The Steam Review

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

The Steam Platform

Where should Valve go next? :: July 26th, 2007 :: Features :: 47 Responses (Feed)

A guest article from reader Andy Simpson.

Valve recently announced that Steam has over 13 million active accounts, excluding those that haven’t been used for a month. Even if some users actively use more than one account, this is still a fearsome number of users and seems to confirm the position of Steam as the market leader for digital distribution, but there are other services vying for position in the market.

Gamespy/IGN are in the game with Direct2Drive, Turner with Gametap, EA with EA Link, GAME with a new on demand service powered by Metaboli, and probably a couple of others. Xfire is bringing gamers IM capabilities and server browsing, Gamespy have Comrade and Microsoft is trying to bring gaming under one umbrella with Games For Windows Live.

All these services fit into slightly overlapping areas, and it’s only a matter of time before an almighty competition breaks out between them, and so I would say that we’re at, or close to, a turning point in the history of gaming on the PC platform and I think now is probably a good time to examine the origins and long-forgotten promise of Steam.

Long Distant Origins

Steam was originally intended to be a shared set of technology components that could be used by any software publisher. Reading the 2002 Steam press release, you can see that many of the ambitions listed have gone unfulfilled.

Dave Rolston, Vice President of Engineering, ATI Technologies Inc:

We will use the tools Steam gives us to create an automatic driver update and configuration management facility to deliver the most current and complete graphics drivers directly to the user, and ultimately add to an immersive and outstanding gaming experience.

5 years on, and we’re seeing the same thing promised.We’re told that:

Steam is designed to support a wide variety of models for hosting, billing, and support. Allowing for any number of partnerships and implementation, Steam was built as a modular platform.

This too, has gone unfulfilled. There is one implementation: Valve’s. There’s only one method of billing currently being used, a bog-standard one-time purchase. Hosting is all on the Valve content servers and there are barely any partnerships to speak of. Even the innovative content streaming features of Steam mostly lie unused, even by Valve games. It’s depressing that the best example right now is the original Half-Life! Even Source games don’t properly take advantage of content streaming.

Nobody uses the content streaming because it requires deeper Steam integration.

The menu 3D backgrounds for instance, are a pretty good idea. They look great, show off the game immediately, and ensure a fairly relevant set of assets are already cached into memory before you even start the game. However, combined with Steam content streaming, they’re a disaster. Try it, if you like. Delete the local content for HL2 (or move the .gcfs out of SteamApps), then re-install it and try and run the game straight away. You’ll notice it allows you to start the game with it not fully downloaded, but then will appear to hang before it even gets to the menu. The engine has realised that the map file for the background isn’t downloaded, and instructs Steam to download it. Meanwhile, it continues to display a (static) loading screen. For the duration of the download, it simply looks like the game has hung.

There are two simple solutions: require 100% of the game to download before you allow the game to start, or require Source to put up a progress bar with approximate time remaining and a working cancel button. The second is by far the better design decision; the user is kept informed, knows the game hasn’t hung, and can cancel the process and continue the download on the desktop if they decide they don’t want to wait. It’s a well-known fact in user experience design that users are a lot more patient to wait for a long running-process to complete if they’re kept informed about what’s going on. The streaming features of Steam are also then properly leveraged to get the player into the game as soon as possible.

It gets worse – the third party games currently packing out the Steam platform don’t implement this streaming at all! The Steam client basically becomes a glorified download manager for loose files. Nobody uses the content streaming because it requires deeper Steam integration. If not even Valve are implementing the full features of their own platform, there isn’t much hope a third party will. Triton attempted to achieve content streaming essentially “for free” without requiring integration by using a virtual filesystem driver, however a similar attempt by Steam has been discarded as providing terrible performance.

The Secret of Success

So if Steam is being used only in the most basic fashion, what is its competitive advantage over every other service? The other digital distribution services are building up catalogues of games almost as impressive and in some cases possibly even superior. The functionality is more or less equivalent, minus Friends and Server browsing features. The answer has already been mentioned: Steam’s fantastically large user base.

By hitching Steam to the CS/HL2 wagon, giving Steam the killer app which all the other platforms lack, Valve ensured maximum exposure for Steam as well as ensuring it became fixed in the minds of the industry as a whole. Valve are pioneers not for trying something especially new – and as we’ve seen, what is new is not being used – but for trying it BIG, dragging digital distribution kicking and screaming into the mainstream. Before it was something on the fringe, now publishers like Eidos are putting their new games up on digital distribution services as a matter of course.

What is Steam’s competitive advantage over every other service?

Steam has become fixed in the gamer consciousness; PC Gamer UK for instance is quite happy in reviews listing the publisher as “Steam”, putting the price in dollars, and leaving it at that. There’s no need to qualify it by giving the Steam URL somewhere in the text. Everyone knows what Steam is.

The situation is analogous to the placing of a retail store. Excuse the London-specific example, but if you can you’re going to set up your shop somewhere like Oxford Street where the foot traffic is the highest. Passers-by will remember that your store is there if they want something you sell, even if they don’t walk in and buy something immediately.

