Save me from saving!
A veteran gamer and first day Steam user shares his thoughts on digital distribution.
Soon it’s that time of the year again. Autumn – the month of steam sales and special offers that so many of us can’t resist. Steam in particular is always tempting us with up to 75% savings on games, reducing lots of good indie and even AAA titles to a prize that equals a glass of beer in a restaurant. It’s kinda absurd when you think about it! Well, the good kind of absurdity, but still kinda weird nonetheless. But when you stop and think about this circumstance for a moment a few interesting thoughts and questions may arise. I’ll try to reflect on a few of these thoughts in this post, so please – join the discussion and share your thoughts – i would be very interested in what you think about Steam – and the effects of online-distribution in general.
Before i go into full detail i want to call the child by its name first – Steam. The platform developed by Valve brought (or rather enforced) online distribution of games to us. Alongside it also brought us a lot of trouble and frustration in its beginnings – which by the way was back in 2004, when Half Life 2 was released, remember? Yes, that’s almost ten years ago! That’s eons when you think in PC gaming terms! Just thinking of the time reminds me of all the anger and frustration i experienced with accessing Half Life 2, because back then i was still on dial-up, and Steam was far from working as seamlessly as it does today. For a lot of people the enforced DRM and online-activation system was as accursed as the devil himself, as it was a tedious and often error-ridden process to even access the game you so badly desired to play.
But now – almost ten years later, it is kinda hard for me to look back and still be angry about this way of selling and acquiring games. Taking all those years into consideration i might even go as far and say it was a logical, bold and almost ingenious choice to do this. Against all odds, the need to buy games (or other media products) off the shelves, the urge to hold physical box in your hand, Valve stepped forward and threw all that away. I also was of the “buying games in stores” faction and i also collected packagings of games and their manuals just to keep them as little treasures. But thinking about all of that right now kinda makes me feel a weird mix of nostalgia and awkwardness. After moving out of my parents house a few years ago i decided to throw all my old gaming packages away, and thanks to Steam i didn’t really regret it all that much or for very long to begin with. Thanks to steam i got most of the games i like available without taking any physical space now – or even hard drive space if i don’t need the game anymore. And thanks to Steam lots of other great platforms like “Good old Games” (gog.com) came to live – making my old beloved classics available to me at the click of a button.
So, summing things up so far, Valve made games not just more easily accessible – it also completely changed the way we look at the Internet in terms of shopping habits, product acquirement processes and opinion exchange. Up until today i have yet to meet anyone that managed to resist Steam for an extended period of time. Even the hardest nay-sayers (which i would account myself to) cannot discuss against the benefits of getting cheaper game prizes and not having to bother with updates and add-ons anymore. Also i have yet to count more than ten gamers in my list of friends that don’t have a Steam-Account yet. This is what i call the “Steam-Effect”.
Oh and I think everyone using Steam can relate to this video
Cherish what you have…
But this new way of looking at games is not always a good thing. Through Steam i have acquired so many titles for little money, but there’s one thing that doesn’t come included – the time to play them. Like all gamers of my era (30+) i got a full-time job, so making a decision on which games to play is a hard one. With me there’s always this distinct urge to extensively play (or at least complete) a game i just bought in order to really experience it. But with all those great games to chose from i have become rather picky in terms of quality and also less patient in enduring problems in order to see the good aspects in a game. And there’s quite a list of nitpickings to chose from: a bad console port, unresponsive controls, a longish intro part, bad story writing or non-existent progression, bad optimization for PC, crashes, unbalanced game parts….i think you get the point here.
The problem is that, when given so much choice and little time, i simply do not want to annoy myself with the aforementioned problems anymore. Back when i was young i just had this ONE game and i kept playing through it and mentally kicked myself until i managed to get through it. And when i finally managed to do so, i felt accomplished and had this feeling of “really and truly” knowing a game from start to finish. That was something i would generally call a good trait , because it taught me to be persistent about solving problems and also cherish the things i spent money on. But nowadays? It’s even become hard enough to keep up with all the games coming out as it is, yet alone find the time playing all of them. But I still want to experience the widest variety of games possible to keep my horizon as a gamer just as wide. This is also one of the reasons why i like the indie-games scene so much – there’s just more originality to expect from niche products, even if the gameplay itself may sometimes vary in quality.
Speaking of it! This is a general problem by itself – but also a big selling-factor for me: quality. Bugs in games (or software in general) are always a thing not to be trifled with. If games are released in a bug-ridden state there is no excuse or explanation, absolutely no way to redeem yourself for the image loss of your company and your product. As a full-time software-tester myself i make no difference if the game developer is an indie-guy or a big AAA-studio with a million dollar budget.
The formula is simple: If you have willingly chosen to release your product on the market, you have to make sure that the quality is high enough (no, not “perfect”) to enable people to enjoy the actual game. If you make people think about the product itself (i.e. mission options, control-problems or even crashes) you have already lost. If you cannot capture your audience within the first 5 minutes of a game, you will most likely fail to do so afterwards – first impression always matters. And in my particular case, releasing a bad console-port on PC doesn’t just give me the bad aftertaste of unmet expectations (due to the long wait time) , it also makes me remember that publisher and their horrible quality-assurance in the worst way possible. If an indie-developer does that, i am willig to accept (or at least understand) more of that – but there are sure are cases like “FEZ” and “Magica” that will make me remember the game in a very bad fashion due to game breaking bugs and constant crashing.
That brings me to one of the gripes i have with steam: not being able to return games. While it’s relatively easy to ignore those few dollars spent on a small but bugged indie title it isn’t so funny anymore to find game-breaking problems in the AAA 50$ title you just bought. This is also one of the reasons why i don’t buy full-prize titles on Steam anymore, not at least until i know that the publisher has a backstory of releasing “good quality” games. I can understand that a small Indie-studio sure doesn’t have the workforce to do a full quality assurance, but if you have the trust and belief in yourself to create a good product, you can find ways to get it market-ready before it hits the virtual “shelves”. With possibilities like open-betas or free early access there is near-to-none excuse to acquire as much free feedback from almost zero-cost voluntary employees as you can get.
With all that said i don’t wanna sound too negative: Steam has brought a new era of many original games and selling concepts upon us. The word “indie” is more popular than ever and the many smaller, easier to pick-up productions fit this ever growing and fast-paced market. Sure, there is a lot of competition for the huge developers, but there will always be a market for full-blown high quality games that offer more than just a few minutes of good fun. In my opinion the wide audience reached via digital distribution combined with the ease of access should easily outweight the fact that we don’t really “own” games anymore, but instead buy an experience much like a cinema ticket. I personally have never really sold a used game – and with so many titles to pick up and play, every budget and personal taste can easily be satisfied.
So as a final statement i could easily say, that we might not dive as deeply into single games used to do in our childhood, but the experience today is much more diversified and interesting. So next time you ponder about buying that 2$ game, just give yourself a little prod and try it out – you might just end up with another fresh gaming experience that you would’ve otherwise missed out. 🙂