I was reading a list of the richest geeks in the world on Forbes the other day, and who should be at the number-one spot but Gabe Newell, the CEO of Valve, which is the owner of Steam, the gamers' community where Second Life is now going to be offered. We knew that there are some big hitters in the gaming industry; he's the biggest. "With an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion dollars, he ranks 854th out of 1,226 global billionaires," says Forbes.
$1.5 billion doesn't seem like much in the world of Russian oligarchs and Soros and the Koch Brothers so on. But it's still a lot, and more is coming!
Remember that scene in Bonfire of the Vanities where the Daddy explains to his little girl what his job on Wall Street involves, which is passing around pieces of pie and taking a little crumb of each one for himself? That's what gaming distribution is -- and it's big. Although...it can get really big, like Zynga on Facebook, and then collapse, like Zynga on Facebook.
GWYN'S INSIGHTS ON STEAM
Gwyn Llewelyn has an excellent article on her blog about Steam that explains also more of the Lindens' possible motivations. Gwyn has always been an interesting explicator of the Lindens, virtually one of them as a gold developer and early insider in their pet free sim contest for building a Better World, Neualtenberg. Gwyn herself will likely tell you that she doesn't talk to Lindens much any more -- she's not like Uri and Tizzers, able to drink with them on ships or hang out in waterfront bars in San Francisco etc.
But she's very methodical and original in her thinking, and I think she's made an excellent point: that while Zynga forces you to bother your non-gaming friends on Facebook and irritate them with endless pleas to come and save puppies or take jobs in your little stupid games in order for you to advance, Steam creates a social network around existing game players who don't mind game notices because they are already gamers. Eureka! On G+, I blocked all game messages, and on Facebook, a quick path to friend deletion these days can be spamming me with games after I quit them. Oh, but see, that's the problem -- the way Zynga succeeds *is* by tapping into irritable non-gamers, and that's how it grows.
But Valve may be on to a better idea -- skim a little bit off each download and offer community, prizes, news of new games, etc.
Say, I wonder what the tolerance on Valve is for meta-game critics and meta-meta-critics who criticize the devs? For some, that *is* the fun of their game, and some game companies tolerate this, along with modding, to keep their populations healthy. Will the move of Second Life to the Steam ecosphere also come with whatever rules Valve has about third-party blogging? Anybody know what that is?
Gwyn thinks that Rodvik has figured out that "modders" -- those people who create modified versions of whatever company game they are playing -- will like Second Life and draw some of them in. Maybe? I remember the first thing that my son and all his friends did when they got on to the Teen Grid was to make the costumes and swords and such that they had in Runescape and World of Warcraft. They made then hybrid games like a fun game of galactic basketball with different rules in which they were in their costumes from the other medieval war games, or appearing as robots, with weapons that could do damages during the basketball game as well. They also began a brisk inter-game trade in currencies -- trading for Lindens or World of Warcraft gold the Runescape loot they were tired of and ready to hand on to younger brothers to others in Second Life with younger brothers.
WHO WILL OWN THE CUSTOMER DATA SCRAPE AND WHAT KIND OF WORLD?
Gwyn says she will be fascinated to see what kind of registration or log-on there will be. I remember when the Lindens signed up thousands of CSI detectives, Podcast picklers, Suicide Girls and Gossip Girls, they gave them their own last names. Rodvik got rid of last names. Gwyn is wondering if we will now all be moved to Steam to log on. Then we'll be able to tell what intergalactic game-god regime we are in, something still resembling "your world, your imagination" with a sense of some minimally democratic society, or the totalitarianism of a game platform.
It could be the latter, judging from today's article about Gabe Newell in The New York Times, describing his tyrannical office habits.
First -- beware -- they have that awful hippie San Francisco/Portland fake culture of "no titles" or "no management" -- when in fact they really do. (It's like the myth of the collective in communism where "everyone" is in charge but in fact only a few people rule -- "the cadres decide everything" as Stalin put it).
We all remember these "open workplace" notions that Philip tried to install, with open seating in a big warehouse, and The Big List of Things to Do -- where nobody ever got to the real scut work -- and where people set their own priorities and then rate themselves or gave each others points on the Love Machine. This was all ridiculous tripe that was a terrible way to try to run an office, and in fact only led to more totalitarianism -- as you can read on Glass Door, horrid little controlling HR people, aribrary lay-offs, strange job description shifts.