Steam is also analogous to a department store, selling the wares of multiple different companies. Again, I apologise for the London bias, but I’d like to use a real-life analogy. Aquascutum make clothes, and they have a store location on Regent Street, just off Piccadilly Circus. A reasonably short walk away is the Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, which has an Aquascutum section, amongst others. The benefit to this arrangement is that in Selfridges they pick up the passing trade of people looking for a broad class of related items, in this case, menswear, even though they’re presumably doing some damage to sales from their own store down the road.

Introversion sell DEFCON both from their website and from Steam; presumably they make a larger margin on sales from their own site, but the advantage of Steam to them is that they pick up the passing “foot-traffic” which had previously helped propel Darwinia to new heights.

The Defcon Dilemma

So Introversion presumably were planning on distributing on Steam for a good portion of the development time of Defcon, needing the added exposure of Steam distribution to ensure good sales, and the finished game obviously has integrated Steam authentication, because the “key” you’re provided with in-game is prefixed with “STEAM”.

However, on launch day, people were able to buy, download, install and launch Defcon, only to be presented with an authentication failure when they attempted to play. Had the Steam auth servers, capable of handling the authentication of hundreds of thousands of Counter-Strike players every day, collapsed under the weight of the Defcon release?

No. Introversion had implemented their own “metaserver” system, which promptly collapsed under the load and forced the angry buyers to play the demo version until they fixed the problem. Why was this necessary? Why could Introversion not simply license the Steam authentication service for Defcon, from wherever it was purchased (Steam, their site, or retail) and for all platforms? What happened to the dream of a modular platform available for flexible implementation and partnership with anyone?

Somewhere along the line, Valve lost sight of the original plan, and this may come around to cost them.

A Call To Action

More and more publishers, retailers and others are encroaching on the territory that Steam first staked out. None of them quite do all of what Steam does, but I fear it’s simply a matter of time. I doubt it will be long before Xfire or Microsoft starts up a digital distribution service, or licenses one from one of the major players on the scene. The feature lists of Xfire or GFW Live already sound a lot like Steam’s feature list (especially if you include the upcoming Steam Community).

Microsoft generally have one modus operandi: keep going until no significant opposition is left standing. They’ve made mistakes, like tying Live to Vista, but they have deep pockets and a lot of patience. It’s only a matter of time until Vista overtakes XP in terms of install base, as unlikely as that seems today. If they succeed, we could see Steam slowly squeezed from the marketplace, reduced once again to a hard-core of the Half-Life games. Microsoft is a platform-builder; as a company it’s pretty much what they do, and in time they are going to build something very compelling to developers. The only advantage Steam has currently is momentum. If they lose that momentum to Live, or anyone else, then they’re back practically to square one.

This then is a call to action to Valve.

Valve has a chance, right now, to take the initiative. If they make the right moves, we could see the rise of Steam as the de facto platform for online gaming.

Otherwise, the alternatives are almost certainly either ignominious fragmentation or total Microsoft domination. A benevolent dictatorship by Valve seems to be the better alternative to either having tens of digital distribution schemes, friends lists, and server browsers, none quite able to outdo any of the others, or the reprehensible Microsoft tendency to suck ever more money from people.

The Road Ahead

The first step is, in my opinion, to decouple all the Steam functionality from the Steam client, and from each other as much as possible.

Steam features are useless to most developers and publishers.

Developers have very few options for using Steam right now. In practice, the only options are one-time billing/download manager/limited auth functionality, a full Source + Steam license or nothing at all. There’s practically no middle ground; there are the occasional exceptions like Red Orchestra which uses VAC and was considering integrating Friends, but they have one difference over most third party games on Steam: they distribute with Steam at retail.

This is the source of the Defcon dilemma – if you want to distribute your game without the Steam client, you can only use the most basic sub-set of Steam functionality, i.e simple downloading, very limited CD-Key style auth, and one-time billing. Most Steam features are therefore useless to most developers and publishers because they can’t use them, even if they wanted to. They don’t want to bundle the Steam client with their games at retail, for a bunch of fairly obvious reasons.

If you’re a publisher, you don’t want people at retail to install something full of ads for your competitors’ games, you don’t want to force your users to create a fairly unnecessary Steam account, and you don’t want to limit the ability of people to play their games without an Internet connection; all annoyances and niggles inherent in the Steam client. For people unaware of Steam, being forced to install and create an account with what at first sight seems to be extraneous and annoying software is not a great user experience.

It’s a shame, because there are some fairly obvious uses of the Steam functionality that would work well even with retail games. Take the Steam filesystem and content streaming, for instance. If implemented properly, it works well for streaming games to you from a remote content server. What if it was streaming files from the game’s DVD? You could put the DVD in the drive, the auto-run would pop-up and ask where you want to install, then mere moments after that you’re in-game, because there’s a Steam filesystem in the background streaming files from the DVD into a .gcf cache file on your hard disc. Halo 2 for Vista uses a system somewhat like this to give a console-like experience; put the DVD in and you’re away.

What if developers could license the master server / server browsing platform? They could host the servers themselves or rent them from Valve, either way, they’re using a robust system known to work for the world’s most popular online action game. I’d say that was worth licensing! What if they could license Friends? In-game and out-of-game chat with not only people who’d bought that game, but anyone who had any Steam Friends enabled game. I have no doubt that a Valve-provided server browsing back-end would be infinitely better than the technology being sold by the likes of Gamespy.

