On…Steam

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For many PC gamers, games for PC have become synonymous with Steam. Valve’s digital distribution system is by far the biggest player in the PC gaming market; so entrenched is the use of Steam that we rarely step back and examine it. Yet, with every discussion that crops up about how terrible Origin is or Games for Windows Live or even with the recent catastrophe that was the original Xbox One statement (now rescinded), I can’t help but wonder, why aren’t we scrutinising Steam in the same way? Today I want to talk about the less discussed aspects of Steam, and why as consumers, we should be more aware of what we’re buying into and how our economic decisions affect the industry.

Let’s first look at some of the annoyances that these other platforms bring. The first one being that they add an extra step of authentication and basically serve as DRM. When I bought SimCity, loading up Origin was a nightmare. It was slow, unresponsive, laggy, and on top of that, I also had to deal with SimCity’s own DRM/authentication layer. These are things which seriously delayed my ability to just dive into the game, and thus lowered my enjoyment of it, even before I had started playing. Don’t get me started on Games for Windows Live, with its millions of log-in screens and cross-compatibility (it promised it would work with my xbox live account…it did not) and verification…all this to play Age of Empires III, which I never ended up playing because it was such a hassle to get it going that I promptly gave up.

But what really steams people’s broccoli is that all these extra shenanigans only happen if you pay full price for a game. Pirating bypasses all of these layers of authentication, and maybe you have to wait a week or two for the pirates to crack it but that’s a matter of when not if, and you can enjoy your games without fuss. Essentially, it’s archaic DRM which is helping the piracy industry; this arms race is just excessive, and I do think publishers need to stop caring and start being more consumer-friendly, because if legit games were more appealing and easier to access than pirated ones, I do think at least some pirates would convert (of course there’s always going to be some who never want to pay for a game).

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So how is Steam doing in this regard? Well, people tend to forget that Steam acts as that extra layer of authentication. Probably because it doesn’t really fuss too much about it and doesn’t really care if you use one of numerous ways to get multiple people playing on your account. It’s also relatively easy to download games you want, at good prices, and little-to-none DRM. The point is, as the incumbent software, Steam has the advantage of being already installed and already ready to go. When random games decide to use a different distribution platform, we have to restart that process again, a process which we had long forgotten. So to be fair to Origin and GFWL, they really can’t be blamed for making a user go through their sign up process; we had to do it at one point for Steam, but that point was just a long time ago.

How about the online requirement? Something that was complained about endlessly was Xbox One’s original always-online (well, daily-online) requirement. Steam presumably does this just in a less obtrusive way. You have to log in to your account to access your games, at least initially. What Steam has as an advantage though is the ability to go offline. Now, Steam’s offline mode wasn’t always very reliable, and in the past, you had to do a lot of fiddling to actually get it to work. But nowadays, I’ve found Steam accessible on my main gaming laptop whenever I want it, whether I’m online or offline. That’s definitely a plus in my books.

What about the interface itself? Well, let’s face it, Steam could be improved vastly. Its interface is just as slow and laggy as Origin’s. It absolutely infuriates me that the moment I boot it up, it’ll immediately start downloading half a dozen updates for random games I don’t ever play and lag my whole internet connection. And whilst it’s in the background, it’ll do this constantly and suck up my bandwidth and processing power. Its shop interface is incredibly unresponsive, leading to confusion over whether I bought a game or not. The client interface is really quite abysmal and I don’t know why people don’t complain about it more.

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The other worry that people have with digital distribution platforms is regarding ownership of games. This debate came out in the Xbox One debate, where the move to digital copies meant that people’s ownership rights over games were called into question. In the past, we’re used to physically owning a copy of a game in disk-form with a manual and a box. What ownership implies as well is that we can do with that copy what we like, be it lend it to a friend or sell it. Used-games for consoles is still a massive market. For PC gamers though, we’ve never really had the luxury. Even before Steam, we had authentication keys and other methods to restrict how many copies of a game we had. We never really had proper ownership rights over games.

In the digital age, that’s even more prominent. With all our games linked to Steam accounts (or Origin or whatever), we only ever license games. We can’t sell them, trade them in etc. We only have the rights to play the game. Presumably though, we find this to be acceptable. We pay for one copy, we play that one copy, our friends must buy their own. So why then was there so much complaining about the Xbox One trying to move into this way of licensing and playing games? Is it just people’s attachment to an older way of life? Because presumably, going digital brings its own set of benefits, and whilst we might lose some of that ease of swapping games around, it might be a fair trade.

