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.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Bonfire Studios Interview

When Microsoft announced they were closing down Ensemble Studios (most famous for the Age of Empires series and, more recently, Halo Wars) I was deeply shocked. More shocked even than when Bungie left Microsoft. Ensemble had been with Mircosoft for as long as I have been playing video games.

Since this announcement, Halo Wars has been released and, by and large, has been positively reviewed (with a few notable exceptions), I'll be posting my thoughts in a couple of weeks. Following it's release, Ensemble Studios was duly dismantled; a true figurehead of the industry removed.

However, all is not lost. From Ensemble rises two new development companies. The first, Robot Entertainment, is currently working on the Halo Wars DLC in addition to their own new intellectual property. The second, Bonfire Studios, kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the break from Microsoft, Halo Wars, their new studio and their new project.

Closure of Ensemble Studios

1) Would you view your break with Microsoft as a blessing in disguise, as you surely must have more freedom in design, or a curse, as, in reality you have less freedom due to financial constraints?
It’s a bit of both. We enjoyed a great relationship with Microsoft for almost 15 years, and it was very disappointing when they decided to close Ensemble. Microsoft was supportive of Ensemble in most ways, but we found it difficult to branch out into genres other than RTS, largely due to the success of our RTS games. The break from Microsoft allows us to explore some creative ideas that would have been difficult to pursue in the past.

2) What will you miss least about being a first party developer?
We liked the fact that Ensemble was closely linked to PC gaming and now the Xbox, and I believe we helped Microsoft push both of those platforms forward. However, there were times when we wish we could have pursued development on platforms such as the iPhone or Wii, and obviously that wasn’t going to happen when we were owned by Microsoft.

3) And what will you miss most?
I’ll miss a lot of the friendships that were built over the years at Microsoft. I think we’ll also miss working with one of the biggest players in the tech and gaming industry

Halo Wars

4) Have you played Dawn of War 2, and if so, what did you think of it (bare with me)?

Yes, it’s really popular around the office right now. The reviews have been very positive, and the game looks great. Relic has done a very nice job with the Warhammer 40,000 franchise.

5) What would you say to Dawn of War 2 being better suited to the console than Halo Wars? After all, there were fewer units to control, which surely would have been easier on the console.

Without commenting on Dawn of War 2 specifically, I will say that the number of units you control is just one aspect of what makes an RTS work well on the console. Every feature in Halo Wars was designed with the Xbox 360 in mind, and because of that, I think it works very well on the console. After our experience developing Halo Wars, It's hard to imagine any PC title working well on the console without significant design change.

6) Were you pleased with the reception of Halo Wars?

Yes, we've been pleased with the response so far. Our ratings are in-line with those of previous Ensemble titles, and most of the reviewers feel that Halo Wars is a great addition to the Halo Universe. They feel that we nailed the control scheme, which was extremely important to us, and something that we had to get right for RTS games to finally migrate to the console.

7) Given more time, is there anything you wished you could have changed in Halo Wars?

Of course. As a developer, there’s always one more feature or one more polish pass you’d like to finish before sending the game out into the wild. Halo Wars was no different. Given more time, I would have liked to have seen us implement split screen co-op for the campaign.

8) Are there any plans to port Halo Wars for the PC?

Microsoft hasn’t announced any plans to port Halo Wars to the PC. To-date, they’ve been firm about Halo Wars being exclusive to the Xbox 360.

Bonfire Studios

9) There are two splinter development companies that came from Ensemble Studios, so obviously the team was split. Which areas do your team specialize in? Do you wish there was anyone / any skill area that you wish you had more of as it has gone to the other team. I.E., is one team the artists and the other the programmers?

The company was divided largely along product lines. Virtually everyone at Bonfire worked on Halo Wars from the earliest concept phase all the way through ship. We have a complete team – artists, programmers, designers, audio, and production. Robot, the other Ensemble spinoff, has very specific plans in mind that don’t overlap with what we’re doing at Bonfire, so it really worked out well that two top-notch studios are coming out of Ensemble’s closure.

10) Will you be working with the other studio on any future projects?

We don’t have any plans to work with Robot at this time, but they are great friends of ours, so you never know what might happen!

11) I heard that Robot would be working on the DLC for Halo Wars; does this mean you are not?

That is true – Robot is releasing DLC for Halo Wars. Bonfire doesn’t have any responsibilities for supporting Halo Wars at the moment.

