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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Six Reasons Steam Works

According to this article from Kotaku, the amount of users on Steam has more than doubled for the 7th straight year. At one point this year, Steam had 5 million users actively playing at ONE TIME. Surely, that means that digital distribution is the way to go, right? I mean, if Steam can pull it off, anyone can, right?

Not so fast. It's true that Steam is doing an admirable job. I love Steam. I use it all the time and buy games from it frequently. It's not perfect, but Valve seems to understand what people want and provides it to them. But it's important to note that there are a few reasons that Steam works, and any digital distributor would be wise to pick up on them.

1) Steam sales are frequent and substantial. For example, during the last holiday sale, Skyrim and Arkham City were sold for half off. I want you to think about that. If you go to any store right now and buy Arkham City or Skyrim off the shelf, it will cost you $50-60. That's true whether or not you buy used as well.

So, during a time where a AAA, brand-new game is still being sold for $50-60, you could buy it on Steam for $25-30. That's amazing, and definitely good for the consumer. That's just a small taste of why Steam works well. They're willing to take risks with pricing that brick-and-mortar retailers just simply aren't.

2) Unified PC multiplayer. PC users have always had a better multiplayer experience than console gamers, going back to the days of LAN parties. That advantage has slowly eroded as multiplayer gaming moves to consoles. It's easy to see why: XBox Live provides a united place where everyone can get together and meet up with their friends, see what they're playing, and join in. Ditto with the PSN.

Steam has provided that home that PC users were craving. Now I know when my friends are playing Frozen Synapse. If I want to join in, I can. If I want to keep playing Bastion, I can do that too, but at least I know that other people are out there.

3) You can give away extra games. If I have Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and receive an extra copy through a giveaway, I'm allowed to re-gift it to someone who doesn't have it (although, to be fair, everyone has Episode 1 at this point). That flies in the face of what most proponents of digital distribution would like. Most proponents would like to get rid of the idea of giving games to other people entirely.

4) I can install Steam on any computer I want. If I buy a new computer, I can install Steam immediately and start downloading my games with very little fuss. As long as Steam exists, I will have my games on that new computer. If I have multiple computers, I can install Steam on each computer. I can only have one active session at a time, true, but I can switch between them easily with little fuss.

5) There's an offline mode. Am I not connected to the internet at the moment but still would like to play my games? No big deal. I can do that and I'm not treated like a criminal.

6) Steam has refocused publisher attention on PC gaming. PC gaming was legitimately dying for a while. The only new games coming to the platform were MMOs and lazy PC ports. Now, publishers can see that there are five million people at any given time who are willing to play single-player and multiplayer PC games as long as they have a nice place to play and a good game. PCs are again a viable home for gaming.

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Those are the precise conditions in which digital distribution worked on the PC. Steam wasn't an overnight success, either. It took about 7+ years to get Steam to this point, which meant that Valve worked hard to build up a trust level, not only with publishers, but also with consumers. We mostly trust them at this point, and if something goes wrong, we can expect them to fix it. That's why we allow them to handle our game collection.

In short, Steam succeeds because it mostly serves the interests of the consumer. Every single one of those above points is great for consumers while happening to be good for developers too. When you put your customers first, things work out.

Compare that to some of the other backwards methods of digital intrusion offered by companies, like the PSPGo or Ubisoft's always-on DRM. Since neither of them works in the interests of the customer, they're villified and eventually ignored.

The question is this: Do you trust (there's that word again) another company to provide that experience? When Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo has an iron grip over the content they provide as well as the price they're willing to sell it for, do you believe, deep down, that they'll be willing to offer it at a fair price?

I say no.

And as long as it stays that way, digital distribution will stay the exception, rather than the rule.