Sunday, January 14, 2007

Thoughts about STEAM and online game distribution

A couple of years back I bought a copy of the recently released Half Life 2 for my PC. This game had been getting outstanding reviews so I raced home in heady anticipation of first person shooter goodness. I knew that the game used STEAM and an internet connection was required to activate it but since I had the game files on DVD I thought that couldn't take long. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Microsoft's online product activation for windows XP. How wrong I was. Steam proceeded to download many megabbytes of patches for the game over my 56k dial up internet and this took many hours. Worse still was the fact that for the first few weeks every day there seemed to be some new multi-megabyte patch so when I sat down to play the game Steam would spend a half an hour or so downloading the latest patch before I could actually shoot anything. I eventually figured out how to get the game to play in offline mode but not before I had concluded that online game distribution in general and Steam in particular were to be avoided like the plague in future.

Fast forward a few years and broadband has made downloading games much less painful while STEAM itself has become a lot more user friendly. I have actually bought a few Games online through STEAM and I must admit that playing a game through Steam with no CD required is actually a lot less painful than searching for the disk and then going off looking for the latest patches. As proof of my conversion from Steam hater to Steam liker consider that I have just installed two Games "Prey" and "Dark Messiah of Might and Magic" through Steam even though I actually have a Disk copy of both games. As long as it is in the STEAM catalog they allow you to use your retail keycode to install the game through steam, leaving the disks in the box. Thats a lovely service considering that Valve get no money from that deal. On my 2MB broadband it still takes a few hours to download a game through steam but at least it arrives fully patched and I will never have to look for the disks again. If I want to play on another computer Steam will happily re-install the game for me.

My conversion to on-line game distribution isn't without some hesitation however. There are still several big disdvantages. If your internet connection goes down you may be unable to play. Worse still if your distributor goes bust (ie Triton) you may lose the game forever. You are also relying on your distributor to keep up to date with the latest patches. I guess Steam seems likely to stick around and they do seem to adopt a gamer friendly approach towards patches and such. They also allow offline mode although I haven't had to test this yet. An even thornier issue relates to ownership and transferability. If you have a disk you can install it and play it now or in fifty years time providing you can still get the hardware required. You can give or sell the disk to someone else and they can install it and play it. I know that in the new speak of digital copyright and license agreements you theoretically don't own anything. In therory you have only bought the rights to play a game. Some game licenses explicitly forbid selling a game second hand. I'm sorry I don't buy that. My own personal morality allows me to buy a second hand game play it with a clear conscience. If a game is distributed online of course it become much harder if not impossible to transfer ownership. Digital distribution also allows much tighter control over pricing and interferes somwhat with traditional market forces. Brand new games often cost less online than buying the retail version in my local game shop. After a couple of months however thebricks and mortar retailer will discount their remaining inventory and you can usually get a title for a fraction of the initial price. Prices online fall much more slowly if at all. For example I bought "Dark Messiah" and "Prey" for approximately half of what they would cost me on Steam. To be honest this is probably my favorite way to use Steam. I can shop around and get a game for a god price. I have a hardcopy with disk and manual. I can play through steam and enjoy the advantages but if valve goes belly up I can still play from my disks. Of course registering my game on steam does mean I can probably never sell it to someone else but I can live with that.

For a purely online game such as World of Warcraft my preference for a physical disk is meaningless. Such games cannot be played without an online server. Its curious however that Blizzard forces you to buy a retail copy in order to play WOW. You can download the whole game and play a free trial for 10 days but to continue playing you have to buy a box from a traditional retailer in order to get an access code. I assume this is a commercial decision - they want to leverage the selling power of big name retailers. I don't know if this has been a major contributory factor in the success of WOW but it does show that game producers cannot afford to ignore box and CD distribution yet.

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