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Steam: A Bright Future, Or DRM Hell?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 5/22/2011

Steam has quickly become a popular platform for game distribution, but some have raised questions about the restrictions it places on games bought through the service. Do these restrictions make Steam unappealing, or can the service redeem itself in other ways?

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    The Future Is Steamy

    Digital distribution is the future. This is no longer really arguable, although retailers try very hard to believe differently. Digital distribution is great for players because it allows them to gain access to a game quickly, and they don't need to keep a physical copy of the disk on hand to install or play a game. Digital distribution is even better for publishers because it gets rid of the packaging costs associated with retail copies of games, it reduces the amount of profit that the publisher needs to allow to the distributor, it makes it simple to ensure that players have an updated copy of the game, and it makes impulse buys extremely simple.

    Yet there is still some skepticism about stores like Steam, and not all of it is coming from retailers. Some PC gamers are concerned that digital distribution is demolishing the traditional act of buying a game and replacing it with the idea of buying a license. In other words, the game is no longer yours to do with what you please. So is Steam a force of good, or an enemy pretending to be our friend?

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    You Paid For It. But Is It Yours?

    By far the most controversial feature of Steam, and other game distribution networks like it, is that your games are tied to an account. This is, in part, what makes Steam so useful. Because your games are tied to an account, you only need that account to gain access to your games. Should you reformat your hard-drive, you simply need to login into Steam and leave it running in the background while it downloads and re-installs your games.

    However, the need for an account also raises a nasty question: do you really own the games that you buy on Steam? When you purchase a Steam game, all you are doing is downloading a copy of the game. You do not own the disk. You have no ability to resell the game at a later time if you decide you're tired of it, and you do not have the ability to lend the game to a friend at will (although some Steam games come with "guest passes" which allow limited access by a friend). The games are also tied directly to Steam, so it is impossible to play the games without Steam running. And since Steam is an online platform, this also means it is impossible to play games you've purchased if your Internet connection goes down.

    Its easy to see the problem. When you buy on Steam, you're not really buying the game so much as the right to play the game. Some people may be fine with this, but I am wary. I believe consumers should retain the right to do what they please with products they've purchased, and so I view Steam's approach as problematic. Steam may say it is DRM free, but that is simply a bending of the truth. Steam games don't carry specific DRM software, but Steam itself acts as a way of managing how the player uses their games.

    This is important to remember before taking the plunge and buying games on Steam. Steam offers numerous games, and should you choose to start purchasing games using the Steam service, you are going to become linked to the service. There is no going back. You can't return your Steam games, you can't re-sell them. If you were to lose Internet access for some reason, or you were to tire of Steam, then tough luck. You're stuck. At first, this doesn't seem like a big deal. But if you buy, say, four big titles from Steam, then you've probably just laid down $150-$200 dollars, all of which is at risk if your ability to connect to Steam or access your Steam account is ever interrupted.

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    Despite Its Flaws

    Steam certainly has its issues, for which I think it should catch plenty of flak. The ability to return or re-sell downloaded games would be a great addition, as would the ability to enter some sort of offline mode which would allow games to be played when a connection to Steam is not available. I am hugely critical of the idea that consumers should only be allowed to purchase the license to play a game.

    But those differences can be put aside. Because while Steam has all the makings of an evil empire bent of bringing PC gamers under the heals of a restrictive DRM regime, Steam itself has actually proven itself to be an outstanding platform in many respects.

    What makes Steam worthwhile is that its creator, Valve, is a PC gaming developer. They have made great PC games for years and they understand how PC gamers are different from console gamers. This is not something that, for example, Microsoft understands. Microsoft would love to have a platform like Steam, and are aiming for that goal with Games For Windows Live. They want to sell games online and tie it in with a community very similar to Xbox Live, which has been a massive success for Microsoft on the Xbox 360. But Microsoft does not seem to realize that PC gamers are not going to accept micro-payment content, nor are they going to flock to automated match-making systems which take things like the selection of a map or game-type out of the player's hands.

    PC gamers expect large expansions. They expect regular content updates - for free. They expect the ability to host multi-player matches with the exact settings they want to use. And they expect to have easy access to a wide range of chat, IM, and voice-chat capabilities which are seamless and familiar. Valve realizes this, and provides these options to consumers. I am heavily opposed to having my games tied to a single piece of software that must have Internet access to function. But the fact that Valve regularly provides game-changing updates to games such as Team Fortress 2 at no cost goes a long ways towards making amends.

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    Darkest Before Dawn

    The next year or two may be hectic for PC gamers. Digital distribution is well on its way to taking over. Retail space for games will shrink as companies like Best Buy reduce shelf space for slow-selling PC titles. Meanwhile, major players like Microsoft will be making moves in an attempt to gain a place in the growing digital marketplace. As has already been seen in cross-platform titles like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, the concept of releasing small downloadable bits of game content will attempt to overtake the traditional notion of releasing large large expansion packs for twenty or thirty dollars. These attempts will fail, but in the meantime things will get messy.

    Except on Steam. And that, perhaps, is the best reason to flock towards Steam. It may have some horrible restrictions on usage of games, but Steam reinforces the things that make PC gaming unique. For this reason it will prove a strong platform, and will provide a sense of stability in the chaos of competing digital distribution strategies that various companies will begin to implement in the next few years.

    Or you could just keep buying games from stores. It may be old-fashioned, but there is something about buying a boxed copy that some enthusiasts will probably grow to miss as digital distribution slowly kills boxed copies for good. Boxed distibution may survive though, particularly for Collector Edition type goodies like figures and artwork.