This February, Gabe Newell will become just the 17th person inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ hall of fame, and it’ll be on the strength of his geek cred: As the cofounder of Bellevue-based video game studio Valve, the 50-year-old Newell had a hand in developing Half-Life, Portal, and Left 4 Dead, three of the biggest series of all time. But it’s his knack for smart, unconventional risk taking that has endeared him to techies everywhere. Even if you're not a gamer, chances are Newell has influenced the way you consume entertainment.

Valve bet big in 2003 by debuting its own online game store, Steam. Xbox Live Arcade was still a year away, and—thanks to gamers’ attachment to physical copies of games—Best Buy and Blockbuster reigned. But, as recently as 2011, Steam had more than 50 percent market share among online software stores, and…when was the last time you walked into a Blockbuster? Not only that, the service’s best ideas, including cloud storage and social recommendation features, have been cribbed by everybody from Netflix to iTunes.

Nobody could have imagined any of that when Newell and a friend cashed out their Microsoft options in 1996 to found a game studio. But Newell won out by embracing a digital subculture of amateur coders and online communities, not to mention an office culture that Valve refers to as “flatland.” Nobody has an official title and everybody’s desk has wheels. (The company released its office manual as a public download in early 2012, and it became a viral sensation.) 

When Newell accepted the Game Developers Conference’s Pioneer Award in March 2010, instead of starting by thanking his family and agent, he launched into a complex, future-looking speech about biometrics, massively multi-core gaming, and customer partnerships. (He eventually got around to thanking his wife, Lisa.) So who knows what inventions he might tease at the AIAS ceremony? Valve announced last December that it’s already developing a console, so could a system that reads and responds to eye and heartbeat patterns for more intense gaming be far behind? With Newell, just about anything seems possible. 

 

Published: February 2013