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Why I would rather have Steam DRM than no DRM

4:00 PM on 12.29.2011 // Alec Kubas-Meyer

A little over four years ago, I purchased The Orange Box at a local Wal-Mart. I believed in physical media.  I would rather deal with the five discs required to play the original Far Cry (one for playing, four for installing) than let the games sit on a hard drive that could be destroyed, causing me to lose everything forever.

As you may have guessed, I was young and naive at the time, and I was only sort of aware of what DRM was and how it worked. Nonetheless, I went home and installed Steam (as required by my physical disc purchase). I thought it was pretty cool, but I still wasn't convinced that I should "give up" the ownership of my games. I went on to buy Left 4 Dead at a Target (though part of that was due to a $10 off sale), but it would be the last Valve game I bought in a store. In fact, it would be the last PC game I bought in a store. Actually, it would be one of the last PC games I would ever buy outside of Steam.

My only regret is that I didn't start earlier.

DRM: No One Admitted

I'm not going to pretend that I like DRM. I'm also not going to pretend that I "like" Steam's DRM. I am against DRM as an entity, but I am more than willing to live with it in certain cases. More than that, Steam is a case where I will embrace that DRM with open arms and deal with the occasional beatings it might give me. I know that Good Old Games will give me a service that is all give and no take, but why should I? Steam loves me, and so does its DRM.

It's just more convenient, you know? Let me explain.

My Steam account tells me that I have 89 games, of which I have only 47 installed and even fewer actually played. I have fallen prey to the same wonderful deals that everybody else has. It's a strange feeling, seeing that number. That's a lot of games. I may not have pressed "Purchase" 89 times (several of them are franchise packs and many more came from various bundles), but it's far more than I have for any other system (and probably approaches the combined total of the physical games I have for my other consoles).

Steam Gift Sale

As the number rises (and during sales season, it rises dramatically), the harder it becomes to even think of a world without Steam. You see, over the past year, I had some particularly unpleasant experiences with my laptop (and ASUS's terrible customer support). On five different occasions over the span of eight months, I was either sent a new hard drive or required to format my current one. In that time, I realized that Steam was truly a dream come true.

Let's imagine that I had purchased 89 PC games in a brick-and-mortar store. Even if I'm only installing 47 of them, the amount of time involved in installing that number of games (whether they're 12 MB or 12 GB) is ridiculous. Let's further imagine that I am using dial-up Internet or something equally painful. Even if it would technically take less time to physically install all 47 games than it would for Steam to download and install them, the former requires at least 47 disc changes (probably far more) and a half dozen clicks at least per installation. To install a game on Steam requires four clicks:

Four clicks to install Machinarium: Install, Next, Next, Finish

After you've done that, you can leave it be or even set up another install. If you leave it running overnight, you can wake up to find (depending on your connection speed) most/all of your games installed and ready for playing. The amount of time Steam requires to download and install your games may be less than, about the same as, or longer than you might take doing it manually, but Steam shifts the workload. Those initial 188 clicks may be a lot, but that's the end of my involvement. Rather than taking up a full day (or more) of my time, I take 20 minutes (or less) and then go about my business. When I return, I can start playing Metro 2033 or The Maw almost* immediately.

*The "almost" caveat comes from the fact that each game will need to spend a short period of time (usually a minute or less) doing some one-time initial installations (mostly different versions of DirectX). That is, however, not Valve's fault, and it's always over and done with before it would get to be an actual issue.

But it's more than that. It's the fact that I have a single repository for all of my games. Valve may control it and thus, to an extent, control my access to my games, but I can deal with that. I trust Valve, certainly more than I trust companies like EA. Over the course of my numerous reinstalls of my OS, I have completely forgotten about at least half a dozen games that I didn't buy on Steam. It was only when I sat down to think about this that I realized that several years ago I had bought Sins of a Solar Empire on Impulse (double meaning there) but never played it. I also own the Penumbra series, which I purchased directly from Frictional Games. There are a couple of other games that I have on disc somewhere, and I expect there's more that I truly have forgotten.

Q*Bert on the PC - image from IGN

Even the ones I remember, though, I'm not so sure I want to deal with re-downloading and restarting, only to forget about them the next time I need to format my hard drive (especially in the case of Sins of a Solar Empire, which is now available on Steam, funnily enough). There are two layers of convenience to Steam: the one that allows me to know where all of my games are and the one that lets me download them whenever and wherever (relatively) hassle-free.

Chances are you haven't had to deal with that to the extent that I have, so perhaps you remain unconvinced. Well, there's more. I think that, for the majority of people at least, this is the reason to purchase something using Steam's DRM over something DRM-free. And what is that reason?

