I think there’s a genuine benefit to having a publisher (or someone) there to keep everyone focused. There’s a balance to be maintained, and Valve having essentially infinite money and full control over everything they do has undoubtedly left a lot of really great stuff to shrivel up and die on the vine simply because the person heading up that project “got bored.”
And by bored I mean they could have worked too hard and burnt out, they could have been pulled away to crunch on a TF2 or DOTA update and forgot where they left off, and by the very nature of Valve’s “nobody has any roles, do anything you want as long as it’s cool” ethic, that thing they were working on, whatever it was, vanishes in a puff of smoke.
I’m blanking on the video that pointed it out to me, but there’s a scene in the making of Pixar’s The Incredibles where Brad Bird is arguing with, like, the Producer or somebody in charge of finances, and Brad gets this amazing idea in the 11th hour for a big impressive finale scene and the Producer is telling him he can’t do that, because it would cost too much and they’d be over budget and late on their deadlines and this and that and the other thing, and Brad’s defense is “Yes, but this will be the coolest thing and make for the best movie.” In the end, they meet in the middle, and it’s that back and forth between “it’ll be cool” “but deadlines tho” that’s the industry’s real fuel.
Valve doesn’t have anyone saying “but deadlines tho” or probably even “but budgets tho.” They built a whole manufacturing plant for the Steam controller even though I think it was probably obvious early on that response to it was going to be lukewarm (they did years of R&D, some of it very public). They have extremely deep pockets and their whole corporate culture is based on the idea of taking their time.
Yes, that does mean that most (not all, but most) of what comes out of Valve is of exceptional quality, but we’re also in this situation right now, where Valve is bleeding guys like Marc Laidlaw, Chet Faliszek, and Eric Wolpaw because the only thing that company has done in the last six years is crank the money printing machine on CSGO and DOTA to burn in the VR furnace.
Remember when they had an idea “too cool” to put in Portal 2, called F-STOP? How they wanted to take the F-STOP idea and turn it in to its own separate thing? And it’s not like this was just something that looked good on paper, Valve reportedly worked on F-STOP for roughly a year. Portal 2 came out in 2011. We’ve still never seen what F-STOP is.
How many more really great ideas are laying on their cutting room floor because that free-money-and-no-consequence corporate structure accidentally smothered them to death?