6 Questions: One-on-One with Doug Lombardi, VP of marketing, Valve Corporation

The new school in digital distribution.

While videogame manufacturers and publishers such as Nintendo, Microsoft and Electronic Arts may be the biggest games in town, they’re no longer the only ones. Joining the club is Valve, a Bellevue, Wash.-based developer, distributor and publisher that made its name with games like Half-Life and Counter-Strike (these two alone account for lifetime unit sales of 32.8 million), but has since become a leader in the growing market for digital distribution. Its Internet-based Steam service has brought convenience for consumers and better copyright protection for publishers. We asked Doug Lombardi, VP of marketing, and long the public face of this privately held company, six questions. And along the way he gave us his surprising pick for the best videogame ever made.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing Valve and what are you doing about it?

Recruiting. People make all the difference in this industry. Without great ideas and intelligent problem solvers, attempting to create any kind of technology is going to be a tough experience. As we continue to evolve the Steam platform and look for new experiences to include in our games, the key to success will be, and has always been, finding more talented individuals who can help drive the code, art, writing, music and design to the next level.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

My person of 2008 was Dylan Fitterer, creator of Audiosurf. While Activision, MTV and Nintendo are spending millions of dollars creating and marketing new hardware and software to help usher in a new gaming genre — “The music games” ( Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Wii Music) — I love the story of a one-man studio based in Washington’s San Juan Islands who produced a top-selling PC music game and became a multi-millionaire in just a few weeks. Long live the indies!

How would you describe your leadership approach/style?

I think Valve has achieved a leadership position for two reasons: First, every product the company produces, from Half-Life to Steam to [the videogame] Portal, has honestly been an attempt to break new ground. In some cases, the ideas have been revolutionary (Steam, Portal). In many cases, the ideas have been evolutionary ( Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress). But I can’t think of a single project in the company’s almost 13-year history that didn’t attempt to push the envelope in some fashion.

The second reason is the commitment to iteration, both before and after launch. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 were famously delayed products that were held from release until we were positive the games were worthy of purchase. Counter-Strike and Steam have been organically grown projects, evolving every month, sometimes every week or day, for years now as they’ve grown to multi-million person audiences.

How do you think the change in American leadership — from Bush to Obama — will affect the economy?

Most positively. Bush will go down in history as America’s worst president. So, by default, Obama can only be an improvement.

How should the video game industry alter its marketing during the recession?

I don’t think there is a single solution for the entire industry. On one hand, games are a much better value than other forms of entertainment — your entertainment dollar goes further on a game than a two-hour movie, for example. To that end, what we’ve seen during this depression and prior recessions is that hit products usually see a dramatic lift (see the news of the Wii sales in December, our experience with Left 4 Dead this past holiday, and other leading titles of 2008). Meanwhile, the older products or products with less buzz tend to decline and suffer a bit in a down economy. The theory in all of this is that games and gaming products are high value when recommended by a friend or supported with strong word of mouth. If you have both, you have an opportunity.

What’s your all-time favourite videogame and why?

Super Mario 64. It was simply genius to play and it was arguably the first video game that was interesting to watch while someone else played. It was interesting to re-play, because it was both entertaining and extremely deep. And it appealed to gamers of all ages. It’s been over 10 years since it was released, and I’m pretty sure it is still the only game ever released with all of those qualities.