'Half-Life: Alyx' is proof Valve answers to no one

Even its biggest fans.

Valve is like an eccentric billionaire uncle who isn't allowed to babysit any kids in the family. He lives alone in a mountaintop mansion stocked with exotic animals, vintage pinball machines, water slides and homemade potato guns, and strange sounds flow into the valley below at all hours of the night. He disappears for months at a time and returns with suitcases full of loose candy and unmarked pills. It's not that this uncle has ever hurt anyone or done anything illegal -- it's simply clear that really, he could do anything.

Valve can do anything. It's unknown just how much money the studio pulls in each year, since it's a private entity and doesn't have to publicly disclose its finances, but estimates of its annual revenue begin at $4 billion. Valve founder Gabe Newell is personally worth $3.5 billion, according to Forbes. The company's main money fountain is Steam, which has been the top PC-gaming platform for more than a decade, with 1 billion registered accounts and an average of 90 million monthly active users.

And that's just Steam -- Valve also owns a library of legendary video game franchises, including Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Portal, Counter-Strike, Dota and Team Fortress. Plus, it has a hardware division building experimental consoles and virtual reality headsets, including the HTC Vive line and Valve's own device, the Index.

Valve Index

With an abundance of resources at its disposal and no stockholders to answer to, Valve routinely operates outside the boundaries of logical consumerism. In fact, many of its decisions are blatantly anti-consumer, flying in the face of what players and developers actually want. Valve forces players to use specific platforms, shuts down revenue streams for developers, and shows little interest in building the games and sequels that fans are desperate to play. The company consistently offloads its moderation duties, and when its veteran writing team left, Valve bought Firewatch studio Campo Santo, only to cancel development on its highly anticipated next project, In the Valley of Gods.

However, the most recent example of Valve's bad attitude is Half-Life: Alyx.

Valve routinely operates outside the boundaries of logical consumerism.

When it comes out on March 23rd, Alyx will be the first new Half-Life game in 13 years. Valve released the original Half-Life in 1998 and its sequel, Half-Life 2, in 2004. Both titles were incredibly popular, but Half-Life 2 became an instant classic. It defined a genre of narrative-driven first-person shooters, and players were eager for more. Valve quickly announced a follow-up, but split it into three parts; Episode 1 landed in 2006 and Episode 2 came out in 2007.

And then, nothing.

Fans have been begging Valve to release Half-Life: Episode 3 for 13 years, and the company has largely responded with silence. This relationship has led to a strange form of digital Stockholm syndrome and branded paranoia, where players see clues about the game in every announcement Valve makes, desperate to believe their pleas are being heard.

Half-Life: Alyx isn't Half-Life: Episode 3. As it stands, Valve still hasn't updated fans on the status of Episode 3. Instead, Alyx is a prequel set between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2.

Oh, and it's only playable on VR platforms.

And it'll work best on the Index, Valve's proprietary VR headset that costs $1,000.

This is a classic Valve move.

Shockingly, this strategy hasn't alienated Valve's fans. In fact, most players are expressing excitement for this VR-only, prohibitively expensive Half-Life prequel, and online hubs are buzzing with praise and intrigue. It's being hailed as the software savior of the VR industry, driving an increase in headset sales across the board, but particularly for the Valve Index. Valve sold 103,000 Index kits and depleted its stock in the final three months of 2019, amid the announcement of Half-Life: Alyx, according to SuperData Research. The company restocked on March 9th and sold out that same day.

This is a classic Valve move. Forced adoption is exactly how the company got so many people happily hooked on Steam in 2004. Half-Life 2 was the first title that made Steam a requirement; even with physical discs, players had to install Valve's client in order to play the game. By 2011, Valve had sold more than 12 million copies of Half-Life 2 and Steam had a stranglehold on the PC gaming market.

Valve's anti-consumer tendencies aren't contained to the Half-Life franchise. The company is notoriously unable to count to three in any of its established series, leaving fans hanging after Left 4 Dead 2 (2009), Portal 2 (2011) and, of course, Half-Life: Episode 2 (2007). And then there's Team Fortress 2, a competitive, class-based multiplayer shooter that's been running since 2007. In an era of Overwatch, Fortnite and live streaming, Team Fortress 2 could have been a top-tier esports title, but instead, Valve let the game languish. As of 2017, Valve had just 16 people on the TF2 development team, and even then, they weren't full-time. When news of the TF2 team size hit Reddit, players joked that it was likely composed of voice actors, janitors and folks simply passing by.

Even in the midst of repeated disappointment, that's generally the response Valve gets from Steam users -- laughter and a sense of camaraderie, as if players are in on whatever joke the multibillion-dollar company is playing on them. There's a cottage industry of friendly Valve-related memes revolving around the number three and hailing Gabe Newell as the patron saint of PC gaming.

Gabe Newell... the patron saint of PC gaming.

Valve's financial and reputational security has created an environment where the company doesn't need to bow to industry pressure, even regarding Steam itself. Early on, Valve established a revenue-sharing model giving the company 30 percent of the sales from any game on Steam, leaving developers with a 70 percent cut. This model was picked up by Google and Apple for their app stores, and for years it was the standard in digital distribution. That is, until the Epic Games Store launched on December 6th, 2018, offering developers an 88 percent cut. Independent studios rejoiced and a handful of high-profile titles were announced as timed exclusives on the Epic Store. Soon after, the Discord Store announced it would offer developers 90 percent.

Epic Games Store

It was assumed that Valve would be forced to change Steam's business model -- and it did, slightly, just before the Epic Store went live. However, the changes only affected extremely successful studios, offering developers a 75 percent cut of future revenue once their game made $10 million, and an 80 percent cut after $50 million. Essentially, Valve didn't change Steam's policies at all, even as its strongest competitor in 10 years offered a better deal to developers.

Clearly, Valve doesn't need to regularly churn out smash-hit series installments, jump on trends, or offer competitive deals to developers. Comparable studios such as Rockstar Games or Activision Blizzard regularly iterate on their popular franchises and update existing titles because if they don't, they'll have to explain to investors -- and, in Rockstar's case, a parent company -- why they blatantly ignored their audiences. Valve is held accountable by no one. Even after the launch of the Epic Games Store, Steam dominates the PC market and it's bringing in billions for Valve each year. In this position, Valve is free to ignore outside creative constraints and consumer desires in equal measure.

Half-Life Alyx

That's not to say this situation is completely terrible. Valve has proven its prowess as an innovative powerhouse, and when the company is good, it's really, really good. Even though Steam comes with its own set of third-party restrictions, the service was a lighthouse during the dark days of digital rights management in the mid-2000s, and it remains the largest repository of PC titles today. And when Valve does actually release a game, it tends to be fantastic. Like, "spawn a new genre of video games" fantastic.

That's why players will wait 13 years to be excited about the wrong game coming to a limited platform. Just like with Steam, Valve is the only company that can deliver this experience -- and in both instances, there isn't really any other choice. Might as well laugh through it.