Top 10 Game Publishers of All Time - #4 Valve

Coming in at #4 for top publisher is Valve.

Valve is probably the youngest out of the publishers listed here but they’ve definitely made a name for themselves in a short period of time. Valve was formed in 1996 by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, who were apparently both Microsoft employees. Valve released the critically acclaimed Half-Life in 1998 and continued to prosper by creating mods and expansions for Half-Life and by supporting the modding community (e.g. Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat). In 2002, the Steam digital distribution system was released. At first it was just a system for streaming patches however it soon was a platform for selling and distributing games via the Internet – and this I suspect is where Valve makes most of its money nowadays.

Valve hasn’t published that many games as in its early days it actually had its games published by Sierra. They also don’t have many franchises, regardless of whether you consider them a developer or a publisher, however the franchises they do have are popular ones. Valve’s most popular franchises would have to be Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead and Portal.

The Half-Life franchise started in 1998 although Valve wasn’t a true publisher yet. It wasn’t until 2004 when its sequel, Half-Life 2 was released, that Valve became a publisher in its own right through Steam. Just like the original, Half-Life 2 was an outstanding game. The combination of the Source Engine’s excellent graphics, awesome audio, well-designed levels and characters that you actually cared about, ensured its success. The game was followed by two expansions called “episodes”: Half-Life 2 Episode 1 (2006) and Half-Life 2 Episode 2 (2010). While controversial at the time, the episodic release model has become commonplace in the industry and is in fact the model Telltale Games uses to release all their games. Unfortunately, there has been no further news about another Half-Life 2 episode or even Half-Life 3.

The Counter-Strike franchise was the first example of Valve supporting the modding community and they did so by hiring the development team! The original Counter-Strike released in 1999, already had quite a following in its beta days but the game was primitive compared to the final product. I remember not being able to switch to a knife during the beta which meant when you ran out of ammo you were truly defenceless! Speaking of knives, Counter-Strike of course had that weird perk that whenever you switched from a heavy weapon to a lighter weapon or a knife, you actually ran faster. It’s not surprising you’d often see all of your teammates running with knives out at the beginning of a match! Counter-Strike: Source was released the same year as Half-Life 2 (2004) and was very similar to the original Counter-Strike except that it used the Source engine, which meant better graphics and ragdoll physics. While Valve purposefully limited the changes to appease the well established competitive player fanbase, there were still many that thought it was too different and they continue to play the original Counter-Strike to this day.

The release of WWII film, Saving Private Ryan in 1998 spawned a whole bunch of imitators for years afterwards. It also had an impact on the computer game industry with many new games being based on WWII. So it’s no surprise that in 2000, a WWII mod was developed for Half-Life called Day of Defeat (DoD). Unlike Counter-Strike, players spawned in waves of reinforcements instead of waiting for one team to win before proceeding to the next round. This was a big plus to me since it meant more gaming time! Also DoD had different classes and I’m a big sucker for class-based multiplayer FPSs. Finally, DoD was a bit more tactical and realistic compared to Counter-Strike as you had to capture control points or destroy weapons/structures in order to win the game. In fact, these could be seen as early forms of Battlefield’s Conquest and Rush modes. Like Counter-Strike, DoD also received the Source treatment in the form of Day of Defeat: Source in 2005. Unlike the Source version of Counter-Strike though, DoD: Source changed the gameplay quite a bit when compared to the original. Examples of changes included ironsights and a grenade launcher for the Rifleman class and the addition of a whole new Bazooka class.

While Valve was no way involved with the original Team Fortress, they were involved with what has come to be known as Team Fortress Classic which was released in 1999. The sequel to Team Fortress Classic, Team Fortress 2 (TF2), took a long time to be released and some suspected that like another game that was in development hell (Duke Nukem Forever), TF2 was vapourware. Come 2007 and TF2 finally became a reality. Thankfully TF2 retained the humourous nature of its predecessors and this was amplified with a 70s spy-flick atmosphere, and cartoon-style models and animations. The gameplay was also addictive as ever which helped to make this one of the best releases of 2007.

The Left 4 Dead franchise was one of the more recent Valve successes. The original game was released in 2008 and allows four players to play co-operatively, blasting zombies away as they make their way to safehouses. One of the choice features of the game was the Director AI which monitors the stress levels of players and spawns zombies near them if stress levels are low. This means everyone gets a chance to kill at least a few zombies and it makes the game more like a zombie flick, which the game obviously got its inspiration from. Shortly after Left 4 Dead, the sequel, Left 4 Dead 2 was released the next year. Left 4 Dead 2 had similar gameplay to the original except it introduced new characters, new weapons (especially melee weapons) and was set in America’s Deep South. It’s interesting to note that Left 4 Dead 2 was refused classification in Australia due to its excessive violence so Valve had to create a new tamer version especially for Australia.

Bucking the trend of pure FPSs, Valve published Portal in 2007, a puzzle FPS game that started off as a Uni project. In Portal, players were given the opportunity to use gravity to their advantage through the clever use of portals. While the game was short, the puzzle gameplay and the game’s antagonist GLaDOS made it an instant hit. Portal 2, the sequel, was released in 2011 and it was bigger and better than the original. The game even introduced a 2 player co-op campaign so you could solve puzzles with your friends.

Other games that I’ve played which were published by Valve include:

  • Audiosurf (2008) – a fun indie game that allows you to surf your music
  • Alien Swarm (2010) – A Source remake of the classic UT2k4 mod
  • Worms Reloaded (2010) – Worms Armageddon for the PC
  • The Baconing (2011) – Third episode of Ron Gilbert’s Deathspank series

The outlook for Valve looks promising as a publisher, thanks to their Steam digital distribution platform which allows a lot more developers, especially indie developers, to sell their games directly to the public. With respect to their franchises, the next iteration of Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is scheduled for release sometime this year. The other franchises are either dormant (Half-Life and Day of Defeat) or it’s unlikely a sequel will be made (e.g. Left 4 Dead, Portal and Team Fortress)