Gabe Newell, Founder of Valve Software

November 5, 2008 — 1 Comment

I’ve been quoted as saying that Gabe Newell will be the richest person in the video game industry. It’s a bold statement, but he (and his very talented crew) have been able to stay ahead of the curve on engine technology, game design, sales, business, publishing, you name it. I have a lot of respect for his “Steam” initiative (cutting edge digital distribution service that a major media company will buy), and the fact that he has completely opened up the industry to new indie teams. It’s hard to find someone that’s more busy than him, and that makes the fact that he’s willing to give advice to students even more valuable.
I laughed out loud when I read how he compared Hollywood and the video game industry when it comes to niche talent. I’ve been expecting the opposite of what he says (I’m not going to spoil it), but I’ve now changed my opinion and agree that blended talent is indeed much more valuable these days.
So here you go, if you’re a student, here’s some great advice from Gabe Newell, the founder of Valve.

What did your mother want you to do as a career? Surely, it couldn’t have been to make professional video games!?

Well, my mom was actually the first programmer in the family (Bell Labs). She told me that I should be a “system analyst” which is, in retrospect, an odd thing to say to a 9-year-old.

What would you say to my mother, to get her off my back and let me make professional video games as a career?

Video games are growing faster than the rest of the economy, combine the best aspects of the high tech and entertainment industries, and they are personally satisfying to work on.

Tell us about your start in the industry. What was your life like when you were younger and hungrier?

There were two aspects of my early experiences in the industry that are probably relevant – networking and personal interests. On the networking side I already knew people in the industry who were instrumental in helping launch me in the field (specifically Michael Abrash who was at ID Software, and with whom I’d worked at Microsoft). On the personal interest side, in addition to loving video games, I had already done a lot of thinking about consumer computing platforms that had given me a set of tools that were helpful in starting Valve.

It’s pretty tough (almost damn impossible) to get hired without industry experience on a resume. Should I lie? It’s the standard Catch-22, need a job to get experience, need experience to get a job. Imagine you are me, caught in the 22 — what the heck would you do?

Don’t lie – that’s just a disaster on multiple levels. The best thing to do is to start making content using the MOD tools that are out there. Whether you use Civilization or Warcraft III or Hammer doesn’t matter as much as that you are building and shipping stuff to customers, getting their feedback, and then iterating your work. MOD development is better in a lot of ways of both honing your skills and demonstrating your talent to a potential employer than work experience as there are going to be fewer institutional barriers and creative constraints to limit the work you do.

People that never went to college in the video games business swear blind that colleges aren’t needed to get a job. Are they for real? Should I burn my books now?

That is changing very quickly. In the past, colleges didn’t really have anything to teach people that directly applied to game development, so people who went to school or didn’t go to school were more or less on the same footing. However programs like Digipen are a huge advantage, and are very valuable for the students who make it through.

How did you get your big break? Did you claw your way out of the testers’ pit? Did you sleep your way to the top? Did you sleep at all?

My big break came from the support and encouragement of people already in the industry.

Tell us about the first time you felt star-struck when meeting a leading game developer (and no, we won’t tell Mr. Miyamoto your real name). Do you even realize that some people will get butterflies in their stomach when first meeting you?

Meeting Mr. Miyamoto was very cool, but the first time I was star-struck was when I realized the person who was asking such thoughtful questions during my Half-Life presentation was Warren Spector.

Without using terms like “indentured servant” or “voluntary servitude,” please describe your ideal protégé.

I don’t want a protege – I want a colleague. There are three questions we ask ourselves when making hiring decisions that are relevant to this.

1) Would I work for this candidate?
2) What would I learn from this candidate?
3) How would I feel if this person went to work at a competitor?

These questions are actually more invariant with respect to experience than you would think, and are often very clarifying.

Let’s say I was interviewing with you tomorrow. Short of showing up drunk and naked, what could I say or do to completely ruin my shot? And what could I do to totally win your heart?

For us, having clear ideas about customers and how you make decisions, having demonstrated excellence in a specific domain, and understanding how to work collaboratively in a non-hierarchical environment are the keys.

Let’s look several years into the future for a moment. Should I even bother learning today’s skills? Surely they’ll have completely changed by the time I get out of college? What kinds of jobs are absolutely ‘rock-solid’, and will undoubtedly still be around 5-10 years from now? And what new jobs do you think might exist that nobody has quite pinned down just yet?

Specialization and hierarchy are the norms in film production, and are antithetical to what needs to happen in the games industry. The reason for that distinction is that the game industry is more focused on invention than on repeatability/measurability. Programmers that can draw are going to be in much better shape than an animator specializing in putting talking mouths on cats. The solutions of tomorrow are not going to fall into the production or organizational categories of today.

How much stock do you put in the emerging game design programs at universities? Does it matter more to you that an interviewee knows the history of and theory behind The Third-Person Action MMO/Puzzle Platformer Hybrid, or is all about the demo he/she shows up with?

It varies tremendously from program to program. Some are really good, and we have people step out of, say, Digipen directly into key roles on shipping games. Others are completely broken.

OK, just imagine three companies make me an offer (a guy has gotta dream!). They’re all kinda low-end jobs, and I need to move 3,000 miles to take any of them. How do I pick the right team? What would you look for?

The quality of the people you would be working with on a daily basis would be the best criterion to use to make that decision.

Finally, there are a TON of game development colleges around the world now. Imagine you had to start again, and have all the choices I have — how would you pick? And how would you convince your mother to get out her check book?

Ask people who graduated from the program. Tell your mom it’s either Digipen or Rennaissance French Poetry.

One response to Gabe Newell, Founder of Valve Software


    Great interview, David.
    Asking “How would I feel if this person went to work at a competitor?” is a great idea, I only do shareware games myself, but it can be applied to that too.

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