Digital Distribution: I Sure Love Steam!

Digital Distribution is a relatively new idea that is beginning to take the video game industry by storm. While Valve launched the idea back in 2003 with Steam and access to “Counter-Strike 1.6,” most developers didn’t even bother considering the idea as viable until Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 in late 2005.

Since then, we’ve seen a huge influx of downloadable titles (of varying quality) and re-releases of classic titles. Is this good? To me, I think it’s fucking fantastic, but there is always a potential downside (just look at the PSN crash).

Let me start by saying that I didn’t get fully into Steam until after “Half-Life 2.” That was the first retail released game that required a Steam account, something I had already tinkered around with just to try “Counter-Strike 1.6.” I was pretty pissed off at the lack of quality control on the service and how it made me wait to play a game that I had a physical copy of.

Over the years, Steam grew. Boy did it grow. I didn’t buy anything else until “Half-Life 2: Episode One,” and even then I noticed changes. The server download speeds were upped; the amount of download servers was dramatically increased; the Valve Anti-Cheat measures were phenomenal. From that day forward, I vowed to always buy Valve games from the Steam client.


How the hell can you offer this for $7.50?!

“Orange Box” and “Left 4 Dead” came along and I was just sold on how seamless the experience was. I could wake up, buy a title, go to work and come home to game. It was awesome as hell. I never needed to deal with stupid customer service reps or wait in lines for highly anticipated titles. You never need to worry about running out of copies, either, as it’s impossible to do so.

Then Valve hit upon a gold mine; Why not broaden the service to other game developers. Soon EA, Ubisoft and Activision were jumping aboard and bringing their flagship titles to the service. “Call of Duty 4” launched on Steam and sold more copies than the boxed retail version.

What really got me hooked, though, were the sales. Valve, in another stroke of genius, decided to allow developers to sell their games for half-off during specifically timed events. This would get people buying and playing faster, quicker and with less of a dent to their wallet.

Not only was that a benefit to the player, but a lot of indie developers saw huge turnarounds. Introversion Software nearly went out of business, but the Steam sale of “DEFCON” and “Darwinia” saved them from closing down. That’s just brilliant.


That’s right, I have 139 games on Steam.

In the last few years, I’ve nearly repurchased my entire PC game collection (which was upwards of 200 titles). I love the fact that I can click a game’s name, wait for a 30 minute download and then start playing. I also love when I can talk to Jim about an old title and then gift him the game from the Steam client. It’s absolutely outstanding.

Better yet, Valve is starting to incorporate cloud based storage for a lot of their titles. They even let developers include Steam cloud support for their own titles. This lets you play on one PC and resume your progress on another (you can even do it between PC and Mac; genius!). The PS3 version of “Portal 2” lets you do it between consoles! That’s leaps and bounds ahead of Sony’s own solution to cloud based information (stupid PSN Plus).

The only downside I can think of with Steam is how easy the internet can be hacked. I know Valve keeps improving the measures they have to safe guard your account, but the recent PSN hacking has shown that no one is safe. If I ever lost my Steam account, I’d be out a few thousand dollars of purchased content. That would not make me happy.

I suppose the other problem I have is that my old games can’t just be registered without me paying more. I know developers love money, but it would be a strong showing of faith to allow me to just digitize my previous collection. I guess that’s asking a bit much, though.

Xbox Live Arcade and PSN have a lot of learning to do from Valve and Steam. Instead of trying to rip gamers off by barely discounting your titles, you should hold random sales on a consistent basis to garner up interest in your service. When Valve can offer their entire catalog for $50 (the price of Portal 2, currently!), there is no reason why I should have to pay $15 for premium games on XBLA.

Nintendo also has a bunch to learn, but even copying XBLA for them would be a huge step up. Valve just knows business and customer loyalty unlike anyone else. If they keep their current trend going, I will never feel sorry for having turned my PC to digital distribution only.

I think the best part is that I can finally dump all of my boxes (I unloaded 8 bags one weekend at the dump. That’s fucking nuts!).

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