Steam has become a phenomenon in PC gaming. There are over 3000 games available through the service which has more than 65 million accounts. This month saw the number of concurrent users hit 7.1 million. It is so central to gaming, that it is estimated that 75% of all digital PC game sales go through Steam. All this is because of the vision of one man, Gabe Newell, and his ability to keep his company independent. With so much power over the fate of gaming, what would happen if Gabe were to keel over and die tomorrow?
The majority of my possessions as a PC gamer are tied up in my Steam library. As with any digital content, the future availability of these items are vulnerable to the whims of the company. The company is stable for the most part because it is not publicly traded. Valve may be making money hand over fist, but they do not have to reach targets for earnings calls. If Gabe decided one day that he wanted to cancel or delay a project, he would not have to worry about upsetting any investors or wiping out the value of the company. This could all change if Gabe were no longer at the head of the company.
There would be others within the company who would try and keep company down the path Newell set, but any new figure in charge could manage Valve however they chose. Overnight the power could shift in favour of public ownership or investment, potentially threatening the possessions of gamers worldwide. Imagine a nightmarish future where Half-Life 3 is rushed out because because the company is almost short of making its target. Like Blizzard, Valve is currently one of the few companies that will take as long as they need to finish and perfect a game before making it available to the general public. A change in leadership could end that, and we could see bug ridden games from Valve appearing frequently on Steam because they can use the service to patch the game multiple times until the game is stable.
There are already examples of big companies that are defined by a strong personality or set of beliefs that falls apart when the head of the company dies or leaves. Look at how Walt Disney’s vision of what Disney should be. After the death of Walt in 1966, the company struggled as it was passed between family members and a board of directors. There is even a documentary showing the power struggles that went on within the company, almost bringing it to bankruptcy. The impact that the removal of Newell from Valve would have would not be that different from what happened to Disney.
So, if Gabe were to leave Valve for whatever reason, what is the best possible outcome for gamers? Well, we could hope that the next person in charge of the company shares the ideals that Gabe has. Maybe the employees could each be given a share in the company so that they have a say in how the company is run. What if each Steam user was given a vote for the direction the company should take? Maybe that is taking it a bit too far, but when Gabe does leave, millions of people will take to forums world wide to offer their opinions whether they are needed or not.
I do not want my post to be all doom and gloom, consider the lighter side of Newell’s passing. There are internet memes going around praising him as a benevolent god in life. How will they react when he does die? The people of the internet could try and convince the world to create Newellism, a religion dedicated to the Gabe. It is already possible to chose ones own religion on national surveys, and if his death were to coincide with the 2021 UK census, maybe the meme will carry on Gabe’s memory long after he is gone.
Would you still buy games off Steam with Gabe in charge? Could the service carry on as it does today without him? Would another service rise to take its place? Let me know in the comments!