12)Why is Robot working on the DLC if your team is composed of the Halo Wars development team?

At Ensemble, everyone in the company eventually piled onto Halo Wars to help get it out the door. So, while most everyone at Bonfire was on Halo Wars from the very beginning, the team also eventually included the folks that now work at Robot. Robot was the first spinoff to come out of Ensemble’s closure, and Microsoft felt they’d be a good fit for the initial round of DLC.

13) Will you remain a 3rd party developer to Microsoft or entirely freelance?

We haven’t announced a publishing partner yet for our new game, but we’d certainly be open to working with Microsoft in the future. Despite the fact that they closed Ensemble, we enjoyed working with Microsoft over the years and we made some great games together.

Future Projects

14) What is your current project, or is it just a collection of different ideas at the moment?

We’re working on an entirely new game based on original IP that we are very excited about. There’s not a lot we can discuss just yet, but I think fans of Ensemble titles will be very excited when they hear what we have in store and also a bit surprised!

15) What are your thoughts on the Wii, specifically for "hard-core" games and even real time strategy games?

I think there is a huge opportunity for a publisher willing to take a bet on a more “hard-core” title for the Wii. How can you ignore a console with such a massive install base? The game needs to be designed with the Wii in mind from the start, and not just be a simple port of an existing title. Madworld from Sega comes to mind – talk about breaking the mold of what is expected in a Wii title! I think strategy games could find a home on the Wii as well. Our hope is that Halo Wars is the title that finally demonstrates that RTS games can work well on the console. If it does, maybe other publishers will feel more confident in investing in RTS games on all consoles including the Wii.

16) Will you be producing games from outside the RTS genre?

Definitely - our first game is something very different than what we've done in the past. I think our games will always have a strong strategy element to them, though, since that is one of our core strengths. Of course, we do love the RTS genre, and I imagine we’ll always keep that door open in the future.

17) Can you give us a time frame on hearing about a new project from Bonfire Studios more officially?

The team would love to share more with you today, but I’d say “later this year” is a safer answer!


While they sadly did not reveal their current project (trust me, I begged) they do drop a couple of interesting hints. While this is purely speculation, I think their new game could be squad based first person shooter. Why? Well, they hinted at a game that was "very different to what we have done in the past" but yet has a "strong strategy element". It is also possible that it could be a Wii game, however, that is also guess work based on their apparent interest in the Wii.

Their conclusion of Halo Wars is to be predicted, I truly hope it was the legacy they wanted to leave behind. While I am disappointed that there are no plans for a port to the PC for Halo Wars, I am hardly surprised.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Blog Update

Well I hope everyone enjoyed the (long) review for Dawn of War 2. I really can't stress enough how fun I found it. I stand by my positive opinion of the campaign, despite everyone else seeming to disagree with me (Tom Chick, Gamespot).

Also, sometime mid next week I will be posting an interview with the newly created Bonfire Studios which was one of the two companies to have emerged from the ashes (no pun intended) of Ensemble Studios. The other studio was Robot Entertainment. I've sent my questions off and I should get the replies on Monday, I expect to have the whole thing posted by Wednesday, so check back then.

Also, I have been putting a lot of time in to Sins of a Solar Empire, late I know! Anyway, I just got to the bit where it lives up to everything it promises. I must have had about 40 ships (and was no where near the cap) my two allies must have had 60 each and the enemy had 50 or so. With a bit of ping spamming on my part, I engineered a huge pitched battle between these two forces. It was the most awesome space battle I have ever seen, beating even the intro to Star Wars III. Part of the problem I have been having up till now is not really understanding anything. In fact, the reason I was so far short of the cap was because I only today found out how to increase it! There are a number of game design topics in this game, which I will be posting about on my other blog, Bot Work Studios. However, I hope to be putting some gamer impressions up here as well.

I downloaded the demo for Empire: Total War and as of yet, have not had too much time to play on it. This is largely down to the atrocious loading screens. It must have been loading for a good 10 minutes. While my computer is not quite state of the art, it can easily run Dawn of War 2 on Ultra with a rock steady frame rate, so it is hardly under powered. When it did eventually load, it was too late for me to work out how you play it without a user interface(!). I hope to put some more time in to over the coming week. I'm too much of a fan of the series to let a little loading put me off; Rome: Total War was bad on my old computer, and that is still one of my favourite games of all time.

Remember to check back on Wednesday for the interview with Bonfire Studios!

"All your base are belong to us"