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Inside Valve

Studio Tour: Snooping around the Portal 2 developer's digs...

Valve Corporation isn't like other developers. Their history is a roll-call of classic series: Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal, Left 4 Dead, and Team Fortress. In an industry of one-year turnarounds and premium DLC, Valve cook their games until they're ready and drip feed free content for years.

Sometimes, as with the recent Alien Swarm, they just give their games away. Sounds too good to be true? Nope.

To the Batmobile, then! The location: Bellevue, Washington - and Valve HQ. It's housed in a bland but classy companies building over four floors and Valve are kind enough to let us freely wander two of them. Never did they suspect a master sleuth in their midst.

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THE SPY
Valve HQ is entered via elevator, and the first thing you'll notice is a giant Valve. You know it's the right stop. Reception: tidy, but gimmick-packed. Corridors: covered in art and game shots, with an occasional PC or Heavy figurine guarding its busy turf.

Rows of offices: game memorabilia, post-it notes, no Half-Life 3 (sob). The Steam room: rows of desks with all manner of thrumming hardware. Hey, isn't that Chet Faliszek?

Kitchens: extraordinarily well-stocked, with everything from herbal teas to candy bars and pots of salad. Bathrooms: holy halitosis, the biggest bottle of Listerine you've ever seen.

There are little essentials like toothpaste (*ahem* get your tube of Valve Colgate on eBay now), a fragrant handwash, and melodious jazz playing through some unseen speakers....

STEAM POWER
On leaving, a man called Tad zips by on an office scooter. Time for the interrogations. Despite our crazy eye technique, they're a bust: we speak to people getting coffee, ask in the elevators, and every single one ends up saying some version of "I love working for Valve".

Ask why and they talk about their co-workers, and the games they make. Valve president Gabe Newell has talked about competitors walking up to staff at tradeshows and offering to double their salary: "And people laugh, because the things they value most are their colleagues and the work they get to do."

When we ask Erik Wolpaw, he simply calls it "my dream job". Wolpaw's route to Valve is its own story, and the company is full of them: Portal's team were hired after presenting a demo - the Team Fortress 2 designers were contracted before being outright employed.

Marketing director Doug Lombardi reckons "more than half" of Valve's development and art staff have come from the community. At one point we visit the 'United Nations', a room on the lower floors festooned with national flags, where Steam is translated into 22 (and rising) languages. One of the translators told us that she'd been lucky to end up at Valve: she spoke five languages. Luck tends to find people who are that smart.

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The incredible sandwiches, obvious camaraderie and office distractions (pinball machines are very retro chic) aside, how do these folk make some of the world's best games? As Josh Weier says elsewhere on these pages, it's a lot to do with Valve's scientific approach to player data.

It's a remarkable way of working: watching players find flaws in your work-in-progress, thanking them and rebuilding it to be better without a question. You just can't do that kind of work with an ego.

Such player-centric ideas inform everything in Valve's strategy. They don't actually stop developing their games, but iterate through regular updates - which, in TF2's case, took it from great to incredible. At one point we're playing Portal 2 when a couple of engineers stop by to update the Steam client.

Just like always, it's no biggie - off you go with the latest version. Valve's people just keep striving to give players the best game possible, and have an almost fairytale-like devotion to delivering value. They don't think a game is finished when it ships.

To make a masterpiece takes backbreaking labour and huge talent - and Valve make nothing but masterpieces. They wave, as we slip away and leave for the real world. A chap called Arsenio throws a plushie Stickybomb at us, the lobby's sentry gun shouts a last volley and we're in a cab, the driver muttering "nice people".

It doesn't matter whether Valve might be the world's best developer, of course, because such labels are nonsense. But they're probably in the top one.

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