The Cast of Community

That's right. Community. There are only two games across the various consoles I have that I play online with any kind of frequency: Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2. I have thought about picking up others (Killing Floor, Payday: The Heist), but I've never gotten around to them. I'm not a hugely social gamer. I have 26 friends on Steam, and I have actually played a game with five, maybe six of them. But that doesn't matter. It's the fact that, if I want to jump into a game with any of them at any time for any reason, I can do it. It's the fact that I can see what they're doing and send them messages while they're playing games (and maybe get them killed in the process) if I feel so inclined.

But even that's not quite it, because Xfire allows you to do all of that and more (which is overkill for people like me). In reality, it's simply a matter of aesthetics. If I decide to play Jamestown because I need some colonial-era bullet hell action, I am greeted with this:

Jamestown Shortcut page in Steam

It's gorgeous. It's great. Aside from having an awesome background image, it shows me friends and achievements (what I have and haven't completed), as well as news all right there, along with easy access to things like forums and groups. It's such a simple system and it just looks nice.

Let's take a look at the one non-Steam game I have on my computer. Any guess what it is? Goddamn right. It's Minecraft. I wanted to wait for it to come out on Steam, but there was a two-for-one sale and Notch doesn't seem too optimistic about the game's chances of reaching Steam. Anyways, back to my point. Look at this:

Minecraft shortcut in Steam

Boring. Unhelpful. Useless. Why even bother? Well ... it does allow me to send messages to people (and browse the web, something I can see the use of but have never done myself), but the rest of the features that make Steam so worth using are simply missing. I know a lot of my friends play Minecraft. I know I've earned a couple of achievements. I know there's news, forums, groups, etc., etc. I want to see them. I also want to see how many hours I've put into the game at a glance. Then again, maybe I don't.

Regardless, the opening screen of the game even features news and links. Also, setting up a multiplayer game requires thought and cooperation, and that's dumb. It's the same reason that I only played Sleep Is Death (another game I totally forgot I owned until writing this) once. Thought is hard. The whole thing just begs for Steam integration.

Now, it's time to admit that not everything is roses and rainbows. Not everything works the way it should all the time. About a week ago, I was trying to play BIT.TRIP BEAT, but Steam simply didn't let me do it. It just told me the game was unavailable. Given that I have nearly 90 other games to play, it was only mildly more frustrating than the game itself, but the fact that I can find my games arbitrarily unplayable (even for a short period of time) is disturbing. In those times, there's a fleeting moment where I think, "Maybe they're right. Maybe completely DRM-free is the right way to go." And then I look at AaAaAA!!!'s kickass background and I'm in love again.

AaAaAA!!! Shortcut in Steam

Despite its place as the reigning champion, Steam is not the only game on the block. There's EA's Origin, which has been written about extensively enough and which I feel no need to cover here. There's Direct2Drive, which... exists, I guess. There's Desura, which is not really a competitor since it focuses pretty exclusively on indie games and mods, but it's cool in its own right. There's Impulse, which I had way back when I bought Sins of a Solar Empire ($4! How could I say no?) but subsequently forgot about until GameStop bought it, which made it far less compelling. There are also the newer services from immensely popular companies such as Apple's App Store and Amazon's game download service, which will no doubt be accompanied by Microsoft's app store when Windows 8 officially launches (or at least development for it does).

There are many others, but the only other one that's worth mentioning is, obviously, CD Projekt RED's Good Old Games. Conceptually, I think GOG is an amazing idea. I was an early adopter of the service, and I hope it continues to flourish. Having a DRM-free system is a wonderfully worthwhile objective. Problem is, it's not Steam. It may lack all of the headaches and worries that can come from Steam, but it doesn't have the extras that Steam does. It lacks the cohesiveness of its biggest competitor, and that keeps me from purchasing a number of games that I really do want to buy. If this is a problem with games that aren't in Steam's catalog, I think GOG will be facing something of a vertical wall when they start distributing newer titles.

Coca Cola Capitalism

Nonetheless, I think competition is a wonderful thing. Impulse did weekly sales, then Steam did too, then everyone else did, so Valve upped it to daily deals, and now many of the other services feature those as well. Competition drives quality up and prices down (unless you're EA), which can only be good for the consumer.

But Steam is the champion for a reason. It's got the best service, the best games, and the best community. Its most legitimate direct competition is GOG, but the biggest draw for that service is a complete lack of DRM. Well... Valve doesn't need to be DRM-free. They just need to continue to release a superior product. If I had a choice between a DRM-free experience and an experience under the watchful eye of Valve, there's really no question which choice is the right one.

Hint: it's Steam.

Valve Hats. MORE HATS!

[This last image comes from /r/gaming]

Alec Kubas-Meyer,
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