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Is the tide turning against Steam?


Over the last few weeks, there seems to have been a shift in the tides of popularity of people's opinions of Vavle and Steam. For a while, it's seemed that both Valve as a developer and owner of Steam have seemed almost impervious to criticism, seemingly offering great games and a digital distribution service that has won many converts. So what's changed? Maybe we can point the finger at the busy end of year schedule and three games in particular; Borderlands, Left 4 Dead 2 and Modern Warfare 2. The release of all of these three games has seemed fraught on the PC, but how much is Valve's fault?


At first things looked rosy; an hybrid of co-op FPS mechanics and Diablo-esque levelling and loot. Indeed, Borderlands was offered as a four-pack offer similar to Left 4 Dead 2's offer, so it encouraged buying and playing with friends. Then Gearbox president Randy Pitchford blasted Valve's ownership of Steam as being "untrustworthy" and that Valve "exploited" smaller, independent devs. His latter criticism was rebuffed by Tripwire head honcho, Jason Gibson who insisted that he didn't feel, as an independent developer, exploited in any way.

Although there is some sense in what Randy is suggesting, I do question the timing of the comments. As Valve undoubtedly own the means to distribute not only their own games but any other developers, how are they different from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo's own downloadable channels? True, none of the big three are offering triple A titles through their services, but there's still plenty of competition there. It's also not like Valve are releasing numerous games every year. Considering Left 4 Dead 2 is the first game Valve have released a quick sequel, it doesn't feel like that they're taking advantage of Steam to push their own games. As Jason points out in his rebuttal, Tripwire released two games, Red Orchestra and Killing Floor that were in direct competition with two Valve titles, Day of Defeat and Left 4 Dead. Yet both Tripwire games received good publicity, special offer pricing and post-release support for new maps and content. That hardly sounds exploitative. Of course, there's a whole legal and business hotcake that we gamers don't know about; do all companies do so well on Steam, because there's some crappy games on the service that you'd have to really twist my arm to buy? Jordan mentioned in his original article that it maybe hard to rationalise Randy's comments as a businessman, rather than our gamer-centric viewpoint, but really isn't that all we have? (Borderlands online multiplayer fucking blows however, just thought I'd put that in here Randy)

Left 4 Dead 2

Of course, everyone knows about the planned boycott of Left 4 Dead 2 by gamers who were disgruntled by the swift announcement of a sequel, but those protests seem to have faded away now. No, what irked people was the delaying of the demo by an extra 24 hours. I know, 24 measly hours. Gamers right now have an amazingly bloated sense of entitlement when it comes to what they want and when they want it. I can understand if you want to play something and it's been delayed, then you'd be a bit pissed off, but if you look at the Steam forums, this seems to be another minor issue that has gamers coiled into little bundles of rage. Yes, the demo was late, but we all played it eventually and I think by all accounts most of us really enjoyed it.

The censorship of L4D2 in Australia..... Jesus, don't get me started on that shit. That too hardly Valve's fault; Australia's archaic ratings system banned the game, and if Valve had refused to make the changes they did to allow the game to be released in Australia, we'd all be splitting blood at their refusal to release the game here, despite having their hands tied by the classification board. It's a stark choice; either have the neutered version available for Australian gamers to have the option whether or not to buy it or have it banned completely.

Modern Warfare 2

Modern Warfare 2's alienation of a section of the hardcore PC gaming community has been stated many times already, so I'll forgo many of the problems with the game's release and focus on the boycott of MW2 by digital distribution services like Gamersgate, Impulse and Direct 2 Drive. The claim by Direct 2 Drive was that by installing Steam as a mandatory part of MW2's installation, users were installing a "Trojan horse" and that other games like Dawn of War 2 and Empire: Total War would also be boycotted until Valve "decouple it's retail side" from presumably the rest of Steam's features.

I can see why these companies would want this. Steam provides a one-stop retail/community service. You can buy a game from Valve, have the community features that you want plus things like achievements, auto-updating for patches and backup utilities. But is this not what consumers want? Having my all games in the one place tied to a single user account in making PC Gaming much more user friendly for me. At this point, having a download only service that I purchase games from isn't appealing. I might as well just buy the things at retail; there's a GAME and EB about 10 minutes walk from my house, so it's not like it's truly more convenient. Steam's added features enhance the value of a game, beyond making it simply a purchase.

Oh, and people complaining about MW2 on the PC need to just shut the fuck up. Don't like it? Don't buy it. Easy as that. Next!

So what now?

I'll be the first to admit that Steam isn't perfect; right now the download manager won't recognise my ISP and therefore downloading anything from Steam is a big hassle when it comes to my measily 20GB bandwidth for the month. Then there's the sometimes high prices, which has actually improved recently for me anyway. Right now, the Aussie dollar is doing really well against the US dollar; I got Borderlands and Dragon Age for $5 more than the US price, drastically under-cutting Aussie retailers. If I try and buy MW2 I get a price of $88 ($97AUS) which is about the retail price which is what I'd expect, but why a great price from some companies and a higher price from others (ok, just Activision.....).

However, it does seem as if there are just average gamers who are turning against Valve. Reading the reader's correspondance page in this month's PC Gamer magazine, one person wrote in to complain how Valve was "conning" him into making purchases with the weekend sales. Whilst I think this guy was a blethering idiot, how many people out there are feeling unhappy despite seemingly getting a good deal through Steam? It seems not much right now makes people happy.
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About Alasdair Duncanone of us since 9:17 AM on 10.13.2007

Alasdair Duncan is that bearded, bespectacled Scotsman that covers PC gaming that is not Fraser Brown. A long time Destructoid community member and forum moderator, he covers adventure, puzzle, FPS and all kinds of games on the PC. Watch, as he adds more games to his Steam library with only the vaguest hope of ever playing most of his games.

Alasdair has been gaming since his mother bought a Commodore 64 back in the early 1980's. He adores Deus Ex, GTA Vice City, Team Fortress 2, Borderlands, Super Mario Brothers 3 and all those weird indie titles on Steam.

You can meet Alasdair at places like PAX where he tries to convince people he isn't a) drunk or b) Irish.

Plus he crave attention via the following:

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