Steam Auth could be extended to create a new type of Steam account. Why only have the username/password combination to access a Steam account? Couldn’t any known unique token be used? For example, the CD-Key of a game? It’s a weaker protection as CD-Keys can be stolen, but plenty of games still use such a system. Valve could license out the auth server software for third parties to run themselves, federating with the main Steam auth servers, or just rent the service from Valve.

Resolution of the Dilemma

There are an innumerable number of ways Steam services could be used by third parties, and the Defcon dilemma would be rather swiftly exorcised.

Instead of building the metaserver system, Introversion could have bought a license to use the same Steam auth system for their retail copies as for their Steam ones. They’d save the time of building and debugging their own system, and the cost of hosting their own servers. Then it would make sense for them to also use Steam server browsing, another component they don’t have to build, with the added benefit that Defcon would automatically work with any third-party server browser that supported the Steam server protocols.

Valve could offer price breaks to developers who use more than one Steam service, and they could even offer say, the Steam filesystem for free or very cheaply as it’s an offline feature that costs Valve nothing for a developer to use in their game. This would make it easier and economic for a developer to implement content streaming as it would enable streaming from a retail CD as well, benefiting all their customers. For a game like Defcon it wouldn’t be useful, but for a modern AAA title it would certainly be beneficial.

You join MySpace because your friends have, not necessarily because of the quality of the service.

I’ve only really scratched the surface of what could be done with decoupled Steam services. There’s no reason purchases couldn’t be initiated in-game, for example, inside a demo like with Xbox Live Arcade games. Games could also manage their own auto-patching/distribution through their own in-game interface. A combination of those two would be especially impressive. Imagine playing a particularly good demo that let you purchase and play the full game without even quitting it!

You can see the advantages all round. The developer/publisher saves money and time by outsourcing, the consumer gets the benefits of the larger ecosystem, and Valve gets paid. None of this is obviously Steam-driven to the consumer too, no clunky Steam client to install, so the disadvantages of the client have effectively gone away. The services are transparent; the experience is just better. The use of these kinds of services can then see greater and greater uptake, and as we’ve seen by the explosion of third-party games on Steam, the growth rate is exponential.

The more people a service attracts, the more attractive the service becomes. You join MSN Messenger or Xfire or Facebook or MySpace because all your friends have, not necessarily because of the inherent quality of the service. The more friends are on one service, the more valuable that service becomes to you. It’s also about the developer mindshare; if you’re using Steam features, or developers you know at other companies are, you’re going to be more likely to use other features in future if using them is obviously beneficial.

The Role of the Client

So what role will the Steam client have in this new order? The answer is that it can integrate with the Steam services now built directly into the games. The Steam-enabled (but not necessarily Steam-delivered or auto-updating) games on your system will appear in the games window. You could use the Steam client’s desktop Friends and Server browser for your separately-installed Steam-enabled games. It’s currently a nonsense that all Steam games have to clustered under SteamApps, in the future maybe they could install like regular games, but seamlessly integrating with the auto-updating features of the client if they’re using the Steam filesystem.

The same games perform better when digitally distributed via the Client because the developer did the work to enable content streaming because it was beneficial to retail too. Valve can up-sell both users and developers to the digital vision.

It’s about flexibility and a great user experience. Steam, to be even more successful, has to offer opportunities, not limitations. It has to behave more sensibly, more pragmatically, and less rigidly. A prime example of pointless rigidity is in the auto-updating system. It has immense value, but also tremendous downsides. Once the update is started, you can’t use the game. If your Internet connection failed right then, you’d be unable to use that game in offline mode, because the update broke it. You’re limited to Steam to get updates, there’s no possibility of cover-CD distributed ones for people with dial-up and the like.

The solution is simple and obvious. Download patches into a temporary cache file. Once the download is complete, Steam auto-applies the patch. The game is always functional. This opens up options like: the patch being delivered a day or two before it’s activated, ensuring that the number of people wanting to play but unable to while the patch is downloading is kept to a minimum, offline game patching by allowing people to distribute (something like) the temporary cache outside of Steam, or pre-update betas being the norm rather than the exception.

A feature like this was originally intended to be a part of Steam, and was known as “trickle updating”. In the (probably paraphrased) words of Valve, “new content will just be there, when Valve says it will”. In reality, I can’t remember the feature ever being used, and it has apparently been dropped for operational reasons. It is more immediately practical for Valve just to push updates out monolithically, as most clients will download most updates quickly on their broadband connections.

The client will still exist for the reasons Valve initially conceived it. Having a permanently available application is valuable because residency has opportunities that transiency doesn’t; like trickle updating or community features, a single unified place to get at everything that matters to you in the gaming space.

I’m tempted to play the Devil’s Advocate and even suggest that the Steam Client should support in some fashion games which aren’t Steam enabled at all, for example providing XFire-like support for Friends and Server browsing and a listing in the Steam games list. This may look pointless, but it will make Steam more useful to end-users, which drives foot-traffic to Steam boosting sales, and gives Steam more mindshare. The community could be leveraged to develop code to enable server browsing for other engines. It would be worth it at least to get server browsing for Red Orchestra integrated into the Steam server browser!

It’s All About the Platform, Stupid

The initial vision of Steam could have been typical Valve over-ambition, cut short by technical challenges. I think there’s still a lot of value in that vision, though, especially if extended in subtle ways. The original vision was making Steam a platform that anyone could use, but it has since become somewhat more of a walled garden. There are advantages to the walled garden approach, and it’s certainly worked for companies like Apple who have successfully carved themselves out a niche with the iTunes + iPod system.

