The Steam Review

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

PopCap deal brings Bejewelled and more

Casual arrives, but who will buy? :: August 22nd, 2006 :: New products :: 35 Responses (Feed)

PopCap logoSteam is diving into the casual market with today’s announcement of a distribution deal with PopCap Games, prominent casual developers and minds behind several of the casual industry’s greatest hits.

PopCap’s titles such as Bejeweled and Zuma are benchmarks of the casual games industry; generating over 175 million downloads and three billion player minutes per month. Steam is the first full-featured broadband platform for the delivery and management of games and digital content, and has pioneered its broadband services to over 10 million customers, generating over six billion player minutes per month, with core titles such as Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike.

“The addition of PopCap Games’ expansive library of leading casual games is an important step for the growth of Steam and direct distribution channels,” said Gabe Newell, co-founder and president of Valve. “The benefits of Steam will now be provided to a much wider group of games and game customers. PopCap games by themselves are larger by an order of magnitude than the next-gen consoles online gaming services.”

Initially, 17 of PopCap’s products will be made available via Steam on August 30, 2006. Keeping with PopCap tradition, each PopCap game offered via Steam will be available for a free trial period as well as for purchase. And PopCap collection packages will also be offered.

A large departure, no question about it. Steam has traditionally been aimed solely at high-end titles such Valve’s own or Red Orchestra, with lightweight offerings such as Codename Gordon and Darwinia being rare exceptions.

Who will buy?

Which begs the question of exactly how the games are going to be handled. PopCap co-founder Bryan Fiete states in the press release that PopCap’s titles “appeal to all gamers, and not just some narrow ‘puzzle game’ niche”—strong evidence that they and Valve are aiming largely at existing Steam users, only too aware that those without an existing use for the client (that is to say, the typical casual gamer) will only be bogged down by purchasing through it and subsequently needing it to load every time they play.

Unless, that is, new features are on the way to make it worth their while. Xbox Live Arcade has led the way in this regard with its Leaderboards (online highscores) and Achievements/GamerScore, and it cannot be ignored that Valve’s decision to release Team Fortress 2 on the Xbox 360 has exposed them to Microsoft’s system.

Bejewelled on Xbox Live Arcade
Bejewelled and several other PopCap games have already made a strong showing on Xbox Live Arcade.

Whether that existing Steam userbase (now numbering ten million, up another two million from April) will buy into casual games is a question the two companies obviously feel they have an answer to. It isn’t unfair to suggest that hardcore FPS gamers won’t be as enticed by Bonnie’s Bookstore as the forty-something woman on her lunchbreak who usually personifies the casual market, but there is one hook that a PopCap will surely have considered: Friends.

Long-term Steam users will recall Friends 2.0’s minigames, VGUI2 board and card distractions that could be launched from within any Friends-enabled game when sitting out the remainder of a Counter-Strike round, or as the old features page devilishly suggested, from the desktop while “dodging homework”. Integrating their games into the VGUI system would allow PopCap to capture with one small motion a truly enormous captive audience, all looking for something to pass the time between death and the next round.

Subscriptions are the final point of interest to arise from the announcement. They are popular with web portals thanks to the rate at which casual games can be developed, partly a result of their simplicity and partly a result of their frequent, let us say, borrowing of ideas from existing casual titles. Subscriptions are already a part of Steam, running in the background for the Valve Cybercafe Program, but to this day have never been offered to consumers. With only seventeen titles in the initial batch we could well be seeing the foundations of an option for monthly access to PopCap’s expanding Steam presence, alongside the standard à la carte and package purchase methods of course.

35 Responses to this post:

  1. Andy Simpson Says:

    Well, this is interesting. In many ways, Steam is the PC equivalent of Xbox Live, and this does bring Steam into the same casual games niche that Xbox Live Arcade does on the 360.

    I can see Valve thinking it’s terribly unfair that the Xbox 360 owners will be able to compare their acheivements and PC owners won’t, so I would say it’s a fair bet they’ll correct that.

    I agree that the Steam client is too heavyweight for this collection of casual games. The way I see it, Steam is a collection of services for games, like server listings, authentication, friends stuff, etc. etc. and the Steam client itself is only *really* necessary for the content delievery bit. It’s odd that Valve haven’t pushed these features out in a more a la carte way, like providing online authentication services without having to have the game served over Steam.

    I can’t see any technical reason not to have Steam purchases directly from a web page, for instance, or to load up a game and punch in your Steam username and password to get access to your friends and to play online, or to use some other authentication token.

    For example, say you get game X from a shop. You install it, play online, have some fun, close it down. Very normal. In the background, when you go online, a Steam component contacts the Steam servers, creates a Steam account, registers your CD-Key, and then sends you back the account info, or some equivalent measure of security like a 128-bit number, and the game automatically logs into Steam and then uses Steam authentication. I admit, I haven’t thought this all the way through, but the basic idea is sound(ish).

    The only downside I can see to that is a slight weakness to social engineering attacks that get people to give away their Steam account information to malicious programs or pages, but frankly, that happens enough anyway for it not to be a worry.

    I can see VGUI integration being tricky, but I think the PopCap games have web versions which could easily be integrated.

  2. Film11 Says:

    This is an interesting decision Valve have made. Like the article said, I’m not sure whether the gamers who use PopCap’s products will want to, or indeed be used to, starting up one more application to play their game.

    On the plus side, this will definitely strengthen the anti-piracy measures that are currently in place for PopCap’s games which are, quite frankly, rubbish.

    It’s a good idea to use Steam to compare scores however, as it’s usefulness has already been seen with DoD:S and SiN: Episodes. It will be a worthy replacement for the local scoreboard that is currently in place.

  3. Mikey Says:

    Whoo yeah! Im lovin this, i was gettin into popcap games yesturday and suddenly, they go onto steam, this rules!

  4. Ulf Jälmbrant Says:

    By default steam is always running. desktop shortcuts are fairly easy to make and after getting used to the actual steam interface can offer quite a good view on the available games.

    while the interface is a bit bulky for just installation handling and starting games it’s not terrible by any means.

    but it does give flexibility to play your games on any computer so it isn’t all drawbacks.

  5. bigburpco Says:

    I forecasted this.

    Oh dear.

  6. Tom Edwards Says: