Back in 1996, two Microsoft executives quit their spectacularly high-paid jobs, formed a games company and made the best game ever. Twice.
They didn't like the way retailers were throttling the industry's creativity, so they cut them out. They did like what a lot of mod teams were doing, so they hired them. They published any game they liked through their digital distribution network, however commercially risky, and saved several independent developers in the process. Their revolution was so successful that today, major publishers like Eidos and Atari come to them to sell their games online. Now they're gearing up to do it again, by turning Steam into a giant gaming community.
Valve would be the most exciting games company around even if they weren't about to release four incredible games. As it is, this year's going to see the repulsively bloody co-op survival horror Left 4 Dead, the achingly beautiful cartoon shooter Team Fortress 2, the mind-bending puzzle comedy Portal, and the massive next chapter of the finest FPS ever made. The latter three are being released together, in September, for the price of one normal game, while Left 4 Dead is scheduled for Christmas-ish.
Most of the best reasons to be a gamer right now come from two floors of an unassuming office block in Bellevue, Washington, which doesn't even have their name on it. So who the hell are these people?
From their Microsoft roots, technical expertise and obvious business savvy, I'd expected a pressurised office atmosphere. But when I suggested I come in earlier than my noon appointment, Valve's PR man Doug Lombardi laughed: "No one's going to be around." They work the hours they feel like, Valve do their laundry for them, and they all go off on a company-funded holiday together when they finish a game. The third question I asked at Valve was "Can I have a job?"
There are no managers at Valve, and no one has a fixed position. Co-founder Gabe Newell describes himself as a playtester, and Old Man Murray co-founder Chet Faliszek's job title is 'Mr Awesome'. Doug tells me that everyone just works on what they want. "If, after Portal 3, Kim [Swift, project lead on Portal] comes in here and says 'I'm burned on Portal stuff, I wanna go build Day of Defeat maps,' we'd say, 'Killer... go do that.'" ('PORTAL 3 CONFIRMED', I scribble quietly in my notebook.)
So how do these hedonistic game gurus want to change the way we play games online? They want to make it more sociable. Right now most players double-click a server and play with strangers for an hour or two, then never see them again. Valve's latest big announcement, The Steam Community, will encourage you to play with friends, and make new ones.
The headline feature is one-click matchmaking, both for new games and existing ones such as Counter-Strike. You'll be able to jump straight into a game with players of your skill level, with no history of griefing, by pressing a single button. It also lets you form a party with your friends, and automatically find a game that you can all jump into and play together. There are parallels to Microsoft's Live service, obviously, but the differences are heavily in Steam's favour. You need the £40-a-year Gold subscription to get Live's matchmaking, whereas Steam's is free, and it'll be supported by masses of our favourite games from day one.
The 'Community' part comes in when you form or join groups, like the PC Gamer UK Group we'll be setting up. Members can see when others are playing a game, join them, or schedule a match for a specific date and time. They'll also have a dedicated chat channel to talk to each other on regardless of what game they're playing, even between rounds.
Lastly, but perhaps most visibly, Steam Community gives you a personal gamer page that's accessible via the web, with embarrassingly detailed stats about what you play, how much you play it, and what kind of player you are. It even highlights noteworthy trends - the example we saw told the user "You like playing as a Boomer. Sometimes you (accidentally?) shoot your fellow Survivors."
We'll be revealing more about The Steam Community, and Valve's plans for its future, in the following week. We'll bring you hands on impressions from Portal, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2, and of course, Half-Life 2: Episode 2. Holy Christ is this going to be a good year.