The company which has really been successful though is Microsoft, the platform builders. Rather than trying to sell their own software using their own operating system that runs only on their own hardware, you can run any application from any developer on Windows on standardised hardware you can buy from any hardware supplier. Microsoft has built a platform which bridges the gap, and they do very well out of being the middleman which supplies the glue.

By opening Steam up as a flexible platform, providing the “glue” between developers and gamers, they could be extremely successful. They could do a lot to change a lot of people’s minds. It’s all about getting critical mass, about getting mindshare.

Niggling edge cases are a pain to handle, but all-important.

Being a platform builder is hard. You have to ensure that your platform works 100% of the time for 100% of the people you’re aiming it at. Valve hasn’t done brilliantly at this so far. Part of the point is ensuring a good experience for everyone, and a good experience is all about the details, the niggling edge-cases which are a pain to handle correctly but are all-important. When Steam becomes acceptable to include in all games to everyone, not something a sizeable segment of gamers still see as something that has to be endured to play Valve games, then we could see a revolution.

The continued flakiness of Steam’s offline mode is one good example of this. The vast majority of the time it works, in a roundabout manner, but there are those edge cases it fails in immensely frustrating ways, like the “interrupted update” problem I mentioned earlier. In some ways this is a consequence of offline mode being an afterthought; the first release of Steam had no offline mode at all; Steam left beta in September 2003, but the release which added Offline Mode didn’t arrive until March 2004! Steam always has been designed exclusively for broadband connections and is painful in a lot of very un-obvious ways when you’re connected to a very good Internet connection in America. Woe betide you if only have dial-up and you want to install HL2 – Steam will force you to sit through a large update despite how the game works fine as it was published on CD. Woe betide you again if you live in Australia and have restrictive download limits and Byzantine networking arrangements.

Somewhere Valve forgot about the flexibility of their original vision, of a Steam that could be used fully by anyone, that would have made the experience universally better for everyone, even those on dial-up. It’s a crying shame that that flexibility and potential is long since lost, to do the easy thing and serve the majority, rather than the plurality.

Hopefully Valve will take this kind of thing seriously once they hire their new senior user experience director.

Basically, my message to Valve is this: Make it flexible. Make it open and inclusive. Think about all the people, both developers and end users, who could be using your technology for their benefit and yours who aren’t because of arbitrary limitations and restrictions. The removal of these limitations and the cutting of ties of the Steam services to the Steam client would have the end result of driving people to the client, not driving them away. There are technical hurdles, but they’re not insurmountable, and they’ll lead to a better experience not just for Valve and their customers but for everyone.


47 Responses to this post:

0 Comments

  1. ED Says:

    Andy, an interesting article.

    I agree with about 95% of what you’re saying, but I slightly disagree with your suggestion of giving games more control over steam. I agree, to an extent that games should be able to control steam – purchasing a game from a demo is a good example. I think controlling patches etc, should be done by steam itself though. There has to be a unified interface, or steam itself ceases to be anything more than a SDK for developers.

    I don’t think Valve have lost where they’re going, I think they’ve just lost part of the map and got distracted by things along the way. For example, the Steam Community – great, but what about working on improving Friends – I can’t add someone who is playing Natural-Selection with me to Friends (at least I can’t find how) – this was a feature way back in the initial Steam 2.0 betas…

    I think generally the Steam team is understaffed, spread too thin. They’ve got a pretty solid base for Steam now, but they need to start listening to what people want – and what they wanted 2 years ago and gave up asking for!

    I think Valve need to encourage more Made For Steam games – maybe offer seed funding (they’re rich after all) to small developers to make Steam exclusive games.

    Valve have said that their unified voice-chat etc will work in _any_ game, much like XFire does, so I think that’s progress.

    Good article – I hope to see some more here 🙂

  2. Brant Says:

    You’ve expressed something that I’ve felt needed to be said about Steam for some time now. Because of the large Steam userbase, Valve has a tremendous opportunity to build Steam into a more robust platform like XBox/GFW Live instead of the glorified online store it is today. There are other players moving into that space as you mentioned in the second paragraph, however, and that opportunity won’t last forever.

    I’m sure Valve is already aware of the issues you brought up, but I hope they see this article anyway. I’m looking forward to the effect Steam Community will have on the big picture.

    Thanks for the article!

  3. Daniel Chambers Says:

    A very well-thought out article.

    However, I agree with Ed in his comment above. There should be a unified interface. Microsoft is trying to do that in Vista in a similar although weaker fashion: look at the Games Explorer (it’s called something like that) in Vista. A central place where you can launch games.

    I don’t agree that you should pull apart Steam as much as you’ve recommended. For example, allowing some games not to update via Steam ruins the unified feel of Steam. When you see a game in Steam you know its up to date. Having to figure out which games update automatically and which don’t would be a pain.

    I also don’t agree that you should de-emphasise the Steam account. Sure, it annoys the new-to-Steam user, but it only annoys them once. Once their account is created, they practically can forget about it. If a user was to buy 10 games, that’s 9 games that didn’t annoy them by having to sign up for a Steam account. Having the Steam account means a better authentication system, so we can leave the useless CD-key system behind in the dust.

