Steam is the Greatest Thing to Happen to PC Gaming... or is it?
Back in 2004, Valve, maker of Half-Life, introduced the world to Steam. Steam is a digital distribution service where content is distributed via the internet to consumers. Half-Life 2 was the first official Steamworks game. Steamworks is an extension of Steam, as it involves the consumer setting up an account and installing a Steam client on their system which is then linked to their Steam account.
At first people were outraged. They bought a retail copy of a game in-store and found that a lot of the content had to then be downloaded from the internet. This meant that people with no internet access or narrowband internet connections such as dialup were left unable to play their paid-for games, because they didn’t have access to the necessary content online. And they couldn't very well take the game back to the store and get their money back, because they'd opened the packaging, and stores automatically assume that if you open the packaging and then bring the game back, you're a pirate who has just illegally copied that game.
Prior to this, all content was put on the game’s disc and was installed straight on to the consumer’s device. People primarily in third world countries hated Steam, and a lot of them still do years later. It seems as though the bigwigs at Valve don't realise that there are a lot of people in the world who don't have access to uncapped ADSL because it's unavailable to them or too costly. And the cost of games alone has skyrocketed over the years, no thanks to the recession and economic crisis which the world has yet to recover from. So none of these unfortunates wants to buy a game in a store and then spend more money on data to download some or most of the content.
There’s little sympathy though. Valve is looked upon as an icon for having “saved” PC gaming, and all the little privileged kids the world over who adore Steam and would pay exorbitant amounts of money just to be able to hand feed Gabe Newell chicken nuggets, all chorus: “Yeah, so get another hobby then.”
Steam serves a number of purposes in its design. Not only is it a convenient way for people who would prefer not to leave the comfort of their bedroom or basement to shop for and buy games, but it is a social networking tool, once again for people who prefer to stay in the comfort of their bedroom or basement. That and it’s a form of DRM, or digital rights management, to help combat against video game piracy. But because of the limitations experienced by the third world masses who still pay astronomical amounts for data and internet access compared to the first world, it only really helps encourage it. People can easily get a hold of Steamworks titles via other methods and have all the content without the hassle. Where do they get it from? Torrents, or if they don’t have internet access or have narrowband internet connections, or wish to avoid being slapped with a C&D from their ISP, they might obtain it from a friend, or at least a friend of a friend.
If it weren't for the fact that it turns out that PC gaming is not dead after all (mugged, wounded and bleeding, but not dead, and about to get back up and sort the other guy out), I would say that in some ways Steam, by accident, helped to try to kill it off once and for all. It looked that way for a time, but it seems as though it didn’t get the job done.
"All the little privileged kids the world over who adore Steam and would pay exorbitant amounts of money just to be able to hand feed Gabe Newell chicken nuggets, all chorus: “Yeah, so get another hobby then.”
Steam probably isn’t the worst form of DRM out there. There are far more notorious and universally hates ones that screw over paying customers, such as Securom, Games for Windows Live and especially Ubisoft’s notorious "always online" DRM, which often renders a game unplayable or at least very unpleasant, particularly if you combine a checkpoint-based savegame system with a connection that keeps dropping all the time. At least with Steam you can play without the game’s disc once you’ve activated it, if you've bought the retail edition, which is crucial for all those who like to preserve their game discs, much like those who insist on keeping their action figures in their original packaging, unmolested.
Steam is also the most successful digital distribution platform, at one time reportedly owning 70% of the market share, with Direct2Drive, GamersGate, Impulse (whose parent company, Stardock, released the figure to begin with) and several others coming in a distant last. Today it’s not quite at the same level, but it’s still over 50%. Not even all games available for download on Steam are Steamworks titles. But the ones that are, are sometimes boycotted by other digital distribution services, like Modern Warfare 2 infamously was back in 2009. But the fact is that back then, between 2004 and 2009, only a handful of newly released games were Steamworks titles. Nowadays, since those times, about at least half of them are. It stands to reason that other companies don’t really have much of a choice but to accept this and provide these titles. If they don’t they’ll give in to the competition and lose out, and probably go out of business.
