The Revolution called Steam?
Ever since Steam got released, Valve has been making waves with it and “experts” call it a revolution in game distribution but is it really?
What is so “revolutionary” about the concept of Steam? Most start off with the idea of episodic content. Valve have been promoting their distribution software as the ideal tool to release games in partial ways so that a developer doesn’t need to work for years and years on a title before seeing any profits from it. On the other hand, developers can also monitor the activities of the players so they can adjust their next content update so that people will have a better experience. At least, that’s how it’s “sold”.
In reality, it indeed allows developers to release software much quicker but primarily to reap the benefits of their labour a lot faster and to not spend a ton of money on something that won’t work. If a first part of a game fails, there’s no need to continue and they can move on to the next project.
This is of course a good thing for the devs who now can pull the plug before it’s too late so they won’t go bankrupt because of a failed project (hopefully). For the consumer it’s also beneficial because if a first episode of a game stinks, they won’t have paid full price but only a part and save money.
But what if a game isn’t a complete success but gets mediocre support? Will a developer continue its mediocre game to please the few fans that are eagerly awaiting the next episode, or will he pull the plug in order to cut his losses and move on to something that might be a more popular cash cow?
And secondly, what makes a first episode of a game so different from a demo? Most demo’s feature one or more missions of a game and, in the case of a first person shooter, a limited amount of weapons. Both Half-Life 2: Episode One and Sin: Episode One contain a lot of resemblances with demo’s. limited amount of gameplay and only a couple of weapons. Of course, a typical demo doesn’t come with 1/3rd of the full game experience but I’m sure you catch my drift.
The second “revolution” that Steam has in store for us is the digital distribution. People can buy a full product at a lower price because there’s no distribution channel and everything is done without having the need for publishers, retailers, and in fact all the middle-men are left out. A bit like how Dell successfully does their business. This is again quite beneficial for both the developer who doesn’t have to rely on the publisher’s money (and deadline) too much while the consumer pays less.
But what is so new about this way of making sales? Companies have been doing it for ages already and both ID Software and 3D Realms have become famous with games that were originally released on the internet. The Commander Keen series, the earliest Duke Nukem games and Wolfenstein 3D were first released under a concept called… “shareware”.
Shareware’s concept was that you could get a demo of a game, and if you liked it, you could register the full product online for a small fee and then download the rest to play. Very similar in fact with how Valve’s concept of Steam is set up.
So, what is so different about Steam? Well, the fact that Steam is a software package from Valve and that everyone wanting to release something over the system will have to go through the well-known developer. Or should we say publisher? After all, what Valve does is publish the games through their own – digital – distribution system.
Also, it requires you to download and install the software after which Valve can start pouring Steam-related news and advertising on your screen and even collect data on you – and everyone that uses the service – and use that data to their own benefit. Of course they state that it’s only used for monitoring to improve service and games – and maybe it is at this moment – but how sure can you really be of that? It’s not like someone is looking over their shoulder, right?
You can argue that most Steam-related products are also released in retail for those that still like to have something in their hands. Electronic Arts has made a terrific deal with Valve and both HL2: Episode 1 and Sin: Episode 1 have been published by the world’s biggest publisher. But even then, when you buy this full retail product, you need to install Steam and download a final portion of the game. Why in hell should that be necessary for a retail version? If I go out and I want to buy a retail product, I don’t want to find out that on the disc I just bought, only half of a third of a game is present and that I need to connect to the internet in order to use my limited bandwidth to download the rest! What if I’m one of those people that don’t HAVE internet (there’s still plenty of those)? I’m not allowed to play the same game then? There’s no way for me to enjoy “Episode One” even though it’s mainly a single player game?
I could go on with this column but let’s end it by going back to the title. What’s “the revolution called Steam” ? Well, my dear friends, the revolution is that Valve Software has managed to take old concepts, put them in a centralised jacket that’s owned and profited on by Valve and hype it enough with their own games that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. A stunt that few companies manage to pull off and which clearly shows just how smart Valve is at marketing. And Electronic Arts is right there to cash in some additional pocket change.