    Good work on the article, mate, I’d love to see more of your thoughts here more often. I hope Valve reads it and takes notes.

  4. Lewk Says:

    A very good read.

    I don’t agree with everything you said, but overall I agree. It’d be great to see steam less intrusive but maybe not at the cost you project.

    The whole offline experience NEEDS to be re-done. I live in Australia (btw, didn’t realise you could get un-limited internet overseas?? damn my over-run country!) and having being cut off from the internet time to time has fustrated me that I couldn’t play my steam games.

    I also have to wait until midnight to download all the updates for my steam games because midnight to midday is offpeak and therefore I get extra MegaBytes for downloading at that time.

    I pesonally don’t think steam will lose out to any other company, especially microsoft, and will always remain loyal to steam.

    It’d be good for valve employees to read this article as I like some of the features you have mentioned.

  5. demm Says:

    Good article Andy.

    I agree with most what you said, especially making the Steam platform more modular, but in my opinion you are overestimateing the negative impact of the steam client on new costumers.

    It’s true that when HL2 was released many people didn’t like – in fact, even hated – the Steam client. They felt like they were forced to do something they didn’t want to, because they saw no immediate advantage for them.

    The HL2 launch was nearly 3 years ago and the times have changed dramaticly:

    • many bugs and unstabilities vs. very stable and mature
    • only Valve games vs. a huge lineup of games
    • small user-base vs. huge user-base
    • cheap broadband internet vs. even cheaper broadband internet

    Being “forced” to create a Steam acount isn’t that much of a deterrent anymore. I guess the average gamer has accounts on at least 20 different websites and registering a Steam account uses less bandwidth than it takes to load an average flash website.

    So the main motivation why the Steam client isn’t distributed at retail (with most non-valve games) is the other reason you stated: publishers don’t want to provide free advertising to their competitors.

    This problem is hard to solve, because the publishers probably won’t change their minds without Valve giving them a reason to.
    One solution would be to remove all buying-related functionality from the Steam client and put it on steampowered.com and ingame (e.g. in demos).
    Another soultion would be to “brand” the Steam client. The branded client would only show ads from the publisher it is branded to unless the customer spefically wants to be “unbranded” (e.g. through an option in the settings menu).

    I admit, both solutions are rather drastic and have negative side-effects, but they would allow publishers to include the Steam client with their games at retail, without them having to fear to promote their competitors. This would result in an overall better user experience and a far greater user base for steam (which then produces an even better user experience).

  6. Paul Says:

    I’d like for steam to be distributed at retail, but only if it was optional (which DMoM&M does if I’m not mistaken). It’s a great philosophy and all, but it just doesn’t appeal to the average gamer, or rather, the person who just wants to play HL2 or CounterStrike every now and then, without being hassled to install some online store service, run it every freaking time they want to play the game, suffer from insanely long updating times in which they cannot even play their games (seriously, I’m running a 10Mb line and I only get like 150Kbps max from steam, and that’s just balls), never receiving auto-updates until they try to run the game and steam checks for an update (which is the most annoying thing of all, couldn’t it just check every fifteen minutes or something?), and a possible decrease in performance for lower-powered systems due to the fact that they have to run more background processes than originally intended.

    Other than that, nothing I really disagree with concerning this very well written article. There were a lot of great points and suggestions that I would be very happy to see valve take note of.

    Also, this is my first time visiting the Steam Review, and I am amazed I didn’t see this earlier. Intelligent discussion On the internet? Unheard of. Correct grammar from a video game oriented website? Blasphemy. People who actually know what they’re talking about? Holy crap, I’ve hit the jackpot.

  7. Tom Edwards Says:

    You’re right about its inclusion in offline games, but I disagree that it doesn’t appeal to CS players. Steam makes their lives a hell of a lot easier by managing everything automatically.

    I’m running a 10Mb line and I only get like 150Kbps max from steam

    Close Steam and delete your clientregistry.blob file. You’ll get a new connection that ought to be faster.

    which is the most annoying thing of all, couldn’t it just check every fifteen minutes or something?

    I’ve asked about this in the past. It’s a question of system load: checking every few minutes would lead to everyone with Steam running downloading their update at more or less the same time, which for games like CSS the servers could never take.

    The solution would be to use content streaming…but we already know what’s going on there. 🙂

    In the meantime, I’d make use of the fact that Steam also checks for updates when it starts.

  8. ATimson Says:

    I’d like for steam to be distributed at retail, but only if it was optional (which DMoM&M does if I’m not mistaken).

    If I remember correctly, it’s required for multiplayer, and optional for single-player (and doesn’t inform you of this at any point, simply putting it in your games list—uninstalled—once the key’s added to the account.)

  9. ATimson Says:

    In the meantime, I’d make use of the fact that Steam also checks for updates when it starts.

    It may check for game updates… but it doesn’t check for Steam updates before starting anymore. Rather annoying, to start Steam and be told that there’s an update, and be forced to restart Steam. It’s almost enough to make me prefer the old way, where it only checks on startup.

  10. Leo Davidson Says:

    There’s nothing to stop developers using Steam authentication for their Steam-delivered game and compiling a different version of their code, with a different protection system, for their retail release. Plenty of developers do just that, in fact.

