I’m sorry, discs. It’s not you, it’s me. You’ve treated me well all these years, and perhaps we can still be friends, but I think we need to take a break. I want a format that uses less physical storage space. I want a format that is only as far away as the nearest Internet connection. And, truth be told, I kinda want something a little less high-maintenance—something that is patched and updated from the get-go.
Recent experiences with moving have shed some light on the considerable amount of physical space required to house my game and movie collections. As a creature of habit, I’ve continued purchasing software the old-fashioned way, on optical disc, long after the titles became readily available online. The vast majority of my PC game collection, from the original Lemmings to Far Cry 2, is proudly displayed in a DVD rack near my desk. Only recently have I ventured out of my comfort zone and started purchasing games over download services like Steam. In short, I’m hooked.
Steam provides numerous benefits over traditional media. A huge assortment of titles is offered, including many indie games. There are no discs to lose, damage, or store. You don’t need an optical drive to play, and you can download your game collection almost anywhere. Anything you do download will update automatically or come pre-patched, so there’s no need to track down updates yourself.
Achievements are attached to your Steam profile, and titles that take advantage of the Steam Cloud can store your settings and game progress. All will be preserved if a reinstall is needed or you’re setting up a new system. Steam also offers Xfire-like friends lists and chat integration. The cherry on top: frequent sales and promotions often offer deep discounts on popular titles.
In fairness, there are a few drawbacks. If Steam (or a similar content provider) goes out of business, what happens to your game collection? Some cursory searching on the topic reveals that Valve may allow users to download all their games locally, but no official statement has been made on the subject.
If you don’t have Internet access, you won’t be able to acquire new games and will have to play existing ones in offline mode. Slow Internet connections can also make downloading new games painfully tedious. You won’t have physical evidence of your purchases, either—no box art, manuals, or "new game smell."
In a recent poll, we asked which back-alley dealers you use to get your PC gaming fix. An astounding two-thirds of you reportedly purchase your games from Steam already. Looks like I’m preaching to the choir. But, as a fresh convert, it is often customary to offer up a testimony to the congregation. Can I get an amen?
Like many of you, my first encounter with Steam occurred back in 2004, when Valve unleashed Half-Life 2 on the world. True to form, I purchased the DVD version at a local retailer. I was still required to install Steam to activate my new toy, though. Once the verification went through, I largely ignored Steam as just another unwanted piece of crapware cluttering up my system tray. It wasn’t until Valve offered the original Portal as a free download last year that I actually used Steam to nab my first game from the cloud. That one, small gateway game was all it took to get me hooked. Now, I’m constantly poking around Steam looking for more of the good stuff.
I’ve since downloaded quite a few game demos and Half-Life 2 episodes. Most recently, I picked up the time-vampire that is Left 4 Dead 2. Even more than Portal, L4D2 has shown me how valuable Steam can truly be. Anyone who has ever downloaded a large patch for a game only to discover that it won’t work until you’ve downloaded and installed several older patch versions first will understand my elation when Left 4 Dead 2 decided it was out of date and downloaded everything it needed on its own. Patcher’s purgatory is now a thing of the past. Valve has also rolled out several large updates to the game since my original purchase, and they have all automatically installed without issue or nuisance. I’ve also had the misfortune of a total system crash and OS reinstall during that time. Being able to point, click, install, and resume killing zombies where I left off is a valuable feature that makes my disc-bound games seem old and busted by comparison.
My experience hasn’t been all sunshine and third-gen SSDs, though. One thing that particularly frustrates me about Steam is its inability to add most of my retail-bought games to the library. Steam allows you to add shortcuts for any local application on your system, but it doesn’t fully integrate them into the Steam ecosystem. It would be nice to enjoy the full Steam experience for games I’ve already purchased without having to buy them again. Valve does allow this with some games, but it doesn’t cover most of what I already own. GRID and Call of Duty 4 are two of my favorite games, and they’re often offered for sale on Steam, but there’s no way to add my existing licenses to the library and enjoy the same benefits as those who purchase the games through the system. I understand that, because I didn’t buy those games from Valve, the company might see little incentive to coughing up the bandwidth required to maintain them. I also don’t pretend to know the intricacies of the licensing agreements involved. From the consumer’s perspective, however, any additional effort in this regard would be a welcome gesture. Allowing users to bring more of their existing games into Steam would surely promote future purchases using the service.
From a gamer’s perspective, Steam seems to offer the best blend of social features, cloud storage, automatic updates, and ease of use of any current distribution system. I’d like to see Valve work to integrate other commonly used third-party gamer tools into the package. For instance, the ability to merge my Xfire friends list and chat capabilities with Steam would be great. This would eliminate having to maintain duplicate lists and manage multiple IM programs.
Fragmentation worries me, as well. If every game studio decides it wants a piece of the pie, how many of these delivery platforms will we have to put up with? I’m certainly a proponent of healthy competition, but the danger of alienating gamers with too many sales channels and social networks is something that aspiring services need to consider.
Despite its shortcomings, I believe that cloud distribution is the future for mainstream games and applications whether we like it or not. Steam is but one of many solutions in this field. Modern consoles and smart phones have similar application distribution systems, and consoles in particular have picked up on the social side of things. Big boys like Microsoft and Apple are bringing similar services to Steam’s back yard, too. It’s only a matter of time before today’s optical discs go the way of the punch card.
Pinpointing the beginning of the digital distribution revolution is difficult, because hackers were sharing programs over ARPANET well before many of us were even born. Through the use of various Linux/Unix repositories, penguin huggers enjoyed the online distribution and update love for many years prior to Steam’s arrival. Some of the interfaces used to organize these repositories have helped shape the "app store" look and feel as we know it today. To whomever is responsible for getting the ball rolling, I’d like to say "Thank you!" Because of your foresight, we can finally stop using optical discs for the tedious task of data storage and focus on more exciting applications, like microwave lightning shows and cheap ninja stars.