Valve and Steam seem to be taking fire from a lot of quarters these days.
Last week, Direct2Drive, GamersGate (digital distributors hate using the space bar), and Impulse announced they would not be selling Modern Warfare 2 so long as it included a mandatory Steam installation in order to activate the game. In effect, you could buy the game from any number of sources, but you could only play it through Valve’s online service.
A few weeks earlier, Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford made a mostly incoherent attack on Valve and Steam, saying that while he trusted Valve, he did not trust Valve. You read that right. Apparently Randy Pitchford, regular guy, trusts Valve but Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software and “guy in this industry,” sees a dangerous conflict of interest. Valve is a developer in competition with other developers, but it is also a distributor that markets games from those competing developers.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that Pitchford’s stance has more to do with resentment than with actual business conflicts. While Gearbox has enjoyed a lot of success and produced a number of excellent titles (and superb expansions, back when that was their business), it has produced no franchise that is even within shouting distance of the Half-Life series, or the Source-powered juggernauts of Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2. More obnoxiously, Valve is sitting on a gold mine with the Steam platform, and its former peers and competitors now rely on Valve to sell their games.
But when Pitchford argues that Valve’s position as a game developer poses a conflict of interest with its role as the owner / operator of Steam, I lose the thread. First, Valve is not in a position where it needs to sweat the competition from other developers. Second, it is still in Valve’s interest to see that other developer’s titles do well on the platform, and to ensure they get a good deal compared to other outlets.
Frankly, as someone who purchased Gearbox’s entire Brothers in Arms series through Steam, I think Pitchford underestimates just how symbiotic his relationship with Valve actually is. When Hell’s Highway stalled at retail amid mediocre reviews and WW2 shooter-fatigue, it was on Steam that the game got a new lease on life through heavy promotion as a featured discount deal. It’s on Steam where a company’s back catalogue stands the best chance of being noticed and purchased by consumers, because Steam is omnipresent on PC gamers’ computers. When you open the program, it notifies you about important deals, some of them on games several years old.
Furthermore, the number of independent developers who have come to Steam’s defense says quite a bit about how Valve treats the people with whom it does business. From generous and straightforward contracts through promotion to prompt payments, Steam offers developers a number of good deals. So what, exactly, is so broken that it needs to be fixed?
I’m similarly confused about what the other digital distributors are up to, because their given reasoning seems a bit disingenuous. My hope is that it’s a publicity move aimed at getting the attention of the PC gamers who have already written off Modern Warfare 2 due to Infinity Ward’s antagonism to the platform where the franchise originated. Even though their objections are completely different, the other services are casting themselves as consumer advocates sticking it to a game that’s already unpopular with many of those consumers. Superficially, it looks like the other distributors are joining PC gamers at the barricades. If those gamers started voting with their dollars and made an effort to support these newfound allies, it would be to the benefit of Direct2Drive, GamersGate, and Impulse.
Still, it’s important to note that these services are boycotting Modern Warfare 2 for one reason only: it forces gamers to use Steam. Infinity Ward and Activision don’t care about this so long as Steam also provides them with good, uncontroversial copy-protection. But the distrbutors resent the hell out of this, because it means that they are being forced to grant Valve access to their own customers. Where you have to actually navigate to and browse around GamersGate’s and D2D’s websites, Steam constantly runs in the background while you are using it, always ready to provide a helpful reminder about a sale. From the other distributors’ point of view, they are being forced to cut their own throats.
From this consumer’s point of view, however, their reasoning is small-minded and not a little hypocritical. For one thing, it was seeing how well Steam worked that I became comfortable enough with digital ownership that I started trying the other services. I heard about Paradox’s anniversary sale on Steam and that led me to the Paradox-owned GamersGate, where there were even more items on sale. I was put off by a lot of negative reports I heard about Direct2Drive back when it launched, but I only recently felt confident enough to buy from them. Prior to Steam, however, I was a die-hard “physical ownership” kind of guy. Steam hasn’t just created Steam customers. It has created digital customers.
More annoying, however, is the self-righteousness of this boycott. From Direct2Drive’s Modern Warfare 2 page:
Thanks for your interest in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from Direct2Drive.
At Direct2Drive, we believe strongly that when you buy a game from us, you shouldn’t be forced to install and run a 3rd party software client to be able to play the game you purchased. Because COD MW 2 requires you, the consumer, to do that, we aren’t able to offer the game via Direct2Drive at this time.
I strongly believe that as well, Direct2Drive. But I’m not certain you do. Because I find you are still selling Dawn of War II, which requires the odious Games for Windows Live “service” for online play. It will load every time I run the game regardless of whether I’m actually playing online.
I can also buy Grand Theft Auto IV via D2D, despite the fact that that game requires me to install Rockstar Social Club in order to play it. RSC provides, as nearly as I can tell, no real service and is just another way that the developer retains control of its product. I suppose since it is Rockstar it is not really a 3rd-party program, but it is nevertheless astonishingly consumer-unfriendly.
Nor does Impulse seem like it is standing up for the little guy. The problem with Steam, from Impulse’s point of view, is that it got to PC gamers first and is now in the exact position Impulse would like to occupy. The chief difference between Impulse and Steam is that Impulse has never had a product as successful as Half-Life 2 with which to leverage itself. But what is to be expected from a company that routinely brags about its DRM-free approach to publishing while tying its games to an online authentication service / storefront?
As for conflicts of interest, who is kidding who? Impulse is an arm of Stardock, a game developer just like Valve. Direct2Drive is owned by IGN, which is in turn owned by News Corp. You might know IGN as a site that reviews the games that it is also involved in selling. GamersGate was created by Paradox, another developer / publisher.
My worry here is that forces are lining up to try and change the way Valve does business, and I don’t see that consumers stand to gain anything from such changes. Not only are Valve and Steam the devils I know, but I don’t see them as devils of any sort. I have far more reasons to be skeptical when I hear the envious and the ethically compromised taking a stand in the name of integrity and consumer protection.