    I don’t think Steam should deliver driver updates. We already have Windows Update for that. If there are issues with Windows Update then they should be resolved if possible, rather than add a redundant and possible conflicting OS update system into the mix. If they can’t be resolved then maybe, or maybe Steam should just detect when people launch a game without the minimum working driver version required and direct them to the graphics card maker’s website.

    My biggest complaint about Steam is that the user interface still looks like crap and is still non-standard in terms of functionality, compared to a proper Windows application. (e.g. If a Steam window goes offscreen you cannot use the Alt-Space, M trick to move it.) It is also slow to start up and sits around after it is wanted (i.e. after I’ve finished playing my game). I dread to think what would happen if we all had five Steam-like distribution systems on our PCs; one is bad enough.

    To Valve’s credit they have fixed a lot of the problems in Steam, but they took several YEARS to do so. It’s only very recently, with the introduction of a PayPal payment option, that I’ve been able to actually give Valve my money, from the UK, without having to start a tedious email chain with them assuring them that I am the owner of my credit card (for every game, not just the first one I tried to purchase) despite having a card with one of the biggest banks in the country. IMO Valve need to fix and improve Steam quicker, and it’s about time they re-wrote the front-end as a standard Win32 application. Just because it runs games doesn’t mean it should look non-standard (and it’s not like it even looks GOOD non-standard… it’s fugly). Anything that lives on my desktop, and not in a full-screen game, had damn well better try and fit in.

  11. Mike Says:

    Great article, I really hop the people at Valve read it because I really do not want Microsoft taking the lead with GFWL (not that I dislike MS, I just don’t want to pay anything for what I am used to getting for free).

    You mentioned that you would like Steam to have friend and voice support for non-steam games (like Xfire), well, Steam Community will add that support. I uninstalled Xfire in anticipation of the new community features. Here’s hoping Steam will beat out the competition.

  12. JP Says:

    Excellent article.

    Microsoft is doing to Steam with the GFW Launcher / Live exactly what they did to Netscape with IE, to Real and Apple with WMP, etc: wielding their stranglehold on the OS market against competitors in other sectors.

    Steam can come out of this ahead by making their product a Firefox instead of a Navigator v5 – clearly superior user experience, safer (by tying their thing into Vista I’m sure MS has created some or other security issue) and leaving users and developers more in control of their own destiny. I’m very much rooting for Valve on this one (hey guys, once you’ve conquered the world how about some Linux support?)

  13. Tom Edwards Says:

    by tying their thing into Vista I’m sure MS has created some or other security issue

    I don’t follow your reasoning there at all. It’s a moot point though: they’ve now back-pedalled and are widening it to XP too.

  14. JP Says:

    IE was a security quagmire for years because MS tried to integrate it with their OSes (Win98 onward), largely for strategic business reasons. They were able to tie up the anti-trust proceedings against them for years by whinging about how difficult it would be to de-integrate it.

    In principle the more applications you integrate deeply into the OS the more surface area you expose to attackers. GFW Live is either tied to Vista in a trivial way that makes the backport to XP easy, or in a deep way that creates potential (as yet undiscovered) attack vectors.

    Given how broad an overlap there is between online gamers and hax0r d00ds, tying a game service into an OS is a poor security decision. But if it’s not deeply integrated it’s probably more like Steam, which takes away some of MS’s leverage and is good for the competition.

  15. ATimson Says:

    GFW Live is either tied to Vista in a trivial way that makes the backport to XP easy, or in a deep way that creates potential (as yet undiscovered) attack vectors.

    In this case it’s trivial, as Gears for War will be a GFW title and yet is XP-compatible. 🙂

  16. Tom Edwards Says:

    IE was a security quagmire for years because MS tried to integrate it with their OSes (Win98 onward), largely for strategic business reasons.

    GFWL is/was tied to Vista, but it isn’t integrated like IE was. Even if it was, a game is hardly able to be attacked remotely like a web browser.

    Incidentally, The Steam Community beta will start later today. 🙂

  17. Dwarden Says:

    there is one more weird / bad trend i see over last years with STEAM …
    it seems less and less INDIE games appears on it
    i remember times when VALVE said that STEAM is gunna change the developers world to easier theirs life and spread small guys games …
    sadly i know more indie games turned away, blocked or ignored by VALVE than ALL ‘indie’ games together …
    in the end, they all released over retail publishers or others online services (yes there is more than just STEAM).
    IMHO Valve either stop to bother with small guys and aims only for big publishers or acts so weird that my imagination fails to understood…

  18. ATimson Says:

    sadly i know more indie games turned away, blocked or ignored by VALVE than ALL ‘indie’ games together …

    Dwarden,

    Do you have any examples that you can cite? Because this is the first that I’ve heard of it…

  19. Dwarden Says:

    the problem is noone of them want to speak about this in public as they think about theirs future titles …
    and throw dirt on Valve then come back later and say ‘hey release our new title’ …
    i hope You get the point 🙁

    for now i simply hope it’s history lesson and never gunna repeat
    as what matter is future 🙂

  20. Kadayi Says:

    I suspect Valve vet for quality to a degree when it comes to independent games, because ultimately if they release shit then it tends to reflect on them. Valve have high standards, other publishers don’t.

  21. Rick Says:

    When you see a game in Steam you know its up to date.