And you can see it even more vividly at Valve. Valve pretends that you can "pick your own job" and not have a boring old-fashioned title. You come and look around and then move your desk (conveniently on wheels) to the group you want to work with.
When one former Hollywood designer balked at moving his desk, Gabe himself came and picked it up and moved it -- and that guy is also now no longer with the company. So...so much for freedom and de-centralization. Loosey-goosey systems like this without clear rules and even hierarchies in fact lead to *more* authoritarianism, as you can see vividly with this desk scene.
Valve features all the horrid culture we've come to dislike in Linden Lab -- only more so, and more successful, obviously -- Philip isn't on the billionaires' list. One guy was hired because he was a graffiti artist -- that casual attitude toward vandalism so characteristic of the gaming world. Then getting 2,000 teachers to take the games -- that Better Worldism and avid zeal to get into education, get into kids' heads, and sell more games and gamification. Awful stuff, culturally, and politically.
When you log on to Second Life via Steam's services (they handle 40 million gamers), does that mean all that streaming data go into Valve's coffers? And you worried about Emerald phoning home or the Lindens keeping chat logs!
FAILED EUROPEAN SOCIALISM MAY HAVE A SECOND CHANCE IN GAMELAND
And look at this horror.
This year, Mr. Newell hired Yanis Varoufakis, a Greek economist, after being impressed with Mr. Varoufakis’s personal blog, which he fills with commentary on the European financial crisis. Mr. Varoufakis, who had never heard of Valve and is not a gamer, is studying the workings of the virtual economies of Valve games, in which players can barter and sell items like hats and armor. He said he was drawn to the job partly by Valve’s “completely anti-authoritarian” culture that, to his surprise, seemed to be working.
But Valve is as authoritarian as they come, if they have a guy who forcibly moves the desk of someone who won't move and he is then forced out of the company. Sure, you get to hire and fire people you want. Then...have criteria for it and, you know, job descriptions and job titles. Those things evolved not for the sake of corporate evil, but for the sake of fairness and democratic communication -- things aren't, like they are for the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, what they are because you say so, but because they have a commonality of meaning.
There isn't anything more fake and authoritarian than game gods, totalitarian at root in their game mechanics and social relationships between game maker and player, pretending that they are building newfangled "more democratic" societies. At what it spawns most is the Big Lie.
And Varoufakis leans towards anti-Americanism (the American economy, never the Russian or Chinese economies, much less the European socialist economies, are to blame for the world's ills) and boosting socialism in his commentary. Look out Ted Castronova, there's a new technocommunist economist guru on the game block. And from from 2004 to 2007 he served as an economic advisor to former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou -- did he help advise Greek right into a crisis?
Of course, it's classic Silicon Valley utopianism that the richest geek in the world, who made his fortune from the American way, hires a European socialist who believes that the American economy is a "minotaur" that is a "beast" that "had to be fed" by the world's financial systems and that caused the global recession. Of course, unexamined is the notion that Clinton's social justice ideas of a house and a college education for everyone, regardless of ability to pay, had a lot to do with fueling the savings and loans crisis and the predatory Wall Street practices. It's always evil capitalists with bloody fangs to blame, right? China's failure to standardize its currency conversation wouldn't have anything to do with it, and it's buying US debt is never a factor, right? Oh, and Russia's oil cartel and energy hold over Europe!
The main thing that a prominent economist who fled Greece's failures involving the virtuality of Greek communism and socialsm to now studying game currencies in technocommunist settings is that he lends credibility to Newell's fake anti-authoritarianism:
“What does Valve have to add to our perception of the evolution of corporate structures in the future?” he said in a Skype interview from the Greek island of Aegina. “Let’s face it, the current state of that culture leaves a lot to be desired.”
Like the current state of technological and gaming culture too, you know?
And while Newell, like Philip Rosedale, may have aspirations to influence the entire world of work and the entire real-life economy, perhaps to start he will focus on something that my son and his friends focused on, as soon as they got in that Star Wars Bar of Second Life, in a world between their games: changing game currencies. Could the LindEx be the real prize on which Newell has set his gleaming billionaire's eye, not "modding"?