Indeed, Steam shows no signs of going away any time soon. A while back it added the Mac to its list of supported operating systems, and this coincided with the release of Half-Life 2 on the beloved alternative to the PC, for people who think they're better than everyone else. Now the PS3 even has limited support on the service as well. How long before the Xbox 360 is added to that list? Steam has even done a service to indie game developers by letting them sell their games through their store, and even provides older games that are very hard to come by (assuming you haven't heard of Good Old Games) that cost a bomb over on Amazon (despite free shipping) for a nice price.
Most people love it, and there are several reasons why, but not everyone has embraced it so willingly. People who love it have access to uncapped ADSL with bandwidth that will make you feel embarrassed. It’s nothing for them to download games, downloadable content and patches released through the service. These people either wipe their bottoms with gold plated toilet paper, or else they’re just fortunate enough to live in a country that works for them and provides excellent service delivery and very affordable internet access.
But there’s the other half who as I mentioned don’t have internet access, or don’t have uncapped ADSL. They have to use alternatives like Wi-Fi, mobile broadband like 3G or 4G, or even dialup and they live on something called a budget – and no, that’s not a miniature pet bird, just to clarify. There may even be people who won’t use the service because they’re terrified of having their credit card details online. And rightfully so, since Steam was indeed hacked not too long ago, and a lot of people had their financial information pilfered and used for nefarious purposes. I’m sure they lost more than a few customers after that incident. It’s evidently not the most secure service in the world. But are any of them really that safe anyway? No.
"Indeed, Steam shows no signs of going away any time soon. A while back it added the Mac to its list of supported operating systems, for people who think they're better than everyone else."
Why not everybody likes using Steam is the same reason why some people don’t use Facebook. Because not everybody feels the need to share everything they have and do. Not everyone wants people to see what games they own and play, and potentially be criticised by some kid who barely meets the legal age requirement for not being far enough in a title for the amount of hours they’ve played (u suk noob). In a way, Steam is just another sort of spyware that puts all this information online for all to see. Some of us like our privacy. And for that reason, some of us don’t like the whole idea and won’t use it. To be fair though, you can opt to not have a community page, and keep all your personal data to yourself. And you can also choose to have a support account that is separate from your actual client account even though you are given the opportunity to link them.
Steam is something that I have personally avoided for most of its existence. I do my research and find out whether a game uses Steamworks in any capacity before buying it. It’s a good thing that titles that do use it, have it printed on the back of the DVD casing in stores. And I’ll only purchase GOTY, or Game of the Year, titles or special anniversary bundles that have all the content on the disc and just need to be activated on Steam. I’ll be damned if I’m going to install a game, and then have to waste time, money, and data downloading the DLCs and patches (which are obligatory seeing as an out-of-date game won’t run with Steam). Games like Borderlands GOTY have the cheek to give you download tokens so you can get the DLCs for free, but not quite, seeing as you still need to pay for all that data to get them. All the while the console versions get all the DLC content on another separate disc. I’ve got another acronym for Gearbox: GTFO. That’s one of the reasons why you don't make it on to my list of favourite PC game developers of all time (that and claiming the credit for giving us DNF, overlooking the efforts of 3DR and Triptych, and possibly making DNF worse than it all ready was in the process, obtaining the Duke Nukem IP and probably intending to do bugger all with it, burning Interceptor Entertainment, leading them to cancel Duke Nukem 3D: Reloaded... and for taking too long with Alien: Colonial Marines).
Services like Steam have their days numbered in any case, because the real future of gaming is not digital distribution, but cloud gaming. Services like OnLive and Gaikai among several others allow a person to play online through their PC or TV with a micro-console or even in their internet browser. Then, gone will the days be when you needed a beefy rig to even get to the main menu of Crysis. All you’ll need is a decent internet connection. It’s like a sort of interactive YouTube, with all your favourite games in HD, with no system requirements getting in the way. All your savegames, game data, and necessary game content is stored online on the servers. You don’t have to download anything. And DRM is rendered effectively redundant, seeing as people will have no choice but to buy the game and play it through the service. Those people suspected of cheating or pirating will just have their accounts suspended or banned.
It all sounds wonderful and yet terrifying at the same time. Like it or not, this is the direction gaming is going. Yes, so OnLive has suffered some setbacks and reportedly filed for bankruptcy this year and was bought out by another company. Still, it's early days. And yet the same problems that plague people in the third world will still apply. We need better and more affordable internet access. And that’s going to take some time.
Note that this article in no way promotes or endorses piracy, or copyright infringement.
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