I don’t know about you guys, but as a young adult, I’m moving around constantly. Between my parents’ house and the places I rent during university term time and all my friends’ houses, keeping physical copies of stuff is just too encumbering. I didn’t bring a console to university precisely because I could get all the same content all preloaded on my laptop, and that could follow me everywhere. Digital libraries are incredibly helpful in this regard. What’s particularly helpful is not having the whole library installed on my laptop at any given time; I can pick and choose which games I want, and I can always uninstall and reinstall at any future point.

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Xbox One also proposed a system of sharing games between home users, such that my brother could play his copy of a game at home and I could presumably play the same game on my own Xbox One elsewhere, without having to buy another copy (only one person online at a time of course). That sounded excellent to me, it is exactly the kind of thing we should expect in the future generation of consoles.

Yet, when Microsoft did its 360 turn and rescinded all those statements, the ability to share games in this manner was lost. And that’s a real shame, because whilst the once-online DRM was a bit barbaric, I do think Microsoft had the right idea here. They were future-proofing and that’s admirable. What’s worse is that they weren’t too ahead of the curve to be appreciated; they were merely copying the same model that we, on the PC, have accepted. Alas, console gamers must be held back again because apparently, change is too scary for them. Or rather, the negative aspects of Microsoft’s Xbox One policy outweighed these benefits to the point where all discussion on the good things was completely ignored.

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Of course, going digital brings risks too. Like I said, the loss of ownership is a trade off, but not just because we can’t sell our games. Relying on a distribution service to have access to games is risky because if that service goes down, so too do your games. I’ve always wondered what would happen if Valve went under and along went Steam and no one bought it out or saved it. Millions of gamers would just lose their entire libraries, thousands and thousands of dollars worth of content just inaccessible. Valve has said there are contingency plans in place if Steam goes down, but they’re particularly shady on the question of what exactly these are. Not being a Valve fan-girl, I don’t trust those statements at all.

These same arguments were put forward against the Xbox One as well. People worried about Microsoft’s servers being unreliable leading to their games being inaccessible. Their previous track record of keeping their online services like Xbox Live available was spotty. Though I can’t remember a time when Steam went down, I know from experience that Steam’s servers can be overloaded. Try downloading a triple-A title on launch day and see how long it takes; it’s nothing to do with your connection, it’s entirely Steam’s end which slows down that process.

So why do we put up with these negative aspects of Steam? I’ve talked about the terrible client, the loss of ownership, the dangers of Steam potentially going down…yet none of these things are ever really posed as a problem to the platform. I suspect that we don’t consider these things because the benefits outweigh these negatives. Benefits such as: crazy sales which discount games so heavily that you feel like a sucker for not buying as well; one central library to hold a lot of games; multiplayer enabled and chat features; the recent addition of trading cards and other gamification aspects which are designed to be addictive and to tie you more strongly to your account.

But really the main reason we put up with Steam’s problems is that we’re just used to it. We have already invested time and money into our Steam libraries, our accounts, and all its features. Steam is too big to fall right now. But that’s a dangerous line of thinking, and complacency is risky.

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So what I’ve done to mitigate the risks is embrace the open-nature of the PC and use some of Steam’s competitors. For example, Good Old Games or GOG which specialises in older gamers, has a super quick and easy way to buy and download games with no DRM. Or what about the client-free GamersGate? Then there’s Desura as well which focuses on indie developers. I know there’s lots of people who find it a hassle to have their games spread out everywhere, but for the most part, I managed to keep it fairly organised. And because these other systems have their own advantages (and disadvantages), at least I feel less indebted and shackled to Steam than others might.

Having choices is what matters. That was a huge problem with the Xbox One, because whilst its distribution model might have been really good, there is just no possibility of using something different which could potentially be better. I think that’s what irritates gamers the most. When games come out exclusive to one platform (be it one console or a certain distribution platform), it is incredibly annoying and feels incredibly insulting to the consumer. I hope we can move past the age of platform exclusives, because it is anti-consumer and combats innovation, creativity and even profits for game developers. How great would it be if PC indie devs could find an easy way to publish games for consoles (I know there’s some ways, but they’re very restrictive)? How great would it be if we could play with our friends regardless of what console they’re playing on? How great would it be if all games had the same content regardless of what platform you play on? That, I think, will be the future if we could just emphasise the good aspects of digital distribution and move away from the negatives like barbaric DRM practices.

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I know, no one looks like this in reality

So, my conclusion on Steam? It’s a great platform with a lot of benefits and has done a huge amount to unite the PC gaming community and create a solid foundation for video gaming. It’s familiar and it’s friendly on the outside, but I do feel like we have to be aware, as consumers, of its possible drawbacks. As such, whilst I love using Steam, I don’t want to be fully committed to it and so exploring other options is essential. Choices – that’s the best thing for consumers.

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One thought on “On…Steam

  1. Pingback: On…Steam Trading Cards and Gamification | Universe of Discourse

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