reddit AMA, he shone some light on why exactly Valve is so quiet when dealing with the community.
It's important to realize that this doesn't mean Valve ignores it's community—far from it. When appropriate, Valve has jumped in and made some very fast player-facing decisions, such as when a change to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive nearly broke the entire game.
But this kind of quick decision making isn't how Valve approaches community interaction, and that's not a bad thing.
Oversharing Leads to Problems
Over-communicating with the community has landed game developers in hot water too, especially when discussing controversial issues. It's clear that sometimes, in a rush to satiate an increasingly ravenous horde, game developers rush to get communication out the door, in some desperate need to show they care.
In doing so, sometimes this communication is less than ideal, and sometimes it's downright disastrous.
I'm not sure if Riot Games isn't suited for this type of communication, or if communication gaffes like the above will just occur more often when you rush them out the door.
Either way, the developers of popular lifestyle games sometimes have trouble engaging with the community. It's only natural when you put out as much communication as Blizzard and Riot do. You're going to get some things wrong.
This is part of what makes Valve's strategy so brilliant. They don't need to over-communicate because, as Gabe says, they tend to let their games to the talking:
"Another way to think about this, and the way we talk about this internally, is that we prefer to communicate through our products. We are all pretty devoted to reading and listening to the community - everyone here believes it is an integral part of their job to do so. And when it comes time to respond, we generally use Steam - shipping updates that address issues or add functionality.
Obviously this doesn't work for everything. Working this way imposes latency on our communication - it takes longer to ship and update than to do a blog post. This can lead to the feeling of an echo chamber, where it seems like Valve isn't listening. We’re always listening. So sometimes the latency is rough for everyone, including us when we want to address issues quickly. On balance we think it's usually worth the trade-off."
(Bold added for emphasis)
This philosophy is really evident in content releases for Valve's products. Even though patches may not come at the cadence that the community wants, in general they are almost universally praised, or at the least considered great for the long-term health of these persistent online games.
High Expectations Can Doom Products
There is a lot riding on what Valve decides to do as a company when it comes to game releases. Given the very flat structure of their company, it's hard to make a lot of guarantees for future products or features. But really this is true of any R&D department—things change so quickly that it's necessary for things to be kept under wraps.
When it comes down to specific issues, it's often more enlightening to speak philosophically about the company's problem solving than to directly answer a question about a specific problem. Take this example of when Gabe was asked point-blank if Valve is ever going to work on a sequel to Left 4 Dead 2:
"Products are usually the result of an intersection of technology that we think has traction, a group of people who want to work on that, and one of the game properties that feels like a natural playground for that set of technology and design challenges.
When we decided we needed to work on markets, free to play, and user generated content, Team Fortress seemed like the right place to do that. That work ended up informing everything we did in the multiplayer space.
Left 4 Dead is a good place for creating shared narratives."
- Gabe Newell, Founder of Valve
(Bold added for emphasis)
Things may change in the future. Maybe Valve is working on a sequel to the Left 4 Dead franchise, maybe not. But it's more valuable (and frankly, interesting) to know the conditions for which they might work on one.
Because as much as we demand an honest answer from Valve, any answer we get is subject to change on any given day—projects change, get dropped, and are prioritized differently. Nothing is sacred until it's out the door:
"Our decision making is way more conditional than most other companies. The one thing we won't do is waste our customers time and money, which means we will cancel or change stuff much later in development. Tracking our choices would be annoying and frustrating."
- Gabe Newell, Founder of Valve
So should Valve be more open with the community? I don't think that's necessarily a good thing.
There are definitely advantages to having a quick turnaround for your communication with communities, but there are some nuanced challenges that exist too. More than anything I think that it's important to understand a few things about developer / community relations:
- Developers are always listening, even if they aren't talking
- It's very challenging to communicate with a passionate community
Keeping these things in mind, the most important lesson in all of this is patience.
It's great to love games and be passionate about them, but don't let that become a festering negativity that will then affect how developers communicate with you. The more comfortable they are, the better their communication will be.
Gabe Newell's AMA was a shining example.
What do you think? Do you want more communication from Valve?