The History of Valve
By Alex "ACPaco" Capriole & John Phillips | November 19, 2008
Ah, Valve; Gabe Newell, Doug Lombardi, Robin Walker, Marc Laidlaw, and dozens of other writers, artists and programmers whose names aren’t as recognizable but who are all equally important. For the past decade Valve has been on the forefront of excellence in game development. Very few studios could point out with pride such a long-running and consistent tradition of critically acclaimed, bestselling titles that are always raising the bar for this industry. Combined; over a hundred Game of the Year awards from around the world, one of the most popular online PC games of all time and two flagship titles that have successively held the unofficial stamp of “greatest game ever made” for ten years strong.
But it hasn’t all been flowers and sunshine. Let’s not forget Valve was once guilty of one of the most convoluted and infuriating game delays outside of Duke Nukem Forever, although thankfully for not nearly as long. Come to think of it, just how much do you know about the history of Valve? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we? It all starts a little over twelve years ago…
August 24, 1996 – Valve is founded as an L.L.C. in Kirkland, WA by former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, instrumental minds behind nearly three generations of the Windows operating system. Their first order of business is to acquire the licensing rights to the original Quake engine from id Software, which they immediately fell in love with. This soon becomes the heavily modified GoldSrc engine with roughly 70% of the original code being rewritten.
1996-1997 – Two teams work on two separate titles to launch the Valve brand; Quiver, an action-packed first-person shooter, and Prospero, a Myst-style adventure drama. Both get relatively far into development and are set for late ’97 release dates.
1997 – Gabe Newell begins a long-standing Valve tradition and decides to regroup his creative teams to start from scratch on a single title, combining the drama of Prospero with the action of Quiver in what would be a groundbreaking achievement for the video game industry – an FPS with a decent, coherent storyline. The new project is dubbed Half-Life, which is first shown to the public at the E3 convention to generally appreciative murmurs.
May, 1998 – Valve acquires TF Software PTY Ltd., the makers of the original Team Fortress mod for Quake, with the intention of developing and releasing a new stand-alone title, Team Fortress 2. This would ultimately take the company nine years to do.
November 19, 1998 – Half-Life is released through Sierra On-Line after some initial difficulty in finding a publisher largely due to Valve's reputation of being overly ambitious. It quickly becomes a bestseller and wins high critical acclaim, snagging no less than 51 Game of the Year awards from various publications. To this day it is generally regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. In an extra folder on the installation CD could be found Worldcraft, an intuitive level editor that would spawn an unparalleled mod-making revolution.
1999 – The first Team Fortress 2 media is released, showing a sharp contrast from the cartoonish original with the much more realistic look of modern combat military games, as well as a “commander” on each team who could oversee and direct their troops. After awhile this media is spirited away and TF2 becomes vaporware.
1999-2003 – With the great success and flood of cash revenue coming in off of Half-Life, programmers set to work on an even heavier modification of the GoldSrc engine. This is technically why all future expansions and titles up until the release of Half-Life 2 are developed by third-parties. The new engine takes several years to finish and would make use of lighting, physics, particle effects and model animation in unprecedented and revolutionary new ways. It is dubbed simply “Source,” and thanks to its modular nature it is still receiving amazing new features and upgrades with every new title that uses it. Meanwhile the writing and art teams work very, very secretly on concepts for a sequel to Half-Life.
February 12, 1999 – Half-Life: Uplink, the official Half-Life demo, is released. The demo features parts of the original Half-Life that didn't make the final cut. (See the original press statement here).
March 25, 1999 – A small Half-Life mod in development called Counter-Strike moves its official website hosting to Planet Half-Life (then Contaminated.net), a relationship that would last until the release of Steam and the official website being replaced with a Steam Store page.
April 7, 1999 – Team Fortress Classic is released. It is essentially a remake of the original Quake mod on Half-Life's GoldSrc engine, done as a “proof-of-concept” before continuing on with TF2’s development. It is packaged with Half-Life version 184.108.40.206 and would be included on all future retail copies of Half-Life thereafter.
April 22, 1999 – Sierra On-Line announces that Half-Life will be made available for the Mac platform later in the year. The port was being developed by Logicware, a company known for successful Macintosh game ports and development. After exhaustive work and nearly going gold, the port is ultimately abandoned.
April 27, 1999 – Kevin “Fragmaster” Bowen relaunches a small fan site called Contaminated.net under the new banner “Planet Half-Life.” It quickly becomes the go-to news site for all things Half-Life.
June 18, 1999 – Minh "Gooseman" Le and Jess "Cliffe" Cliffe release the first public beta of their team-based multiplayer mod Counter-Strike. It is an instant hit with hundreds, if not thousands of players in just weeks.
