UPDATE (1/27/2023): comments are disabled. Please keep in mind I’m just presenting a TL;DR of the video; in no way am I expressing my opinion on any of this (except for Valve’s ignorance when people try to reach them).

The animal. The mystery whose case continues to be cracked. The company for which people make a whole dedicated YouTube channel for the sake of digging further about said company. Valve fits all the above.

The Steam Deck. Greatest gadget ever, right? To win the hardware of the year award in 2022? Proton? Constantly getting updated and making Windows gaming on Linux easier by the day? Interviews with Valve employees sharing things we can look forward to in the future?

And yet, no one talks about the darker side of the company. No one talks about the fact that your chances of getting hired at Valve are slim to none if you’re a junior developer, a woman, a color other than white, disabled, non-binary, or trans. No one talks about the anxiety of knowing that you could instantly be fired at any moment, and how unpleasant that process is. No one talks about the structure of the company not really being “flat” as they advertise in their handbook. No one talks about how games like Portal 3 could actually happen if it weren’t for people constantly moving around to different projects and the amount of money Steam has been raking in.

People Make Games did an interview with over a dozen anonymous Valve employees and ex-employees. Apparently they’ve been working on the video since August. Bear in mind some of the stuff in the video is recycled information that we already know, but there are some other interesting (or depressing, depending on how you view this) facts about the company that you might not know about thanks to this video. While some have said Valve is a great place to work, they also mention many internal issues going on with the company.

Lord of the Flies photo Image credit: Castle Rock Entertainment/Nelson Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

Here’s some of the main bits that I extracted from the video, if you prefer a TL;DR:

Company Structure

  • two former employees compared the workplace structure to Lord of the Flies
  • flat structure with no bosses, right? Not necessarily. There is management; just no “institutionalised management.” There are a small number of “secret” people in charge, who Valve refers to as “team leads.” Some are “great natural managers,” others “aren’t necessarily great at it”
  • roles within the company are temporary and often get changed
  • it usually takes a while for the company to address a poor manager. When action does finally take place, it sometimes means the project they were associated with “goes down in flames”
  • if Valve wasn’t making such a huge cash fountain, many have said that this has “completely changed the trajectory” of the company. Valve would “almost certainly” ship more games if it used a traditional company structure that doesn’t allow employees from changing projects so frequently, and if Steam wasn’t generating as much revenue as it currently does

Stacked Ranking

Employees are invited to meetings around October each year with four-to-six people in said meeting. They will evaluate the “performance” of ten other colleagues based on skill level, productivity, group contribution, and product contribution. After these evaluations there will be an ordered list of employees, ranked by how their peers have rated them. Then in January an automated email from Gabe goes out presenting the employee’s new salary and bonus. Poor performance usually means a lower salary or bonus, but this is not always the case. Therefore, your co-workers’ opinions on you largely affects the amount that you get paid.

  • “certain personality types and demographics” benefit more than others in terms of hiring, firing, and salary negotiations
  • starting salary is “extremely competitive” but this salary gets changed annually via “stacked ranking” either for good or for bad
  • many employees would make short-term decisions as a result of this stacked ranking process; no point in working on a long-term project that “may or may not pay off” if you still have a bad ranking
  • employees might do “riskier” projects in the beginning of the year, then go back to the “more well known ones” closer to review time because of “recency bias”
  • one current employee described it being “safer to criticise someone than it is to defend them.” Complimenting a project or person can open yourself up to “a much greater risk” of getting an unfavorable review by your colleagues if that person happens to make a mistake, or that project fails. On the other hand, leaving a critical remark gives you “zero risk”

Stacked ranking Image credit: UpYourTelesales

Lack of Diversity

  • huge diversity problem; Valve largely hires white men. Don’t expect to get hired if you’re black, disabled, a woman, trans, non-binary, or anything besides white. If you’re a woman and you do get hired, expect to be the only female programmer at the company
  • on top of only hiring white males, the interviewee needs to be senior; they don’t hire juniors
  • despite efforts to increase diversity within the company, employees have largely had their requests fall on deaf ears

The Unpleasant Firing Process

  • “people are very insecure at Valve” because there’s always the feeling of, “Am I going to get fired?”
  • signals that you might be fired next include getting cryptic emails of someone saying “It’s my last day at Valve, loved working with you.” Another one will come three hours later…
  • who fires you? “Someone volunteers because they felt it was important”
  • out of all the employees/ex-employees interviewed, none of them had any “pros” to describe the firing process

Stances on World Events

  • Valve didn’t make a public statement for Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but they did send employees $10,000 each, to which they could donate to any charity of their choice. The actual string of the “no strings attached” was the fact that an employee could keep the money for themselves rather than donate it
  • Valve would sponsor the Game Devs of Color Expo and Black Voices in Gaming later on, but the announcement came from one of the event organizers, rather than Valve itself. Only thing that Valve said was “Shawn’s Tweet is accurate.”

Stance on What Gets Approved and What Doesn’t on the Steam Store

  • Valve introduced Steam Direct in 2017, where a game dev could pay $100 to greenlight their game on Steam rather than rely on community voting approval. This apparently came with “controversies” as one game got pulled from Steam a week prior to its release
  • there have been controversial views regarding Valve’s approval of pornographic or racist games being approved on Steam. Despite protests from the community (most of) these games are still up for sale on Steam. Per Steam’s policy, any game is allowed on Steam so long as it is not “illegal” or “straight up trolling”

Who gets to be on the Steam Store

Steam Store Cut

  • only 3% of devs, according to the 2021 GDC survey, think the 30% cut that Valve takes with every copy of a game sold on Steam is justified
  • indie devs suffer the most from this cut as they are less likely to be making $10 million+ (Valve’s cut is reduced at that point, only making AAA game studios benefit)

Other

  • getting hired is like “getting tenure at a university”
  • one former employee believes there is a “maximum number of potential Valve employees spread across the globe right now” and predicts there are about 10,000 employees total
  • the employee handbook is (somewhat) a lie, for the reasons mentioned above
  • Valve wouldn’t respond to People Make Games for comment on any of these issues. Neither did they respond regarding their concerns for CS:GO gambling sites

In all of this, I at least take solace in the fact that I’m not the only one who gets ignored by Valve every time I contact them.

You can check out the video yourself over on YouTube. Props to People Make Games for doing this, and the various former and current Valve employees for speaking up.

WARNING: LGC will be shutting down March 7, 2024. See this post for more details.