Valve’s Gabe Newell on new games, brain-machine interfaces, and moving employees to New Zealand

Gabe Newell greets the crowd at The International in 2016, a Valve-sponsored esports gaming tournament. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

In some recent interviews with New Zealand’s 1 NEWS, Valve Software’s Gabe Newell shared some insight into what might be next for the Bellevue, Washington-based games company and why he’s interested in brain-computer interfaces for games.

While Newell usually made sure not to say anything he couldn’t take back, this offered Valve a rare possible glimpse into the future, which traditionally does things on its own schedule and in its own time.

Newell was in New Zealand for most of last year after a vacation in Auckland was cut short by the country’s borders closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Newell chose to seek refuge in New Zealand rather than returning to the US and has since applied for residency. He engaged in activities domestically such as benefit concerts, taught his travel companions how to play Valve’s DOTA2 computer game, and fired random pieces of statues into orbit.

OpenBCI’s Ultracortex Mark IV is a 3D printable headset that allows researchers to record brain activity. (OpenBCI photo)

One of the new projects at Valve that has drawn most of Newell’s attention is the use of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) in gaming. According to Newell, the idea is to work with OpenBCI headsets, an open source project made in Brooklyn, alongside virtual reality devices.

By reading a player’s body and brainwaves to determine their emotional state, a BCI interface can be used to customize an experience and improve immersion. One example is a game that can detect when the player is bored and react by changing its own difficulty level. (This feels like a natural evolution of the notoriously sadistic AI mechanic “Director” in the Left 4 Dead games.)

“If you’re a software developer in 2022 who doesn’t have any of these in your test lab, you’re making a silly mistake,” Newell told 1 NEWS.

BCIs can be used to artificially suppress a user’s dizziness and prevent motion sickness gamers from experiencing virtual reality. Valve’s work also helps contribute to projects that develop synthetic body parts, as a video game engine can be used as an easily customizable simulation for a company that works on the manufacture of prostheses.

However, Valve will not enter the cyberlimb market anytime soon, despite Newell finding that the research projects will give the company access to leading neuroscience companies.

The Valve boss also spoke about his new temporary home and what it could mean for Valve’s future.

Last year Newell said that despite widespread reports in the gaming press, Valve had no plans to move to New Zealand from Bellevue, Washington. However, this year there appears to be some interest in Valve in getting some of its population overseas, largely due to New Zealand’s good management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealand is one of the few places in the world that has largely returned to normal after last year’s lockdowns, thanks in part to its public health infrastructure.

As a result, there’s a big chance Valve will move its esports tournaments to New Zealand for games like CounterStrike: Global Offense and Defense of the Ancients 2.

DOTA2 is a “multiplayer online battle arena” game that is both a popular esport and one of the top earning games on Steam. (Valve pattern)

Both CS: GO and DOTA2 are considered to be some of the biggest games in esports. DOTA2 has a comparatively huge prize pool of $ 34.3 million for competitors in 2019, and both games are consistently top earning players on Steam, Valve’s online shopfront. The DOTA2 World Cup, the International, is seen as a must by a large part of the PC gaming community, but the 2020 Stockholm show had to be postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.

Newell said Valve could plan a personal tournament for New Zealand.

“As long as COVID mutates, the probability that we will have events here increases,” he told 1 NEWS.

While neither Valve nor Newell have made any commitments here, it would be a significant shift in the status quo if New Zealand became a new international sports center because of its local health infrastructure. It wouldn’t take much for others to follow Valve’s lead.

Many of the field’s biggest games are already taking place around the world. Cities like Shanghai, Vancouver, Seattle, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Krakow and Cologne have hosted the esports finals in recent years. With much of the international hosting community still affected by the financial aftershocks of COVID, moving much of the scene to the relatively safe zones of New Zealand could provide a much-needed lifeline for some of the larger organizations.

Newell also noted that the success of Half-Life: Alyx, a new VR entry in Valve’s groundbreaking first-person shooter franchise, “created a lot of momentum in the company” to develop and market more single-player games. He teased that there would be announcements on the subject soon; However, Newell also claimed to know nothing about “Citadel”, the alleged code name for a new Half-Life project that Valve is running.

In conclusion, Valve can make the sport better, release new games, and find a way to usefully hack the human brain to enhance that brain’s gaming experience. Then again, it couldn’t do any of that. The real insight here is that after spending a year in New Zealand, Gabe Newell sounds more and more like a mad scientist.

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