Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Steam: The future of game distribution...

Steam is the future of game distribution...but not yet. Steam Powered Games is rapidly changing the way games are bought and played on the PC, however, there are still a few issues that is going to stop it becoming truly main stream.

Unless you have been living in a hole for the past two years, you will probably have heard of Steam. It provides 3 basic functions: firstly, a gaming community system akin to Xbox live, complete with common friends list, in game tools (including a web browser and chat) and everything else you would expect. Secondly, it offers dedicated servers for large multi-player games such as Counter Strike. However, probably the most unique of its services is the ability to download (legally) entire games straight to your PC - the gaming equivalent to iTunes, if you will.

Judging by PC sales last year, the PC market is now completely dependant upon Steam for its survival. And believe me, I think it will survive. But Steam isn't quite ready to conquer the world. Here are the things that I think they need to resolve to go truly main stream.

1)Bandwidth - Steam side
For years, one of the biggest obstacles for online game distribution was that high speed broadband was not common, and even where it was, it wasn't anywhere near fast enough. This isn't true any more. As far as I am concerned, in the UK within the next 5 years, 5-10Mb broadband will be standard with 20-100 being fairly common. Which is fast enough.

The problem, would currently appear to be at Steams end. I have above average, 20Mb broadband, normally getting about 15mb/s. However, downloading a game from Steam, I will normally get no more than 1mb/s, usually a lot, lot less. Like 10-20Kb/s. I don't think Steam is capping the download. Instead I think their server can't deal with the downloads.

Obviously, this will improve over time. However, if they want to become mainstream, it has got to be as quick as walking in to town. A download cannot take 24 hours.

They are offering a solution which lightens the problem, called pre-loading. Basically, the user downloads the game before it comes out, but can't play it until it does. This is a good idea. Make sure every game is doing it. Make it so it is available as early as possible and make it possible for people to download it a little bit at a time whilst leading up to the release. If the download is available a month before the game comes out (as is usually possible) then every time people log in to Steam, it downloads what it can in the background, then the load will be shared out effectively across the 30 day period.


Part of the reason that Steam is as successful as it is, is because virtually every game released, is released on to it. If you had to see if a title was available, you just would stop bothering. Steam has received loads of publisher support. Partly, this is due to their excellent anti-piracy techniques. As far as I am aware, Steam games are not easily hacked. When playing a Steam game, the game checks its legitimacy against the Steam servers. This is good, as piracy is a very real threat to PC games.

This is fine, until the connection with Steam is lost. It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. If you are charging people to pay games, you have to let them play them, whenever they want to. Either guarantee 100% up-time on your servers or find a work around. Maybe less frequent checking, or allow it to fail a few times. I wouldn't mind, but it has happened twice in two days - Xbox Live doesn't fall over, ever. Well OK, maybe at Christmas, but it didn't stop you playing games, and it certainly doesn't happen on a daily basis.

Survival of the fittest

When playing Dawn of War 2, I have to manage my Steam overlay window, my Games for Windows Live (GFWL) dashboard, and, if I have any attention left, Dawn of War 2. I think that Steam needs to sign a deal with Microsoft or else they are going to start competing against each other. That is bad for Steam, as Steam will lose, simply because there will never be Steam on the Xbox, and the Xbox isn't going anywhere.

Steam need to agree with Microsoft to work together, as Microsoft could easily do what Steam does. Were Microsoft to sell games they would have far greater bandwidth with which to do it. Factor in that they could sell 360 games too, and they would be very attractive to sell with. I don't care how it is done, but make Steam needs to join Microsoft, because they can't beat them.


Like iTunes, Steam needs to be cheaper than retail stores. For a good few years yet, people will have an attachment to physical objects. No one is going to pay more (or even the same) for a download. Particularly when it isn't even much more convenient with the 24 hour+ downloads. Game regularly under sells Steam. Steam needs to be doing much more dynamic pricing to keep the prices low. Admittedly, they do more than iTunes, but iTunes offers something that shops don't; £0.79 songs. Seeming as Steam can't do an equivalent (one level of a game just wouldn't work as people would view it as a demo), it needs to be cheaper in general.

I genuinely believe that the future of games is in downloading. Better deals can be granted to everyone and the community system is an excellent reward. However, I don't believe it will necessarily be Steam that wins. They are winning at the moment, but like I said, Microsoft could sweep in at any point.

What do you think? Do you buy all your games from Steam, or do you cling to the polythene wrapping? Do you think that broadband is ready for this? Post your remarks below, I would love to see some other opinions on this.

No comments:

Post a Comment

"All your base are belong to us"