    Actually you don’t.

    http://nambulous.wordpress.com/2007/08/25/steam-doesnt-patch-defcon-142-to-143/

    So I have to agree with the statement, that users should be able to patch games manually. Having Steam patching games automatically is cool, but it also makes all of us dependent. Think about that. It cuts away a piece of freedom you might need some day. And then it sucks (when you realize you don’t have it anymore).

  22. Tom Edwards Says:

    The patch would be there if Valve had it. Presumably there is some reason for Introversion not to have produced a Steam version.

    Flipping the coin, you may recall how Darwinia 1.5 was out on Steam for months before it was for retail users. Quite why they are like that with patch releases I don’t know.

    There’s a discussion about the Steam version on the Introversion forums.

  23. Tom Edwards Says:

    1.43 has been quietly released.

  24. leo Says:

    Big problem I have is travelling and using offline mode…on more than one occassion on the road, without internet connection or getting onto a wireless that is incompatable with STEAM (port forwarding does not good on most), I have had STEAM error on startup saying the client data is not stored on the computer and must connect online to be used. It has been sometimes 6 days before finding a good connection point. SUCKS.

  25. Tom Edwards Says:

    Make sure that “Don’t save account credentials” isn’t enabled, on page one of the Settings. Also remember that (unless this has been fixed) you need to exit Steam from the context menu as opposed to letting it close when Windows shuts down at least once for the correct data to be stored.

  26. Alex Says:

    Steam does not even provide a robust delivery method over dial-up for the mere STEAM CLIENT. So, while I have the physical and paid for DVDs of Orange Box, I cannot install one iota of the game I paid for because the roadblocking STEAM client won’t even finish installing. Why Steam can’t provide a full (working?) version of the client with the physical game DVDs is beyond me. Due to Their buggy protocol connections and thus so far impossible DRM verification (which can’t take place until I download the full client, I have a fully bought and paid for Orange Box that remains 100% useless. Now that’s some strong DRM. All this trouble to play offline single player games. I had F.E.A.R. installed within 20 minutes. No internet required for product validation. Go figure.

  27. Dave Scott Says:

    There is another concern that is flying under the radar. In my opinion, they Valve employs unfair business practices that hurt the consumer and other companies. When you purchase a computer game which requires a Steam account, before you can even play it, you must set up a Steam account and register the game. Problem is that it can never be unregistered or transferred. Just a few of the games are the Half Life series, Red Orchestra and Lost Planet. These games can never be resold but you see them being resold in such venues as Ebay and Amazon among other places. When a person purchases one of these games used, they get home and find that it is worthless.

    It is causing consumers to lose money and causes frustration. It causes companies to lose money as well.

    If Steam can put these kind of restrictions on their games, then they should also be responsible for putting clearly on their packages that “THIS GAME CANNOT BE RESOLD OR TRANSFERRED”. They are being real sneaky by only putting that an active Steam account is required in very small print and not a word about the purchaser not truly owning the game and that it cannot be resold or transferred.

    Something really needs to be done here. In short, every used game out there that requires a Steam account is a fraudulent sale. Most everyone does not know this and sell it anyway and the consumers do not know this when they purchase it. This is WORLDWIDE. It may have unforeseen by me other consequences to people and companies. We really need this packaging labeling or this can only get worse. Valve will not do this voluntarily because it could hurt their sales and they are trying very hard to get other game companies to use their software in the same way.

    Because of this fact, it has and could have even more far reaching implications. Copy protection is one thing, but this is an abuse of the system when a company sells you a computer games for up to $50.00 or higher and unknown to the consumer, they do not truly own it and cannot resell it. Consumers are being stung everyday. Steam must be forced to clearly label their packages as to this situation.

  28. Tom Edwards Says:

    https://support.steampowered.com/kb_article.php?ref=1673-IDGK-4694

    Also, always use paragraphs! I’ve edited your comment to include some — take note. 🙂

  29. cshiz72 Says:

    hey listen I don’t know where to go to ask this, but I’m in doha, qatar serving in our armed forces, and I’m trying to purchase left 4 dead on steam, and keeps denying all my credit cards/atm cards even though there is funds in all accounts, any reason why this is?

  30. hahaboy90 Says:

    Why cant my steam update??when i install steam it can only update till 28% then it will hang there and will not grow anymore.can anybody tell me why??

  31. Ronald Lilly Says:

    Purchased Far Cry 2 on steam but it doen’t work. Can’t find a way to contact Steam. About ready to complain to credit card company.

  32. Tom Edwards Says:
  33. dale Says:

    I cant start my steam account it just wont open Had a power crash in the middle of downloading a game.
    Can some one please help………..

  34. frankie Says:

    steam sucks. its a real pain in the ass. want to play games not opening a bank account. never buy game on steam or steam powered game. its not for everyone. i suffered.

  35. Adam Jones Says:

    I was given Empire Total War as a Christmas Present. I last played PC games when I went through the Age of Empires set (over the space of a couple of years) – my favourite set of games ever, on any platform. You installed the app and played the game. Great fun.

    I had some previous experience of Steam when I bought one of the FPS games from Valve a couple of years ago, I was surprised at how intrusive it was, but accepted that there was a price to pay for a popular game. The balance came down (just) in favour of the game.

