The USS Quad Damage

A steaming pile of Steam

Does video game pay-for-stuff service Steam measure up against buying a physical copy? The answer might surprise you.

So is this a damning review of Steam? Well... not just yet.

I’m going to go through this logically, without any real credence to feelings here. Talk around Steam as a digital download service is often emotional. I’ve decided just to iterate the pros and cons.

Let’s look at the upsides first. Steam lets you download games you want to your computer — you don’t have to go to a shop or wait for something to be shipped. Steam lets you download games to an entirely fresh computer from the internet (your game is effectively on the cloud. No worrying about losing a game disk). Steam manages updates and patches. Steam sometimes gives very good deals on games. Steam has a very large catalogue. Steam has indie games, which are either not available elsewhere at all, or are inconvenient to get.

Let’s look at the features which are a wash: Steam has an average friends list — The only real advantage is you can see what game someone is playing, and potentially join them with a click. Unfortunately it doesn’t integrate well with other chat programs, and voice chat isn’t great. Steam has average social networking capabilities — Everyone has their own social network nowadays, and Steam isn’t just bad at integrating them (compare with PSN), but also doesn’t offer much reason to care. Steam has an integrated web browser... which I could leave or use another program for. I still have to pay for download quota, but a lot of ISPs offer steam downloads for free (though, with fairly slow download speeds).

Now the downsides. If I get banned from my Steam account, I lose access to all of my games. I can’t sell, lend, or gift my games. Steam prices in Australia are still a massive rip-off. If I’m not online I can’t play a single player, offline game. I don’t get all the pretty manuals and things for a physical game. If I buy two games on the same account, and I want to play one of them and my partner or brother wants to play the other, that’s not possible.

People have begrudgingly accepted the downsides. They’ll say “Oh I'll never get banned because I never do anything wrong”, but they forget that Steam can ban you for no real reason, and doesn’t feel the need to explain what they did and why they did it. Having seen what happens to people when they get banned, let me just say that the “punishment” doesn’t fit the “crime” (and that’s if you consider Steam to be a law unto itself, as opposed to the actual legal system).Banning is not a trivial thing. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars worth of games in people’s libraries. If you’re not worried about this then you’re lying to yourself or underestimating the odds it’ll happen to you.

People might think “Oh it's OK I never sell my games anyway”. There’s a problem with this, in that game prices come down even though you don’t sell a game. Someone else can sell a game and it will benefit you. As for lending or gifting games, you don’t miss this sort of feature unless you need it. On physical games, the simplicity of “Oh hey I'm done with this game, you can take it now” is something you really miss with Steam (incidentally, this is the whole point of intellectual property — it is property. It’s not unethical to lend, sell, or gift someone a game, something the big publishers are looking to demonise).

As for Australis, I’m just plain old over the big retailers getting to dictate prices, and online services basically not competing.

Not being able to play a single player offline game is still a problem. When I moved to my new house I was without internet for a week and I couldn’t play BFBC2 single player. In the beginning I thought it was something I was doing wrong, but it turns out that you still can’t do this. It’s when you don’t have the internet that you most need to pass the time with games, and this is when Steam lets me down.

I can’t play different games on the same account. This is a big problem for me. I’d like to do things like play a long-time turn based single player game on one computer, while playing an action game on another, or maybe when I have my partner or brother on another PC have them play a different game to me on my account. This is not possible. You could look at it as a “lending” problem but seriously both computers are mine and I have the game on both machines. Why can’t I run separate games on the same account?

So is this a damning review of Steam? Well... not just yet. The thing is, you gain most (if not all) of those features back if you do one thing: Create a user account for each game you buy. You can also start accounts in different countries and gift a new account a game. So if a game is cheap in Singapore, create an Australian account, create a Singapore account, buy a gift for the new Aussie account from the Singapore account and you have a cheap game. Log in with whichever account for whichever game you want to play. Use randomised user-names and passwords and temporary email addresses. Sure this is inconvenient, but no worse than having a physical copy of a game. Also, you could write software to automate this. Best of all, you can play multiple games at once, lend, sell, or gift games. It basically becomes a physical copy. If enough people start doing this, Steam might start to address some of their deficiencies. I might want to try something like this one day.

The only problem this doesn’t solve is offline play, but then I guess it’s OK compared to having to hunt down a CD and insert it in your DVD drive...