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In 2018 a group of Valve staff tried to figure out just how efficient they were being—and found they were making more money per head than Apple, Facebook, and nearly every tech giant out there

 Gabe Newell in Half-Life 25th Anniversary documentary video.
Gabe Newell in Half-Life 25th Anniversary documentary video.

Back in 2021, indie developer Wolfire filed an antitrust lawsuit against Valve that accused the gaming giant of anti-competitive business practices—including a long-standing habit of taking unfair cuts from game developers on its store. Valve's 30% fees have come under criticism before—and they are notably high when compared to some other online platforms. Valve offers cuts, but only if your company's earning millions on millions—no alms for the little guy.

When the suit was dismissed without prejudice later that year, the judge ruled that "[Valve's] fee is commensurate with the Steam Platform's value to game publishers". However, a dismissal without prejudice gave Wolfire 30 days to bring the suit up-to-par, which it did, reigniting the legal battle in May 2022.

As per a GameDiscoverCo newsletter, details have emerged from the suit's discovery phase—both sides' legal teams were able to exchange documents to help build out their cases. One particular email chain between Valve employees stood out, though. Turns out, Valve was making more money per head than just about anybody.

The emails are heavily redacted, but they confirm that in 2018, Valve was perhaps the most efficient big tech company, period. "Since I like to fiddle with numbers, I brought net income into this comparison," writes Valve's Kristan Miller. "... breaking these numbers down as net income/hour/employee shows some interesting comparisons."

Miller proceeded to compare the company's net income (post-expenses cash) per hour, divided by its number of employees (then 350). "This ratio gives a good idea of how much revenue 'survives to the end' for each of these businesses." Comparisons are made between companies like Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. While redactions mean you can't actually see how far ahead of the pack Valve was, it was still top dog: "Plot twist: Again, we are an outlier."

Earlier in the chain, an annual comparison also bore out the same results—meaning that, in 2018, Valve was raking in, at minimum, over $780,400 net income per employee based on Facebook's second-place numbers—while Apple came in third place with $476,160. Granted, the overall architecture of businesses will shift this number around a lot—and this is a measure of raw efficiency rather than volume.

Still, it's proof that Valve does an obscene amount with very little. Whether the situation has changed circumstantially over the past six years is unclear—but unlikely, considering Valve hasn't exactly changed its business model and, as a company, it's continued to move from strength to strength.

As for the Wolfire lawsuit, well, that's to be decided in court. From where I'm sitting, though, I've plenty of complicated feelings. Steam might be the best option out there, but monopolies aren't great for anybody—at the same time, business is business.

Steam's absurd efficiency could be a product of merciless penny-pinching from indie devs, but it's just as likely we're watching a well-oiled machine continue to belch out cash in an expected fashion. Still—to take Zuckerbeg to task when it comes to money per head is genuinely jaw-dropping, and a reminder that the gaming industry is absolutely freaking massive, which makes the rampant layoffs of 2024 and 2023 all the more grim.