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Interview: Valve On Steam (Pt.2)

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Doesn’t mean we can’t run our applications on those systems, but they’re not tuned for that ultimate high-end gamer who wants the fastest frame-rate: and a framerate that most people can’t even detect the differences between. Yeah, that’s still going to happen on PC given the current state. What Apple does in their next couple of refreshes, they may close the gap there. There’s certainly been a lot of momentum since the Intel CPUs were brought in to their systems and their architecture. I don’t know that we could have done this prior to that move. So we’ll see what happens.

Q: Yeah, you’ve got to wonder what ATI and NVIDIA are up to for the Mac. It seems impossible that they won’t be all over it, given the boom in ownership lately and that graphics board sales are down on PC…

Jason Holtman: [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t think any of those guys are allergic to doing business, so wherever there are opportunities they’re going to be there and making fast parts. That’s the business they’re in. Again, I don’t think it’s “oh, it’s a total freakin’ ghetto.” That was the case a while ago, today it’s the difference between whether or not you drive a Maserati or a Ferrari”, and frankly I’m not even sure which one goes faster, so it’s not applicable to me.

Q: What’s the plan for updates for you guys, outside of whatever Apple may end up doing? Is there any kind of divergent path for how you plan to or have to evolve the Mac version as opposed to the PC version?

Jason Holtman: It is platform agnostic. Steam goes with you wherever you are and it’s the same Steam wherever you are.

Q: What about the reception from the audience? I know you’ve said they’ve been universally pleased, but do they seem to have fully grasped what Steam in its entirety is? As you were saying there’ve been these jumps in it evolution multiplayer, a story, then a universal store, then Steamworks… The PC guys had a chance to get used to the platform as it evolved, but in this case you’re launching them straight into this huge and complicated thing.

Jason Holtman: In terms of the experience of Steam themselves for an Apple user, I don’t think there are any bumps at all. I think people are very, very used to it, they understood it, they know the features, they know what’s good about it. So it wasn’t anything like when we first launched the platform back in 2004. You didn’t have that great experience. These are seasoned folks who know exactly what it means to get a service.

I think the only negative we got from folks was everybody wants more content. If you can call that a negative reaction. We constantly get these torrents of mails, kind of like when we first launched third-party titles on Steam, from customers saying “I see this mac version can you go get it, I wanna do this.” So we’re feeling that pressure from customers and that’s a really good pressure to have. That’s what people want from it now, they want more games. Q: Moving on to an admittedly rather speculative question, how concerned are you that Apple might one day release a version of the App store on OSX and come along and steal your thunder a bit?

Jason Holtman: Life is filled with risks. [Laughs]. Who knows? I mean we’ve charged ahead with this, and we’ll see what happens in the future. Lucky for us if we make a killer version of Portal 2 for the Mac, it’ll sell regardless of whether we’re selling it or Apple’s selling it, and we’ll be happy. The future is unknown.

Q: How much of your marketing for Portal 2 will be based around it having a native, simultaneous Mac version?

Doug Lombardi: Looking at how you do that, how you actually spend the money, and thinking about the platforms is like saying oh I’m doing this ad to drive this platform or what have you, is really I think old school and tied to the old print mentality. So when I was managing the budget for Half-life 1 about 60-70 per cent of the dollars were going to print and in that case, even though Half-Life is a bad example because it was PC only, had that been multi-platform, platform spending would have mattered. Because I needed to spend in PlayStation magazine, OXM for those ads blah blah blah.

Today, the websites are all multi-platform. If you’re doing television ads, which are where a big, big percentage of where the dollars are going, those are all multi-platform. If I’m buying on a premiere football game, is that a console buy or is that a PC buy, or is it both? I don’t know. I’m just advertising the brand and the project and the game. So, it’s really really hard to say that we’re doing something that’s Mac-specific or even PlayStation-specific anymore. So I guess I just don’t really think of it that way, of being divvied up by platform and I don’t think anyone else here does when we get set to spend the tens of millions of dollars that we put behind this titles worldwide.

Q: So you think game marketing is going to by necessity become about simply creating awareness rather than targeting specific audiences?

Doug Lombardi: Well I’ll put it really concretely. Of the $25 million that we spent for Left 4 Dead 2, which came out on PC and Xbox, only two different platforms, at least $23 million of it was spent just promoting the brand and the game. Without any thought of it was PC or Xbox. We were advertising Left 4 Dead 2.

