I gather from comments left in my year-and-a-half-old post on Steam that the service has cleaned up its act and is a lot more user friendly these days. A couple of visitors didn’t notice the age-old timestamp and thought I was either lying or stupid. So, I’m writing this post to sort of acknowledge the change in Steam and update my comments on it a bit.
I’m glad Valve fixed the various bugs and annoyances with Steam, although it happened too late to help me. The only thing worse than intrusive DRM is intrusive DRM which doesn’t work right. (And when DRM doesn’t work right, it never fails on the side of leniency. No, it always fails in a way that locks paying customers out of their media.) “Offline mode” is now a proper feature and not a hack, and Steam will let you play a game even if patches are available. So, in my bullet-list of grievances against Steam, a few of them can now be crossed out.
Having said that, I still abhor the idea of online activation. I have a drawer full of games from the mid-to-late 90’s that offer to “check for updates” once the install is done, and while the games themselves work fine, the patching service has gone the way of Pompeii. It’s long extinct, and if I want that patch I must go on some sort of archaeological dig and hope the thing is buried somewhere on FilePlanet. If those games had online activation, I’d be locked out of them now. So, this complaint against Steam still stands: I don’t want to buy a game that will turn into an expensive coaster the moment the publisher perishes or loses interest. I don’t want to pay for something I don’t own, and if I have to ask for permission then I don’t own it.
My other gripe is that Steam denies me resale rights. Again, if I owned the game, I could trade it in or sell it. I used to do this all the time. The trade-in from one game would finance the purchase of the next. The only games I would hold onto were the ones which I thought I might play again, or the ones so bereft of value that I wouldn’t be able to trade them in. With Steam, once you register the game you can’t transfer it to anyone else. You can’t give, sell, or lend it. All you can do is throw it away.
Losing resale rights is less of an issue now than it was two years ago. EB Games and Game Stop no longer accept PC games as trade-ins, so this point is moot now. But the inability to lend a game is outrageous.
I don’t have anything against people who use or enjoy Steam, and I understand the appeal of downloadable games, getting updates without hunting for the patch, and the other conveniences provided by Steam. I’m glad the service works for some people, and now that it actually works I admit the thing has merit. It’s better than recent alternatives. (Compared to the jerks at 2kGames, Valve comes off looking like Lawrence Lessig.) But I’m old enough to remember the days when my obligations to the publisher ended at the cash register, and I’m always going to resent their efforts to take up residence on my computer.
On top of all of this is the sheer futility of the entire effort. The point has been made so vigorously before on so many sites that I experience a sense of weariness just bringing it up: All of these layers of security are utterly bereft of value. Valve is denying me resale rights and hassling me with activation for no benefit to anyone whatsoever.
So, Steam is no longer a terrible product which infuriates me. It is now a user-friendly and well designed product which annoys me. (Although it still needs a “bugger off when I’m done with you option. There is no reason for it to live in the system tray.) I would much, much rather buy something and be done with the publisher. The fact that it now takes energy to sustain my “ownership” of the game is something that will never feel right to me. I’ve skipped the various games that use Steam so far. We’ll have to see long term if they can come up with a combination of compelling gameplay and low price that can entice me to try the service again. They aren’t doing so well so far. Serving BioShock up to Steam users with its various poisons intact was not a smart move on their part, and only reinforced my perception that they are comfortable treating customers like villainous cattle.
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