Monday, November 15, 2010

The Foggy Future

Last week a report came to light regarding Valve's digital distribution service, Steam, and how evil it was for some publishers to bundle Steamworks in their games (to manage the backend patching and matchmaking services), thereby giving Steam a foothold into consumers' desktops and encouraging them to buy games through Steam in the future.

Boo fucking hoo and go cry me a river, would be my measured and tempered response to this.

Let's examine how the PC has been treated as a gaming platform over say, the past five years, shall we?

The shelf space reserved for PC games at such retail establishments as GameStop, Wal-Mart and EBgames has gone from its already small size to near-microscopic (seriously, the next time you go into a good-sized GameStop check out where the PC section is, more likely than not it will be a single rack at the back of the store).

Microsoft's Games For Windows Live has been nothing other than a spectacular failure.  Launched in 2007 with the debut title Shadowrun (remember that?), GFWL is a clunky and user-unfriendly piece of software that was Microsoft's attempt at trying to convert X-Box Live to the PC market.  Microsoft, soon realising where they considered that their bread was really buttered, scaled back their support of GFWL, choosing instead to concentrate their resources on XBL.

Additionally, GFWL has come under criticism from some developers for making it too difficult to get patches out of the door (all updates have to pass Microsoft's "certification" first); the fact that GFWL's "offline" mode acts as essentially a completely different game account, so your saved games would become inaccessible if GFWL goes down anytime (and it does, frequently); and the icing on the cake is that full games only became purchasable through GFWL in December of 2009.  Previous to that you would need to head down to a bricks-and-mortar store to buy a game that uses Microsoft's digital distribution service.

Talk about counter-intuitive.

On the flip side, Valve's Steam (originally launched in 2003) has been steadily iterating, listening to its community and rolling out new features year in, year out.  While I remember back in the day Steam had its own fair share of outages, technical glitches, as well as a relatively small range of titles to purchase from their store (publishers were hesitant to let consumers be able to download games since this would piss retail stores off, and retail stores to date had been their breadwinner), today almost every major PC release is available on Steam on day 1.  Outages, other than planned maintenance which is always pre-announced, are essentially a thing of the past.

Let's be clear though, nobody helped Valve in 2003/4/5 when they were building the service from scratch.  They sank what must have been a monumental amount of money into something that could conceivably have fallen right on its arse.  I don't remember GameStop or Wal-Mart subsidising this cost though out of the goodness of their heart.  No, it was 100% of Valve's money going into building this service, and now that it's become a spectacular success they should be free to reap the rewards of what they have built, which is nothing less than the best PC (and perhaps simply the best, regardless of platform) digital distribution platform.

Valve give away Steamworks (for free!) to any developer who wishes to use it, freeing them of the burden of having to find some way to get patches and updates to their end-users.  There is no "Valve certification", the publisher has complete autonomy to do what they want over Valve's service.  In exchange, yes, Valve get to have Steam installed on that user's computer, potentially giving them a paying customer if that person chooses to buy games over Steam, but it's hardly a certainty.  It's like Coca-Cola being allowed to remove one page from your newspaper, and when you call up to find out what was on that missing page you are told "Oh, that was an ad for Pepsi that they didn't want you to see", if publishers actually caved in to these "demands" from high-street retailers.

It's said that Steam holds a near-monopoly on PC digital sales.  First off I'm not even convinced of that since there are several other digital platforms that are apparently doing quite well despite Steam.  These include: Stardock's Impulse, GoodOldGames (who have carved out their own niche of selling older but well-loved games to a new generation) and IGN's Direct2Drive.  Secondly, Steam is the leading digital distribution solution because they are ones doing it right.

Case in point, a couple of years ago I looked into buying Mass Effect when it (eventually) came out on the PC.  Before the days of EA putting their games on Steam, they had their own EA Store to download full titles from.  I went and looked around and was ready to buy it, before I noticed (in the small print, of course) that if I bought it from the EA Store then I only had a certain amount of time in which I could download it again (I think it was a year) and after that time my ability to re-download it would vanish into the ether like Obama's hopes of a second term.  Needless to say I did not give the EA Store any money, and I waited until it appeared on Steam about six months later to make my purchase, since on Steam I can download and play my games as many times as I like, without restriction.

Steam also do several ridiculous sales promotions every year, often selling games at 50/60/75% off of their normal price for a limited time.  And we're not talking old, shitty games either.  I mean triple-A top-rated games that have in some cases only been out for a matter of weeks.  How terrible for the consumer, to have all these choices and great sales and different places to buy from, right?

I have zero sympathy for bricks-and-mortar stores crying a river over Steam being included in some of the games that they sell.  None of them lifted a finger earlier in the decade to reverse the decline of the PC and PC gaming sales.  I would not go so far as to say that Valve single-handedly "saved" PC gaming, but they did a hell of a lot more than everyone else did, and certainly put Microsoft's efforts to shame.  Put it another way, I would not like to see what would have happened should Steam have been a failure.  I think the PC as a serious gaming platform would be in a much more esoteric place, and that is not good for anyone.

The PC remains the one place where you can play a good RTS, for example.  There have been attempts to make a decent RTS game for consoles (the most recent that springs to mind is Halo Wars), but nobody who is serious about their RTS gaming will ever do it on anything other than a PC.  The same probably goes for MMOs.  My point is that the games industry needs the PC to be a viable and effective gaming platform, and Steam has helped to achieve that.

Games For Windows Live?  Maybe it should just die the quiet death that it has been promising for some time now, and let the people who know what they are doing manage the future of PC gaming.

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