The Steam Review

Comment and discussion on Valve Software’s digital communications platform.

Steam Guard will not kill you

It's been a long time. How have you been? :: March 4th, 2011 :: Steam updates, Steamworks :: 7 Responses (Feed)

There is a lot of confusion over the recent announcement of Steam Guard, which will allow Steam account access to be limited to specific computers. Here are the facts:

Steam Guard will completely restrict account access
“Enabling maximum account security prevents the account from being accessed from any computers other than those you explicitly authorize,” says one of Steam’s new localisation strings.
Steam Guard access denied error
Intel hardware is optional
Steam Guard will be able to identify a computer using software only; this will be inherently less secure than hardware identification but better than nothing. The system that already prevents stored login details being copied to different computers will presumably be used.
Multiple computers can be activated with email codes
But only when Steam Guard is running in software mode. Sensibly, the weak point of authorising other computers (given the dependence on email account integrity that it entails) is disabled when hardware identification is active. There is no word yet on what will happen should your CPU explode when your account is in hardware mode, but the process will surely bear similarities to recovering a lost password.
Steam Guard will be added to Steamworks
This is odd. The full quote is “available to third parties to incorporate into their own applications through Steamworks,” but why would anyone want to re-implement what Steam already gives them? I can only speculate that either this is marketing hype (like the utterly redundant CEG), or that Steam is going to start natively supporting limited activations. While Valve have tolerated this in the past, actually offering it as a part of Steamworks — if that is the plan — would be a big step.

And why does the release say “applications”, not “games”? Perhaps just a slip-up…

Steam Guard will be under your control
Notwithstanding the above, enabling Steam Guard on your Steam account is optional.

This might seem like an pretty good move by Valve, but there is a bogeyman. Intel’s new tech falls under Trusted Computing: the practice of using purpose-built hardware to ensure that a computer can be trusted to be upholding certain conditions. Most often those are that unauthorised code isn’t running, but in this case it’s that a single, particular CPU is in use. The key is that unlike DRM, which is always grounded in software, a good implementation of Trusted Computing cannot be broken without physical access to the computer (and an electron microscope).

The rights and wrongs of this are a matter of personal opinion. But having seen Steam suffer suspicion and even hatred while it was establishing itself I can’t help but be if not quite pro-TC, then anti-anti. It’s certainly clear that Steam Guard will make the world a better place.


Digital Distribution Review

New website continues TSR's legacy :: August 26th, 2009 :: Site news :: 4 Responses (Feed)

Guess what? The Steam Review is dead.

I make this point in order to to ease myself into the second paragraph, where I link to Digital Distribution Review. It’s a relatively new site run by one ‘Kurina’, which since May has been posting the kind of erudite analysis I always strived toward for the same reasons I always identified with. I like it.

It’s only fitting, of course, that a Digital Distribution Review should take over from The Steam Review. Steam is a long way from the only service on offer today, and although I tried to encompass other services on this site doing so never quite made sense beneath a green, white and black header. Don’t unsubscribe just yet however (there are still over 450 of you), as TSR isn’t going anywhere; depending on whether Kurina covers Blizzard’s reveal of the new Battle.net there may even be a new article coming up…maybe.


Localised prices introduced across Europe

UK benefits, continent suffers :: December 24th, 2008 :: Steam updates :: 7 Responses (Feed)

Steam has begun to offer localised prices to buyers in Europe. “The future is now” according to Valve, and indeed in the UK many prices have fallen below past RRP watersheds.

But in the Eurozone prices have rocketed thanks to Valve’s conversion of $1 to €1, despite the dollar’s actual worth of €0.72. A dystopian future at best, this 28% increase is offset slightly by the inclusion of VAT in listed prices, though even the unusually large levies of 25% in Denmark and Sweden don’t account for the entire hike.

Valve haven’t given any particular reason for the move, but there are several potential triggers. Foremost is the likelihood that Steam’s sales have simply reached a volume at which it becomes economic to flex some financial muscles: Newell predicted in May this year that Steam would start to account for the majority of Valve’s sales over the summer.