Jason Holtman: The piece I would add, you were asking about advertising the Mac version, the other advantage we have in the case of Portal 2 the PC and Mac version are the same thing.

Q: Ah yes, if you buy it in one version of Steam it appears in the other too.

Jason Holtman: Absolutely. That’s the same box in the same place to the same people. So we don’t think about it as you have to go buy a box that says a Mac on it or do specific advertising for that.

Doug Lombardi: That’s also gotten worse as you’ve talked about; we’ve gone from being on two platforms with Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 to four platforms now with Portal 2, with PlayStation 3 and Mac being added. So I think that whole thing gets diluted even further as you add more platforms to it. It seems that’s more the norm for other games to be on multiple platforms. We’re sort of one of the last hold-outs to being on only one or two platforms. It seems like most games that come out now are on like 14 different platforms…

Q: Yes, everything has an iPhone version now as well.

Doug Lombardi: Right, exactly [laughs].

Jason Holtman: Did you guys talk about our Commodore 64 version of Portal 2? Big news!

Doug Lombardi: I’m crusty, the one I always have to slag is the Atari Jaguar, but I wasn’t going to go there…

Q: It’s always be the ZX Spectrum for me…. I guess Portal 2 must be your biggest launch by quite some margin then, if you’ve got four platforms. That’s a lot to deal with.

Doug Lombardi: Well, it’s forever going to be competing with Half-Life 2. Everything that we do competes with Half-Life 2. That was a huge, huge launch. It was six million or something in the first year, so we’re always chasing that one. But yeah, Portal 2’s going to be really, really big. Coming out of E3 with the way it showed there and the awards we won there and adding Mac and PlayStation 3, it’s definitely going to be the biggest one we’ve done since Half-Life 2. …

Q: Really? I remember you were talking up both Left 4 Deads as having your biggest-ever pre-orders? Does that mean pre-orders aren’t that effective a barometer of absolute success?

Doug Lombardi: Well, it was a different world. Pre-orders back in the day weren’t as big a deal as they are today. Console games get pre-ordered a lot more than PC games. That was true then, that’s still true now. Half-Life 2 was PC only. In Europe, the idea of pre-ordering really has only come in to vogue pretty recently, and really the UK is the only one that does it in big numbers. So it was a different time, and the multi-platform thing adds to the pre-order thing.

Plus the thing that happened with Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 was both of those just started taking off versus our forecasts. Part of it was the pre-order thing which has been phenomenal and our biggest in history, but also the game catching us by surprise a little bit in how it performed. Both the first and second time. The first time was the number one new IP in 2008, and was EA’s best-selling title for that year. It achieved some things that I don’t think anybody thought it would six months before it came out. Left 4 Dead 1 is special. …

Q: Yeah, it really caught the zombie zeitgeist just before everyone else started doing it. Let’s talk about publishers’ attitudes to Steam in general, beyond just the Mac. Some people have suggested that Steam has too much domination of the download market; how have attitudes towards it changed recently?

Doug Lombardi: Oh, you’re talking about the conspiracy monopolist theories… Y’know, I would point you as I probably would back then to other people ask a group of people who work with us. Don’t ask us. We’re always going to say people love us. If I tell you my kids are handsome, you’re not going to believe me. If someone else tells you they’re handsome you’ll believe them. …

Jason Holtman: Doug, you have very beautiful children. …Laughter.]

Q: What’s been your reaction to those NPD figures last week, claiming digital distribution constitutes 43 per cent of the PC market?

Doug Lombardi: Yeah, we’re unsure as to how they came up with those numbers, so commenting on them would feel strange. …

Q: Blizzard told me exactly the same thing a little while ago, as it happens. Funny business, eh?

Doug Lombardi: [Laughs] It does point to what we’ve been trying to say forever which is that the PC is not dying, the business is just moving elsewhere. And to their credit, they’re starting to make strides to give everyone that information and paint a more complete picture. But again those reports that came out weren’t based on any data that we’ve provided, so it is what is. …

Q: Final question, and one I’m sure you’re not super-keen to answer, but I promised one of our tech guys I’d ask it. What truth is there to rumours that you’re also working on a Linux version of Steam?

Doug Lombardi: There’s no Linux version that we’re working on right now. …


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Stuart Davidson

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