    This Christmas, I have been shocked by the dreadful consumer experience that ETW/steam now imposes for us poor punters trying to play PC games.

    Time to play – from decision point/unwrapping to first play is a real shock. Most consumer propositions for movie downloads place this as a critical factor in the quality of consumer experience, and it is a key metric in preventing the desire to pirate content. I would put this metric at between 4 and 6 hours, with far too much low quality interaction in the meantime. This is over a 2Mbps network link.

    To have to install steam, followed by a poorly designed user installation journey for the game itself is bad enough. It is then an awful additional surprise to be faced with a mandatory steam application saying that there is a further 2 hrs and 50 minute wait before the game can be played.

    I had a better user experience installing Vista (which was the next worst installation UX I have had). I had to wait an interminable time for something that has been placed outside my control by a product team clearly far too interested in their own platform management than by the user experience.

    I shall not be buying any games which involve Steam in future. If am given one as a present, I shall bin it on the basis that however good the game might eventually be, it is not worth the unpleasant half day to nanny the game through its pre-playing activities.

    I understand that piracy is a problem, but when searching for comments about this game I found references to the fact that others are getting around the DRM. Clearly, the user experience for “legit” activities has taken such a hit from awful DRM and product update tools that is places PC gaming a long way behind any other platform, and on a par with a visit to the dentist. Go figure.

  36. MiDi Says:

    Steams great. No CDs ever ftw! Haven’t you ever hated when you go out buy a game install it, then 2 years later need to reinstall it.. “Oh shiyzka wheres my cd!” next you find it covered in gunk under your vcr that hasnt been touched in a decade. For this reason alone, I agree with them not allowing us to sell or trade games on the account.

    Their DRM is indeed just fine, its much more secure then cd keys. Next I’m going to hear “well they crack it anyways!” Tell me one game’s drm that hasn’t? Steam takes longer to crack if you haven’t noticed, instead of next day theres a crack it usually takes a few weeks or months on rare occasions. Also, its not intrusive, get the hell over yourselves. Compared to some of these DRMs this.. is nothing.. (Also if the guy that was ranting that he couldn’t validate his orange box happens to come back, next time instead of being a idiot, post on their forums or call them for support, I mean really, is it really going to fix your problem if you rant on random sites Honestly…. Kk thx.)

    Also, I never notice steam running, it takes up as much resources as AIM, theres nothing to complain about there, its doing aims job and then some. So if someone so much as says something retarded like “I run tf2 on high all the time but steam still wastes resources!” I will boot you in the balls.

    Another thing, to the people who complain its not dial up friendly, Dial-up is no longer the majority mr. 1999 or I’m ballsy ill live in the middle of a frucking desert.
    (also rofls @ the guy complaining about the 4 – 6 hour download of total war on a 2 Mbit connection… 250 KB/s to download 15 GB, hrmm.. kk thx. youre an idiot)

    I do prefer this over most other clients I have seen.. I have no need for x-fire anymore unless i wanna track my gamestats or talk to friends on there. Windows Live… yuck. I haven’t tried Direct2Drive yet but why would I :X

    Also the friends (now that its finally working took them awhile!) is pretty awesome now, cept a few minor upgrades but hey. At least it has friends and its integrated and it works!

    Hey hey, can’t forget games are always up to date. It’s not a bad thing at all, anyone who complains about their rights to upgrade a game or not, get over yourself.

    The streaming issue he was talking about, go take a shower and clean your stinky ass, while it d/ls instead of being the impatient moron who clicks install on a 10 gb game then right after goes and opens the .exe and complains that it doesnt work. Most games are just too damn big to expect to stream, wow is the exception but also, is an mmorpg. You really cant expect to stream counter strike.. You need 90% of the files before you can even start it which is the base engine and skins for the game. Maps i could see streaming them but wth.. it’s just 2 – 20 MB then. (per map of course)

    To the guy who had issues with using his credit card because he’s from another country, I’ve had issues as well and god damn it, I’m not pissed at all about it, I’m more pissed that you are crying over them verifying it was you, I hope the next time that card gets used, it isn’t you using it.

    So in all I’d say Steam is right on track, theyre keeping up with technology I’d say. It’s quite common sense how to operate it, sure it takes getting used to, but what the hell it’s basically AIM, MSN, and Yahoo, but prettier and for GAMING with no webcam and file transfer (security reasons, im betting for the transfers at least) The net is much much faster nowadays, sorry for the people who can’t get a better connection, This is a Download Distribution Platform after all, and it does it great. The fault lies in ISP’s not steam itself. Overall its a great tool, and I believe its doing a good job at heading in the right direction. If not, it always has half life to fall back onto anyway 😀

  37. Ryan Says:

    I have used steam since about 2007 and I find it to be the crappiest thing i have ever used. I feel the only reason people use steam is due to there partnership with valve. Valve has created some of the best games I have ever played but it has some dead weight with it and this dead weight is called steam. What is steam customer support? Steam doesn’t have customer support and I have heard of stories from friends about how steam has screwed them over just to get more money. Vac secure, steam thinks that VAC security is the best out there but on the contrary it’s a load of garbage. People cheat on steam all the time and don’t get banned of caught. They’re ALWAYS! updating ALWAYS! I remember when they had Gamespy and miss those day. Now Valve has changed completely from a company that made games for the games to a game company that only cares about money.

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