Good Old Games also deserve mention for introducing a $6 price point for over half their catalogue, which has significant overlap with Steam (Valve’s equivalent price is £3/€5). Valve may feel that gamers ought to be shielded from the world’s increasingly unstable exchange rates, or perhaps it’s as simple as that the new code was checked in for testing?

The numbers

Game United Kingdom France
USD Localised Change USD Localised Change
Generic $10 £8 £6 ↓£2 €9 €10 ↑€1
Generic $20 £14 £14 £0 €18 €20 ↑€2
FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage £38 £6 ↓£32 €45 €10 ↓€35
Bioshock £42 £14 ↓£28 €49 €20 ↓€29
Valve Complete pack £77 £53 ↓£24 €89 €90 ↑€1
Civilization III Complete £23 £3 ↓£20 €27 €5 ↓€22
Left 4 Dead £38 £27 ↓£11 €45 €50 ↑€5
Call of Duty: World at War £38 £30 ↓£8 €54 €55 ↑€1
Red Orchestra £15 £9 ↓£6 €18 €15 ↓€3
The Orange Box £23 £17 ↓£6 €27 €30 ↑€3
Grand Theft Auto IV £31 £27 ↓£4 €45 €50 ↑€5
World of Goo £15 £17 ↑£2 €18 €20 ↑€2
Empire: Total War £38 £40 ↑£2 €45 €50 ↑€5

Speculation isn’t going to achieve much, so let’s take a look at the actual figures. Highlights can be seen to the right: most games have been automatically converted, but Valve also gave clients the opportunity to set their own prices and quite a few have taken the offer up.

Some of the resulting reductions are incredible, particularly those given to FlatOut, Bioshock and Civilization III — FlatOut in particular, which is now far, far cheaper on Steam than it is at most retail outlets, even though it was released to solid review scores in August.

But note Empire: Total War and World of Goo, which both went up in price all over Europe. 2D Boy’s defence of Goo’s prices is unsurprising: “our agreement with our European retail publisher obligates us not to undercut retail prices,” Ron Carmel told me. “No publisher would sign a retail deal without ensuring that.” Sega’s excuse is almost certainly the same.

The situation in Europe

There’s a pretty obvious trend here. France and continental Europe as a whole has suffered, while the UK stands alone in benefiting. Posters on the Steam forums believe that this places “Valv€” in breach of EU anti-competition law (specifically Article 82), and they may well be right, though precisely where the buck would stop in that situation is a murky matter I don’t much care to tackle.

It’s not hard to imagine how localised, tax-inclusive pricing became a bad thing for most. Artificial inflation of Steam prices is the last manifestation of that legacy bottleneck known as retail, and I’m actually quite surprised that any one region has been able to escape it at all.

Indeed the UK may prove to be an experiment (Valve are working on “fixing” prices elsewhere in Europe), one made expedient by our continuing use of a separate currency. It’s certainly hard to imagine Amazon UK agreeing to Steam undercutting them on most games; they’ve discounted many since Valve’s new prices came in, but none very far. Postage and packaging typically undo their efforts unless the customer buys in bulk.

Whether this supposed experiment will spread clearly depends on its reception in the UK, from both buyers and retailers. Alas we are unlikely to ever hear retailer’s reactions, save for sugar-coated assurances from their PR departments, and Steam’s top seller list is international. But with classics like Arx Fatalis and Civ3 selling for £3 it’s well worth spending less than the cost of a takeaway making a statement in favour. Not to mention picking up some great games!

(But beware: as I’ve discovered, Steam’s version of Civ3 is incompatible with Vista.)


13 people work on Steam, actually

A correction :: October 14th, 2008 :: Valve :: 23 Responses (Feed)

Disregard the last post: I’ve heard directly from Valve that only thirteen of their staff work on Steam.

