Tuesday, February 12, 2008


So I started downloading Call of Duty 4 today via Steam. At over 9 gigs in size, I wasn't sure if it would be finished by the time I got home from work. But in the hour that it had been downloading before work it had already reached about 25%, so I figured I was set to play when work ended.

Why I am writing this and not playing CoD4

You can imagine my surprise when I got off from work about ten hours later (got a little bit of Soul Calibur in after hours) to find that the download had only progressed to 26%. This is the second game I have downloaded via Steam, and both of them had this problem. Looking online, it appears I am not alone. Closing and opening Steam, then restarting the download, seems to fix the problem—but then what's the point of using Steam in the first place if I have to be at the computer to hold its hand through the entire download? I could have gone to work, went to the store afterwards, and installed the game off of five DVDs or whatever in less time.

I remember being disgusted to the core when Steam was announced as a means of distribution for Half-Life 2, largely because at the time I did not have an internet connection for the computer I would install it to and thus could not authorize the game even if I bought it from a store. As much as I loved the original Half-Life, I would come to be so turned off as to not purchase Half-Life 2 until The Orange Box came out. Fantastic game, by the way; awful business model.

After The Orange Box, I decided to start giving Steam another try. There are many, many areas in which it should improve, questionable download reliability aside (torrents for stability and bandwidth dispersion protected with authentication-based DRM, anyone?). Launching games through the Steam client takes longer than launching a standalone game when you must wait for the Steam client to load, and don't be surprised that Valve takes this opportunity to wrap advertisements, driver notifications, and survey requests around your gaming time-slice, like a sandwich made of stale bread that you don't really want to eat but must to get to the delectable meat inside. And every time I try to purchase something (three times now, just grabbed an indie game), I have to re-enter my credit card number, expiration date, name, and billing address. Every time.

I honestly don't know enough about Steam's achievement system to make a clear call, but I believe what I believed when I found out about the 360's similar system: that a game distribution channel should not have such direct creative control over the development of what games go through it. This is less of a problem (though not quite no problem) if achievements aren't explicitly mandatory, though I shudder to think what boils and tumors an achievement-driven market will start injecting into games. I spent a little time looking into it and could not conclude whether or not achievements are mandatory for Steam, so please take this criticism/commentary as conditional; and if you happen to know more details, please drop me a comment (remembering that I admitted to ignorance before flaming ~_^ ).

Does Steam Do Anything Right?

Well… I still have some faith. Valve has provided an admirable distribution channel for indie developers, and I think it is absolutely fantastic that they are giving away Steamworks, a set of tools to aid in stat-tracking, net play, and beta testing. I think it would be even fantasticer if Valve took this momentum and created a full-blown open source community; code, forum, and external volunteer tech support. Let's wait and see.

I have also noticed that the price for somewhat old games seems to drop faster than one might find at a walk-in retail outlet, though for some reason new games launch at the same price. Maybe the cost of distribution (*cough* torrents *cough*) online regains whatever discount we might get by skipping the steps of burning DVDs and shipping trucks full of products to stores; perhaps they are selling games at this price because the market is not yet encouraging them to lower it. I would personally like to see more of a discount, as happens with music download services (the legal ones, silly). On the topic of skipping traditional distribution channels, I believe that centralized online distribution can provide a barrier of protection over the artistic integrity of games. Wal-Mart might have to give in to the pressure of ignorant soccer moms when an M-rated game becomes controversial, but does Valve?

I hope not.

To Sum It Up

Online Distribution of video games provides an opportunity to eliminate certain corporate middlemen from the equation as well as a way to reach out to indie game developers and offer them a spot in the distribution spotlight next to industry giants. It also provides an opportunity for intrusive background services, DRM that punishes honest customers more than pirates, and unclear information gathering. Though there are many independent distribution sites, casual channels, and independent channels, Steam comes to mind as the premier model that bridges the gap between “industry” and “independent” distribution. I hope that Valve shoulders this responsibility well and sets the bar high, qualitatively and ethically, for future models.

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