Even though I bought the vast majority of my games on Steam over the last few years, I’ve always felt that in doing so I’ve been contributing to some sort of greater evil. The nagging thought that I’m not buying a tangible copy of the game — something I like doing for resale and collector’s value — is ever present as I add items to my cart, and I always think twice about my purchase. In fact, the only reason I embraced Steam in the first place was because of a great sale, and I was a poor student who wanted to play Civilization 4. There is, of course, the issue of ownership, too; a game that I don't physically own is a game that can be, theoretically, taken away from me at the publisher’s convenience.
But while losing access to our games is hopefully not something any legitimate users should be concerned about with the major digital download platforms (although OnLive’s nebulous PlayPasses, which last for three years — possibly more, or possibly not — worry me), the fact that a company has that power can be pretty discomforting, especially after you’ve invested a great deal into the service.
However, the allure of getting an AAA game six months after release and for a third of its original price usually inspired me to throw caution to the wind.
And that's just the top third of my collection....
The other thing that bothered me about Steam in particular was its dominance. I’ve always believed that monopolies are unhealthy and eventually lead to anti-consumer practices. After all, it was competition that drove the pre-launch price of the 3DS in the UK down to £180 ($297, which considering tax and the usual UK price inflation, is actually not too terrible for a handheld over here). If it wasn’t for Amazon and Tesco getting into a fierce price war, retailer GAME would’ve gotten away with a £230 ($379) price point, which was its original plan.
Although Steam isn't quite a monopoly, it does wield a scary amount of power in PC gaming and the digital downloads space. Though sometimes this dominance is to our benefit, such as when Bethesda used the dreadful Games for Windows Live in Fallout 3. Understandably, a lot of PC gamers were upset, and Bethesda decided to change course with Fallout: New Vegas (and soon, Skyrim): Its more-recent titles no longer use Microsoft’s much-hated online service but Steam's less-obstructive Steamworks instead.
However, other times Steam used its clout to stifle what could otherwise be a good game. Steam rejected Gemini Rue, a wonderful-looking adventure game from Wadjet Eye, for undisclosed reasons, which undoubtedly lost the developer many potential sales. The fact that Steam has the power to commercially sink a game like that is scary.
While it’s a horrible shame that Gemini Rue (and many more we don’t know about) have been rejected by the service, Steam brings a lot more to PC gaming than it takes away. The convenience and service outstrips even Xbox Live as far as functionality and flexibility goes (and all without the yearly fee), while remaining a relatively open platform.
One of the greatest games sadly not on Steam
Developers releasing games on Steam aren’t required to use Steamworks for their achievements, stat tracking, and multiplayer matchmaking, which allows them to build a game according to their and their customers' needs. Similarly, gamers can buy titles from other stores, whether they be digital or disc-based, and run them through the Steam overlay — meaning even non-Steam games can utilize in-game web browsing, cross-game voice and text chat, and Steam’s screenshot capture and uploading features.
Nevertheless, I still value the importance of competition, and I don’t use Steam exclusively for my purchases. I shop at Good Old Games, GamersGate, and Green Man Gaming, too. However, in the end, Steam offers far and away the best storefront and community. Its sales aren't just about flogging cheap games — they also engages the community in activities such as unlocking achievements in said games, which, during Steam's recent Summer Camp Sale, were then used to redeem free games and DLC. And outside of sales, the convenience of trading gifts, pre-loading, automatically updating games, and installing DLC is unmatched.
It used to be this bad, but not nowadays. Click to animate.
Steam may be the 800-pound gorilla of digital distribution, but at least we're talking about a relatively well-behaved gorilla. Interestingly, now the big difference with digital is that the primary competition isn’t so much between stores or platform holders but between the actual games themselves.
Thanks to the near-ubiquity of Steam, we’re no longer seeing the same old games dominate the charts. Instead, indie titles like Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters enjoys equal store placement next to big hitters like Dead Island, Driver: San Francisco, and New Vegas’s latest piece of DLC. Suddenly the gaming space has become less about competition between similarly focus-tested AAA games and more about who's developing the most creative games, who treats their customers well, and who offers the best value.
Don’t believe me? Check out PC gaming shrine Rock, Paper, Shotgun, or the slightly more mainstream PC Gamer and see that (at the time of writing) there's a story about Cobalt, a review of indie shmup Jamestown, and news about Minecraft’s Adventure update, all alongside stories covering Ubisoft’s recent DRM debacle and pre-purchase information on one of this year’s hottest dudebro shooters, Modern Warfare 3.
It’s this sort of competition between games — both on the storefront and on the blogs, magazines, and message boards — that proponents of the "one platform future" have long sought after. Steam has proven without a shadow of a doubt that AAA, "middle class," indie, or free-to-play games all have a place on the PC thanks to Steam’s leadership, and while we may have surrendered ownership of a disc, having better games is a far more liberating prospect for me. Thanks to Steam, gamers get a larger variety of great games, good developers get the exposure they deserve, and the industry grows both financially and creatively.
AAA games don't get automatic preferential treatment here
If the price for that is an extraordinarily large service like Steam taking the lion’s share of the digital retail market while everyone else has to compete for the other 50%, then I think that’s an acceptable scenario. If stores compete online as they have done in the packaged goods business, we’ll wind up with the indies eventually boxed out by publisher payola.
Now, I'm not calling for the beginning of a Steam hegemony, since competition in every sector is very important, despite what I've said above. Steam probably wouldn't be half as good right now if great services like Good Old Games and GamersGate didn't give customers compelling reasons to shop around. I just feel that Steam's strong position has allowed indie games like Super Meat Boy, Cthulu Saves The World, and Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale a chance to seriously compete alongside the bigger releases. I seems like we read more stories about great games earning success on Steam with each passing year.
That can't be a bad thing, right?
Speaking of Steam, you can find Chris here. Feel free to add him! He's also on Twitter and email at chris_at_playedthat.com.