I just counted; there’s thirteen devs. This team is responsible for:

  • The Steam client
  • Custom installer work for games that need it
  • Billing systems and online payment, and all the internal reporting and auditing
  • The store
  • The forums
  • All the Valve websites, at least as far as keeping the machines online and running
  • The Steam servers
  • The server-side software, that is, Steam Communities and the server code that talks with the client
  • The SteamCommunity.com web servers, plus the middleware that talks to the Steam Servers
  • SteamWorks
  • The hardware survey, mostly
  • The statistics websites, both internal and public-facing
  • SteamCloud
  • Specifying, buying, installing, and repairing hardware for all those systems
  • DRM
  • VAC
  • Secret projects
  • Managing all the content servers around the world

If you’re thinking about the Steam team, that’s the list to think of — plus whatever else I’ve forgotten. There’s a bunch of guys who are kind of on the steam team who do game releases. They include five people total, probably, who get the games, test them, get them into Steam and distributable on the content servers, and then write the news updates and do the artwork for the storefront.

(I guess, somewhere in between, there’s people who lots of Steam stuff but aren’t really counted here. Like handling relationships with credit card companies, or doing support, or working with network providers to locate machines and negotiate bandwidth costs.)

This all comes by way of group chat messages with Valve’s Burton Johnsey (formerly known as tonjohn, SPUF old-timers). [The particular quote above was originally by Mike Blaszczak, however] Burton can only think that other Tom got the numbers wrong — but as the currently 25-strong Steam group proves those numbers can and do fluctuate.

Some other titbits gleaned this evening: the number of staff at Valve is now around 200, and every one of them outside Steam is currently working on Left 4 Dead, and will move on to “more DLC for TF2, DLC for L4D, and EP3 among other things” once it ships.

If the first clutch of Official Game Groups can lead to all this in a few hours, they’re certainly going to be valuable resources in the future! :-)


Half of Valve’s staff work on Steam

Yikes! :: August 22nd, 2008 :: Valve :: 4 Responses (Feed)

Update: This is entirely wrong. Urk.

PC Gamer UK have published some thoughts on where Valve, Maxis and Blizzard are going. Their resident Valve fan-boffin Tom Francis says of Steam:

The amazing thing is that the guys churning out regular additions to these four games are half of Valve. The other half are working on Steam, constantly.

Seventy-five people. There’s certainly enough in the pipeline to occupy them: Steamworks, Steamcloud, matchmaking, minimum requirement checks, ongoing Community improvements, non-game/driver downloads and a P2P network to name merely what we peons know of today.

And yes, P2P is still being worked on. Gabe said recently:

One of the things we’d like to do is to understand what types of applications people have on their PCs. For example, if a whole bunch of people are running Firefox, then make sure that’s one of the applications they can get through Steam.

[Then] there are community features that we want to continue to add. There’s peer-to-peer functionality: the community has this tremendous amount of bandwidth. There’s a whole bunch of content that they’re downloading right now, and being able to replicate that throughout the community using peer-to-peer would be a really good idea. What they need is a structured interface on top of that so they can find the content that everybody’s already downloading. Those are the kind of things we’re looking at.

Other Tom goes on to talk about how he expects Steam to become practically an OS of its own within Windows one day, and it’s getting harder and harder to disagree with him.


Mods get Steamworks

Preparation for widespread hosting? :: August 11th, 2008 :: Steamworks :: 51 Responses (Feed)

Too many crossings out, time for a rewrite!

Five mods have been given special access to the Steamworks SDK and will be releasing future versions over Steam. The news was announced by the co-op HL2 mod Synergy, probably earlier than it was supposed to be:

I would also like to inform you that we will be releasing Synergy and future updates through Steam! Valve Software has allowed us to do so by giving us access to the Steamworks SDK.

We are honored to be one of the four (sic) first selected mods to be given this opportunity. We will certainly put this to good use!

For you players, this means that you will see Achievements and Stats coming to Synergy in later updates. (Not to mention the automatic updates, provided by Steam.)

This plugs the final gap in Steam’s handling and presentation of mods; now they are to all intents and purposes they are free games, including, apparently, support for sub-mods. Previously mod teams had been told they were too small for Valve to support, and before that that their work was one day going to be distributed over Steam’s Peer-to-Peer network.

Although Steamworks doesn’t by itself give a game a presence in the Steam store, the more popular mods are already listed and are unlikely to be removed just to comply with Valve’s rules for commercial games.

The names of the other four mods have been found referenced in Steam’s content registry (thanks AciD):

And Synergy, of course. There’s no known date for when Valve will start extending offers to other mods, and knowing Valve most likely isn’t one at all!

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