Like other Silicon Valley Better Worlders, Newell is not content to addict millions of peoples to games and drain them of their cash, not providing a lot of jobs in the process like traditional businesses of the past. He does want to influence economic policy at least in the world of digital sales, and change the nature of life in the workplace (like Philip) at least in his industry and even re-make the computer hardware industry -- we haven't involved since keyboards and mouses were designed, he says, and we need innovation.
VR GOGGLES -- AGAIN!
Where Philip just tinkered around with welding goggles to which the world of Second Life was created as a sidebar to test the goggles, Newell is willing to put in a one-million hardware lab to thinker with 3D computing and he wants to get into "wearables" -- which of course starts with 3D world game goggles. Well, at least Larry Page will now have some competition in the race to who can make humans more dependent on technology in this century. And he may win, because people are willing to absorb change and even discomfort on the way to playing games and immersing in virtual worlds, and might be early adapters of the whole goggles thing. Although we've seen this fad before, as c3 will tell us, and it didn't catch on. Maybe when you have millions, and an audience of 40 million in your pockets, and are willing to pick up the desks of people who won't move and forcibly move them, you can do it.
DO YOU NOW HAVE ANY DOUBT WHO KILLED THE JIRA?!
If you follow Second Life and the JIRA, after reading this New York Times article, do you have any doubt in your mind why the JIRA is being crippled now? It was likely far more the desire of this "anti-authoritarian" Gabe Newell and his people than of Rodvik -- as Rodvik didn't remove it when he first came in, although he did remove voting. Show 'em who's boss!
There are all kinds of excuses Valve may have given for removing JIRA voting -- lack of "uniformity" and "symmetry" with all the other game worlds (those "non-rule-book" gamers playing without rules love uniformity!); negativity in the comments that harm the brand; inefficiency; lack of conviction that the thousand tongues that come with the thousand eyes really solve bugs; the notion that only insider professionals should be discussing bugs, etc.
Fortunately, there is some competition to Gabe as well -- Microsoft is going to create a system for downloading games and software, too. Good!
IS VALVE GOING TO TAKE A CUT OF OUR REVENUE FROM VIRTUAL GOODS' SALES?!
Gabe Newell responds to this rivalry by complaining, in true gamer-geek fashion, about Microsoft's "control" -- the old hatred of proprietary systems. The New York Times, enough, still, of a real newspaper and not the supine tech press, says that's pretty funny, coming from Valve, when Valve had a split with EA over this issue.
Look at this:
SOME game executives say it’s ironic that such concerns come from Valve, which has become a gatekeeper with Steam. Last year, the company had a dust-up with Electronic Arts over Steam’s policy of taking a cut of all revenue generated from a game, like the sale of virtual goods, even after a player has bought the game. As a result, E.A. is not selling a number of its latest games through Steam.
Did your heart just stop like mine did when you read that?
Taking a cut of all revenue generated from a game, like the sale of virtual goods, even after a player has bought the game.
Does this mean that all of us selling virtual goods and services in Second Life are now going to have to yield a cut to Valve, just because Second Life is registered with Steam?!
Say, what exactly *is* Rodvik's deal?! Funny, that Rodvik, as ex-EA, could make a deal with Steam *after* Valve's deal with EA fell through on this issue.
"Valve says that without such a policy, developers could easily game the Steam system by making all their software free and charging consumers for additional content later."
Hmm. I'd like to think that through, but it really will come down to where the log is in and who runs the asset server as Gwyn points out, eh?
And now, in case you were thinking that some grownups might show up sometime and fix these authoritarian cultisms, here's this:
Valve can do without many formalities of a traditional company because it’s privately held and controlled by Mr. Newell. He and Mike Harrington, who is no longer with the company, founded Valve in 1996 with the wealth they accumulated in Microsoft’s early days. The company has never raised money from outside investors, so it is under no external pressure to sell itself or go public
So remember, Gwyn, as you are giddy with all the wonderful possibilities of Steam sign-ups and interaction with Second Life, just what you may be signing up for -- giving away a cut of your revenue, giving away your world autonomy, such as it is. Loss of the JIRA interactivity because this new "anti-authoritarian" regime of the unregulated Valve can just do whatever the fuck it wants and can't allow player autonomy.