October 31, 1999 – Half-Life: Opposing Force is released. This expansion pack, developed by third-party Gearbox Software, takes players out of Gordon Freeman’s H.E.V. suit and puts them into the combat boots of Corporal Adrian Shephard, one of the Marines sent in to clean out Black Mesa. New characters, aliens and weapons set in a lengthy campaign make it a worthy successor to Half-Life.
April 12, 2000 – Valve announces it has “teamed up with” (read: hired) the Counter-Strike development team.
November 8, 2000 – Counter-Strike 1.0 is released through Valve, launching one of the largest multiplayer trends of all time. To this day CS 1.6 (the last version update prior to its move to the Source engine) is the most played online PC game excluding MMORPGs. As a side effect, Valve also unintentionally creates one of the most annoying Internet subcultures ever.
November 20, 2000 – Gunman Chronicles, originally just an ambitious Half-Life mod, is released as a stand-alone retail game. GC is the first and only one of two games to use the GoldSrc engine that isn't an official Half-Life title (the other being James Bond 007: Nightfire). The game was largely overlooked by the gaming world and retains few players today due to the fact that the multiplayer used the now-defunct WON network and was never supported by Steam.
January 12, 2001 – In another mod milestone, the first public beta of Day of Defeat is released. Unlike Counter-Strike, it would take a few years before Valve began official sponsorship.
June 12, 2001 – Half-Life: Blue Shift, originally intended to be a Sega Dreamcast exclusive, is released as a PC exclusive. This second, stand-alone expansion pack puts the player in the shoes of Barney Calhoun, the first security guard you see knocking on the door near the tram tracks in the very first scene of the original game. We know he’s not the one who owes Gordon a beer, but continuity wasn’t all that Blue Shift was lacking. To make up for its 3-hour length and other shortcomings, it’s apologetically packaged with Opposing Force and a shiny new “high-definition” model pack upgrade. It receives lukewarm reviews at best.
March 22, 2002 – At the Game Developers’ Conference, Valve unveils Steam, which at the time is simply intended to be a digital distribution service. There is no mention made of any of the other features it would ultimately ship with.
2003 – Valve, L.L.C. becomes the Valve Corporation and moves headquarters from Kirkland to Bellevue, WA.
May 1, 2003 – Valve releases Day of Defeat as an official mod. While it never gains the popularity of TFC or CS, it nevertheless sets a new standard for all World War 2 games to come.
May, 2003 – After countless rumors, Half-Life 2 is officially announced and previewed at E3. Showing off the years of work that went into the Source engine, many a jaw hits the floor as Gabe Newell previews one of the first games ever to use authentic-looking “real world” physics and lighting. If that wasn’t enough, the wait will be mere months with a September, 2003 release date. The entire industry is psyched, let alone fans the world over.
September, 2003 – A German hacker named Axel Gembe breaks into Valve’s secure network undetected and steals pieces of source code as well as small sections of Half-Life 2 which had been shown at the E3. The leak is only noticed when copies of it surface on various pirate sites, much to the shock of Valve developers.
September 12, 2003 – Steam is released as a non-beta client. Right away users see that it is much more than a simple distribution service, also covering game registration, multiplayer servers and anti-cheat protection. Users also notice that once Steam is installed it acts as an unavoidable launch pad and background program to their Valve games. A general sense of concern begins to rise amongst certain parties…
September 31, 2003 – But the subdued anxiety over Steam is nothing compared to the pure rage that unfolds as the last day of September comes and goes without so much as a peep from Valve on the status of Half-Life 2.
October 2, 2003 – Gabe Newell posts an apologetic letter on HalfLife2.net explaining publically for the first time that Valve was hacked and small chunks of code as well as levels from Half-Life 2 were stolen, which is why the release has to be pushed to early 2004. He fails to explain why the leaked information shows a very incomplete game, small chunks or not, or how the stellar A.I. shown in E3 video appeared to have been scripted, or even how such a theft could delay a game that was set to be released in mere weeks anyway. He also fails to explain why the password to the secure Valve network was simply “gaben”. In any event, the break-in is so shocking and unprecedented that the gaming world simply gives Valve a pass.
March 21, 2004 – Counter-Strike: Condition Zero is released, a stand-alone version of the original mod developed by third-party Turtle Rock Studios, with additional maps and a single-player campaign, which is really just the same multiplayer maps populated with bots.
April, 2004 – Half-Life 2 is delayed once again, this time as far ahead as September 2004, a full year past its initial release date. Kevin “Fragmaster” Bowen, who had inside information he had been withholding due to a non-disclosure agreement, lets loose in a long, infamous rant/resignation letter posted on the PHL forums. He claims that Valve had been deceptive in its marketing and that the first delay had nothing to do with the theft of the source code and everything to do with the fact that HL2 simply wasn’t finished yet. Today Fragmaster continues to enjoy quite a successful career as an Internet celebrity regardless of his hissy fit.
