Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Steam Powered?

I haven't talked about Steam, the amazing service/store for PC games in a while, and without looking at my archives none of the previous articles I've written may have survived the latest redesign.

So for those that don't know, or do know but just love hearing about it, Steam is a program that you install to your computer. It is the brainchild of Valve Corporation, the creators of the Half Life franchise and the Left 4 Dead (soon to be) franchise. I'm a big fan of their games, and am awaiting the release of Half Life, Episode 3 with baited breath.

So what's so great about Steam?

You buy a game on Steam and, unless the manufacturers are clueless and forbid it, you can download and install that game an unlimited number of times, on an unlimited number of computers. Instead of restricting installs, Steam chooses to use verification as it's primary DRM. You can play any of your games on any computer, so long as you are logged in to the Steam application on that computer. You cannot be logged in on more than one computer at once. You can also verify your installs while logged in, and go into "offline mode," allowing you to play games without a constant connection to the internet.

This is so great I can't even begin to tell you. Sure, a lot of games install their own DRM along with the Steam installs, but I haven't had any problems with this DRM keeping me from playing on multiple computers or disrupting my system in any noticeable way. Some games, like Crysis (link requires birthdate entry) have a 5 machine activation limit. This may not be a problem for some people, but I like to go back and play old games all the time. Max Payne and Max Payne 2 are the most frequently played, and they are 8 and 6 years old, respectively. I can't tell you how many of my machines they've been installed on. No wait, I can...8. And over the next 6 years that number will triple, because as computers get better and cheaper faster I will be upgrading more frequently.

I'll bet in 6 years I will have gone through at least 3-5 more laptops and 6 more gaming PCs (I build them myself). I'll have used up all my activations. I can call Crysis's publisher and get the limit reset and start over, but is the game that good? I could just not humor their lame DRM and play much better or even slightly worse games that have no such restrictions. Or I could download a pirated version off the internet which has no restrictions. You see, one thing the video game industry fails to realize, is that no DRM has stopped a much-anticipated game from being made available illegally online before the game's official release date--therefore the legal copies are the only ones that are bound by the DRM. Understand that? THE PEOPLE PAYING FOR GAMES ARE THE ONLY ONES AFFECTED BY DRM. I own Crysis, it was fun, but faced with the decision again today I would not buy a game with a limited number of activations.

Steam does warn you of such DRM restrictions, but I wish they would prominently display a HUGE warning label on these games to warn potential customers, and to shame manufacturers out of the practice. Those occasional restrictions aside, Steam's service is really cool, and saves my ass from having to hunt down discs all the time. When I first heard about it I thought it was too good to be true, but nope, it really is that cool.

In addition to just being a store it is has forums and a social network in place, it helps you connect with online games, and it saves and displays stats. I don't have any friends that are big PC gamers. It was a big deal for me to start playing Team Fortress 2 online, with a bunch of strangers. Most people are cool about it, but that's a different situation than, say, Left 4 Dead. I'm considering buying Left 4 Dead and pre-ordering the sequel, I've played the first a little on Xbox 360, but I'm a little worried about playing in a close-quarter survival game with a bunch of strangers. How does it work? Should I use a headset? Are there rules of protocol and etiquette I should know?

Yeah I'm a n00b, what of it? No, seriously, what of it?


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