A couple of people have nudged me, asking how I can be such a huge fan of Valve games and such a long-standing critic of Steam. I’ve been avoiding this post because the conversation always goes the same way:
Gamer A: I hate Steam because it denies me resale rights, which I value highly.
Gamer B: I don’t value resale rights at all, therefore you are wrong and Steam is awesome.
But it’s a fair question and deserves a reasonable answer…
About four or five years ago I drew the line at online product activation, saying I simply wouldn’t buy games that used it. Since then this line has been scuffed and blurred by the constantly shifting policies of developers and publishers. They keep finding ways to complicate or obfuscate the very simple transaction in which I am interested: My money for their game. What if we give you unlimited activations? What if we give you the right to install the game on as many machines as you like? What if we let you make backups? What if we give you the ability to re-sell the game? What if…? They took away all of the freedoms that customers once enjoyed by default, and then they tried to bribe people into accepting the deal by offering them back a subset of those freedoms.
Steam began as little more than another stupid system of online activation with some nice digital distribution ideas thrown in. I was a harsh critic of the platform after release, but they’ve been steadily adding value to it for the last several years. They cured the launch-day headaches that locked customers out of their game when Half-Life 2 came out. They removed the need for a disk to be in the drive in order to play. They fixed (by removing) the lengthy and tedious “decryption” phase of installation that was part of their disk-based games. They got offline mode working reliably. They’ve added a robust community system that offers more features than Xbox Live, and they offer it for free. Along with this is an achievement system that adds replay value to games. They have the backup system working, so that you can play Steam-based games anywhere you have an able PC with net access, and all you need is your login. This means you can take your entire catalog with you wherever you go, without needing to carry around any media. They have dispensed with the need for disks, so that once you have activated the game you never need to worry about something happening to the disk. For the last couple of years they have been offering games at irresistible discounts, pretty much exactly according to the system I proposed a couple of weeks ago. (Although the boxed copies are still priced according to the ancient traditions.)
At some point they crossed the threshold where the hassles were low enough and the value high enough that I was once again open to doing business with them. For some people they have not yet reached this point. For some they never will. Doing business with Valve means making concessions about rights and ownership, and I don’t blame anyone who refuses the deal. Like many people, I try to limit how much of my library ends up on Steam because I don’t like having that many eggs in one basket. Chris Livingston (of Concerned fame, which I mentioned yesterday) has many of the same complaints that I do.
Still, Steam stands in stark contrast to the activation schemes offered by 2kGames and EA, which boil down to a way for you to ask for permission to play their game. Their systems are even more restrictive than Steam. You lose the freedom to install on whatever machines you need, to resell the game, to backup the game, to install (or even play) without a net connection, to keep your privacy, to play on multiple users accounts on the same machine, and to loan the game to a friend. And unlike Steam, all these publishers offer in return is a free copy of SecuROM, installed without your knowledge, consent, or ability to purge it from your personal computer. I remain adamant in my opposition to these systems.
But the future I truly fear is the one where companies like 2kGames and EA get their act together and start offering a Steam-like service. You boot up your computer and then your system tray starts filling up. Steam. Impulse. EA Manager. 2kGames Nanny. The Activision Activator. Take-Two GameAction! Ubisoft UBehave. Eidos Eipod. Codemasters Master Decoder. THQ Launcher. Microsoft PC Live Launcher Suite for Windows 7. Lucas Arts Game Hutt. Capcom’s Resident e-Ville. SEGA System Master. A stupid program for every game. A login for each one. All of them crowding around in the bowels of your system, downloading patches and updates and hopefully not sharing too much personal data. (Or you can set a policy of forbidding them to start, and then when you go to play your game you can sit there and wait while it updates.)
This is not a direction which enriches the hobby.