May, 2004 – In the face of mounting accusations and rumors, Gabe Newell admits that the major delays in the release of Half-Life 2 had little to do with the leak, and that the company was being unrealistic about its progress from the first E3 announcement. He goes on to confirm a 2004 release date is absolutely definite, regardless.
August 11, 2004 – To give players an early taste of the Source engine first hand, Valve releases Counter-Strike: Source. In the months leading up to Half-Life 2’s’s release, thousands of players enjoy the thrills of realistically knocking over barrels and shooting up fruits and vegetables and other small props. For reasons unknown, CS:S never takes over CS 1.6 in terms of popularity. It is also at this time that the full extent of Steam is unveiled, in particular that it will be required to play Half-Life 2 and all other Valve titles from this point on. Some gamers are so incensed that they vow never to buy a Valve product again, no matter how good it is. Steam suffers from the criticisms of this highly vocal and angst-filled minority to this day.
September 20, 2004 – Instead of a release, fans are let in on the details of a legal battle between Valve and Vivendi Universal Games, who had recently bought out Sierra On-Line and thus had an exclusive distribution contract with Valve. The lawsuit revolves around Steam, which VUG argued would undercut its retail sales, particularly to Asian cyber cafes. The release is delayed once again, this time indefinitely.
November 16, 2004 – Much to the shock of everyone, Half-Life 2 is actually released after many were starting to think it would be the next Duke Nukem Forever (the WAIT is forever! lol). For some, Steam servers crash from so many players trying to authenticate and start up the game at the same time, while others are able to get right into City 17 without a hitch. Despite its sordid release date fiascos and Steam’s technical hiccups, no one can deny the achievements of Valve in creating this game, which goes on to be another bestseller, snags 35 Game of the Year Awards (it had tough competition against Doom 3) and even a Guinness World Record for “Highest Rated Game.” Many publications claim, “It’s fitting that the first game that could knock Half-Life off its pedestal of six years was its own sequel.”
2005 – Students at the DigiPen Institute of Technology, a tech school for aspiring video game developers, release Narbacular Drop to little public notice. It does not pass by Gabe Newell, however, who hires the students right out of school to develop a more professional version of their game. Meanwhile the Steam catalog begins to expand wildly beyond Valve games, becoming a true pioneer on the digital distribution front.
October 27, 2005 – Showing off the Source engine’s modular upgradeability, Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, a single-map mission, is released as a technical demonstration of new high dynamic range rendering.
December 26, 2005 – Day of Defeat gets a Source engine remake, making special use of several post-processing visual filters to give it that gritty, 1940s war film look.
November 20, 2006 – Turtle Rock Studios announces development of a new zombie survival game called Left 4 Dead, to be made on the Source engine.
June 1, 2006 – Half-Life 2: Episode One is released, the first of a trilogy of expansion packs that serve as a sequel to HL2. It contains improved Source features and a lot more Alyx Vance fighting by your side. Critics and fans love it, yet lament the long stretches that will apparently be in-between releases.
July, 2006 – At the E3, Gabe Newell unveils the latest work on Team Fortress 2 after six years of silence. Hardcore TFC fans are outraged by the total 180 taken on its design, many equating it to a “kiddy” Disney-Pixar cartoon. Also unveiled is Portal, the professional retooling of Narbacular Drop and an interesting departure from previous Valve titles.
October 10, 2007 – “The Orange Box,” featuring Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal and the long-awaited Team Fortress 2 is released to great acclaim and several more awards. It receives an unprecedented advertising campaign for a Valve release, and thanks in part to a simultaneous release on the Xbox 360, it expands the Valve brand further into “casual” gamer audiences than ever before.
January 10, 2008 – Valve acquires Turtle Rock Studios specifically to take over the development and release of Left 4 Dead. Spokesman Doug Lombardi also confirms that Portal 2 is already in the works, and that Half-Life 2: Episode Three will take longer than the previous two episodes to develop because it will be a much longer, much more epic game than any installment prior, and that in no uncertain terms it will be the conclusion to the Half-Life series as we know it, “tying up all of the loose ends.” Many fans are quick to try to read between the lines and go into a deep denial about their beloved series eventually coming to a close sooner rather than later.
November 6, 2008 – The official Left 4 Dead demo is released exclusively to those who pre-ordered the game. The large number of pre-order sales, almost double that of The Orange Box, ends up causing a massive spike in the Steam distribution servers as thousands of players download the sneak preview, something not generally seen for a demo in the gaming industry.
November 18, 2008 – Left 4 Dead is released following a massive $10 million dollar marketing campaign. Its use of the Source engine marks one of the most visually stunning and tactically dynamic games to date.
November 19, 2008 – The Half-Life Era officially becomes a full decade old and is still running strong. Release dates for Portal 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Three, or any substantial media releases for either, have yet to be announced.