By Nelson Schneider - 04/15/12 at 02:37 PM CT
From November 30, 1998 until December 2, 2003, I was a happy PC gamer. Prior to that, I had tried in vain, over and over again, to play games on my PC, but DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95 all had issues with each other – and my hardware, apparently – which stymied every effort. I had collected a large stack of PC game boxes, some containing 5.25” floppies, some containing 3.5” floppies, some containing CDs, that I had either partially finished but could no longer play because some minor change to my system made the games suddenly decide to stop working, or had been unable to play at all, despite the fact that my $4000 PC (yes, it cost that much at the time) was unable to run them with hardware specs that were double the minimum requirements listed on the game boxes.
When Black Isle and BioWare got their hands on the D&D videogame license, things suddenly got better. All of their products were designed to run in Windows, and they all worked in Windows. Sure, I couldn’t run “Baldur’s Gate 2” in 3D polygonal mode, but I didn’t care about that, as I was never much of a graphics whore. One company had suddenly accomplished what SSI, Wizardworx, Interplay, and many other companies had never been able to do before: PC gaming worked (for the most part) and it offered unique and desirable gaming experiences that weren’t available on the consoles of the time. “Baldur’s Gate” marked the first time I stayed up until 2AM playing games (largely because the full-screen nature of the game kept me from seeing the Windows clock).
I did not care about other types of PC games, I only cared about D&D-based RPGs, so when the first mentionings of a service called ‘Steam’ by a company called ‘Valve’ hit the Internet in 2003, I paid them no mind, and they quickly disappeared from my sphere of awareness. I was waiting for “Neverwinter Nights 2” while other people were playing something called “Half-Life.”
But then, three years later, “Neverwinter Nights 2” arrived and turned me into a crusading PC gaming apostate. It DIDN’T. FREAKING. WORK! After half-a-decade of playing every new D&D game on the same computer, “Neverwinter Nights 2” wanted me to upgrade my video card to the tune of $500 just so it could show me fancy polygonal graphics… the same fancy polygonal graphics that had infested (and ruined) Nintendo and Sony and all of my favorite console games. I added “Neverwinter Nights 2” to my stack of non-playable PC games (right on top of “Dungeon Master 2: The Legend of Skullkeep”) and fumed. It would be 2 years before I purchased an all-new computer with a video card good enough to handle that game… which turned out to be not very impressive or good.
I had had it with PC gaming. The D&D license, after a 5-year run of amazing, mind-blowingly awesome releases, had sold-out to graphics whoring that actively hindered the gameplay and required ridiculous hardware. FPSes had exploded in popularity and were everywhere, followed closely in numbers by RTSes. The PC had become a gaming platform dominated by two genres I didn’t care remotely about, while my favorite genre rapidly degenerated. On top of this genre issue, the hardware race that prevented me from playing games in the DOS days seemed to be back in full force. PC gaming no longer had anything to offer me, and I returned the favor by offering it nothing but scorn.
Flash forward 6 years, and there is a similar disturbing trend happening among the consoles. Firmware updates! Peripherals! Hardware meltdowns! Online marketplaces! FPSes everywhere! RPGs that suck!
However, the current situation has one thing that was never widespread in the past: Multi-platform releases. It was through a multi-platform game that I made a round-about return to the land of PC gaming (and it wasn’t the crash-happy monument to mediocrity that was BioWare’s ‘spiritual successor’ to their old D&D RPGs). It was an Indie game, and it required activation through Steam. I crossed that border wearing a metaphorical dynamite vest, ready to explode in a firestorm of criticism at the first mention of ‘Not Enough Memory’ or one of the other errors that plagued me as a youth.
I had never used Steam before, as its original release and period of refinement coincided with my apostasy. I had read about it, as users on the Ars Technica forums constantly gushed about how it was the future of PC gaming and would eat the consoles’ lunch (Ars is a well-known haunt for members of the so-called ‘PC-Gaming Master Race,’ who wear WASD pins on their lapels instead of Swastikas). But these early descriptions of Steam did nothing to pique my interest. All indications were that Steam was just another DRM scheme, only this one was done through the Internet (much like Windows activation… not exactly an exciting idea for someone who was stuck with dial-up until 2007) and tied to an online shop. While I’m STILL not excited about online DRM or online shops, the fact that Sony and Microsoft want to move console gaming in a similar direction means I have little choice in the matter. And between PSN, Live, and Steam, Steam is the superior option.
All online gaming platforms from here on out will include a shop, a DRM activation scheme, patch distribution, and online play. What sets Steam apart from its console counterparts is how (I can’t believe I’m saying this about a PC platform) friendly and simple it is. Oh, and it’s free. While Microsoft charges for even the most basic Live functionality and Sony wants to glean profits off of ‘lending’ ‘free’ games to PS+ members, Steam does the entire thing gratis. Online play is free, patches are free, Cloud synching your save files is free (for games that support it), cross-game chat is free; using Steam means freedom from subscriptions with no loss in functionality. On top of the free basic functionality (which is a LOT faster and more reliable than PSN), Steam also ‘lends’ games out for free weekend play occasionally, while also supporting a robust library of free-to-play games, including Valve’s own online FPS deathmatch, “Team Fortress 2” (which costs money to play on any other platform).
But what about the DRM angle? PC games have always been notorious about ‘don’t copy that floppy’ or other, sometimes bizarre, ways to keep gamers from sharing with their friends (or strangers via BitTorrent). Steam’s DRM is an unobtrusive one-time activation via the Internet. Upon installing the Steam client, it connects to Valve’s servers and validated the user’s log-in credentials, much like PSN. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, though, Steam can be installed on any number of PCs without having to call a tech support hotline. And unlike developer specific DRM, Steam doesn’t require a persistent online connection. If Internet access went down during a single-player game, a Steam user wouldn’t even know. Steam also features an ‘Offline Mode’ that allows users to switch accounts, essentially allowing friends to share games with each other in a slightly more clunky way than PSN.
But game sharing via Steam isn’t exactly a high-demand feature… because Steam games are so cheap. While PSN and Live games rarely go on sale with a minimal discount (and WiiWare games NEVER go on sale), Steam has weekly sales in which games and DLC-add-ons are deep-discounted up to 80%. 80%! That’s amazing! Even scouring Amazon Marketplace, pawn shops, and mom & pop used game stores can’t produce discounts like that on a regular basis. Yet Steam continues to be profitable. Why are PC games so cheap via Steam? Because, as software that runs on an open platform, PC games will be hacked immediately. And if they cost the insane amounts of money the Big Gaming publishers want to charge, nobody will buy them. Steam also serves as a distributor in the thriving Indie gaming movement, in which small-time developers make games with sane budgets, and thus can charge a reasonable amount, even before Steam randomly puts their stuff on sale.