In the digital distribution world there’s really only one player: Steam. Sure there are alternatives like GoG or Desura but they’re essentially niche branches that cater to a specific audience, ones that favour no DRM and modding respectively. The one notable competitor to Steam is Origin, the platform that was built solely for the purpose of distributing EA’s games. Love it or hate it if you want to play one of their games you’re going to have to download Origin and, for people like me who like to review games, this means a non-zero portion of my game library is on there. The only reason it exists is so EA can capture that part of the market that it was losing to Steam although if the words of EA’s EVP Andrew Wilson are to be believed it’s all about creating a better experience for gamers:
“I think your perception is absolutely correct,” Wilson agreed. “I think when I look at the journey that service has taken, I think the transaction component of that service has taken a disproportionate amount of the communication and mindshare of what we really try and provide, and the barrier that that puts in between you and the game that you want to play.”
“We think of Origin, in this new world, as the gracious host of the party. It’s not the center of attention; it’s not the DJ, it’s not the dance director, it’s just a gracious host. It’s someone who greets you at the door and ushers you in to where you want to go and points you in the direction of your friends so that you can go and party with them together. That’s really how we see it.”
Wilson is trying to change the narrative around Origin, pushing it away from the widely held perception that it’s just a money grab (which it is, there’s no doubt about this) and trying to guide it more towards it being something of a value added service. Indeed this is apparently where the future of Origin lies, in adding more features to it that mimic those that have been a major part of Steam for years. He’d like to think of Origin as the place gamers go to play their games because that’s where all their friends are, they’re just the facilitator that allows them to join up. The rest of the interview reads like the ramblings of someone trapped in a fever dream as the world that Origin exists in is so vastly different from the one Wilson paints for it.
I’ll be frank when I say that any game that’s on Origin puts up an instant barrier for me, both as a player and as a reviewer. As a player I know that a game being on Origin means that the vast majority of my friends won’t be playing it because they just can’t be bothered with Origin as a service. Indeed for many recent games that I played on there like Simcity and Crysis 3 I was either alone or one of 2 people on there at any given time despite the long list of friends I have on there. Worse still trying to simple maintenance tasks on it, like backing up game files so I can move them (and the fact that that link is on the Steam forums should tell you something), is a royal pain in the ass which eats away at the time I could be doing what I wanted to be doing: playing the damn game. This is on top of the lack of screenshot functionality which means I have to run FRAPS in order to get the screenshots for review which doesn’t help to endear Origin to me.
It’s not just the simple fact that Origin is yet another piece of software we have to install and maintain, that’s just the beginning, more it’s because Origin is an inferior service, one that we’re locked into using should we want to play an EA published game. It may make the experience for EA games better due to the common installation and patching platform but that’s all it does and it’s not something that couldn’t be accomplished through other, more established channels. It’s akin to all those social services that every game seems to have these days (and as we’ve seen are massive security risks) which are required to play the game.
Gamers don’t want this; it took us years to warm up to Steam and the idea that we’ll somehow cosy up to yet another service that provides next to no benefit for us is a ludicrous proposition. If EA really did understand gamers like they’re purporting to they wouldn’t have bothered with Origin as a digital distribution service in the first place, they would’ve just made it a back end platform that all their games can use should they not want to use Steam’s. EA might think that it’s just a matter of layering on some more services and features but it’s going to need so much more than that before gamers will consider it on the same level as Steam. With Origin’s primary focus being EA games I don’t believe that will ever be achievable, especially when Valve keep going from strength to strength with Steam.
If you were to plot my rate of piracy related activities over time it’d show a direct negative correlation to my salary. My appetite for software, games and music hasn’t really changed over the years but as my income has grown I found myself preferring to pay for something if I can, especially now that many services out compete the pirated product in terms of features and convenience. I’d be lying if I said guilt wasn’t part of it too as whilst I didn’t have the money to give back at the height of my piracy days I feel like I’m beginning to make up for it. Still I constantly find situations where I need to turn to less than legal avenues to get a product I want, usually one I’ve purchased anyway.
Indeed this happened quite recently with my purchase of the new Daft Punk album. My long time Twitter followers will tell you that I went rather…hyperbolic when I heard their new album was due out this year and I make no secret of the fact that they’re my favourite band, bar none. Of course that translates to me wanting to give them as much of my money as I can and so I plonked down the requisite $50 preorder for the vinyl version of their album (mostly as a talking piece) which also included a digital download of their album. Now considering that it was going to be available everywhere digitally on day 1 I figured I’d get an email with the code in it and the album would take its merry time getting here.
I received no such email.
My copy of Random Access Memories showed up yesterday, almost a week after the official launch date and nearly two weeks after Daft Punk made it available for streaming through iTunes. I had a couple options available to me at this point: I could simply wait until mine arrived, listen to a stream (requiring an iTunes install, something I don’t want to do) or find another way. My other way was to find an upload on Grooveshark, which was obviously not authorized and was taken down a day later. I got to hear the album at roughly the same time as everyone else though which was basically all I wanted but I couldn’t help but feel like I had been cheated somewhat just because I tried to support the artists as much as I could.
I felt no guilt going to slightly nefarious sources to get my Daft Punk fix but honestly I shouldn’t have had to. There’s nothing special about the code they sent me that requires it to be physical and it’s not like emailing people who preordered a code to plug into a website is an unsolved problem either. The pirates in this instance were making up for the failings of others, providing a service to everyone regardless of whether they’d made the purchase or not. Now that I’ve got my real copy I have no need for it but it still gets to me that they’re providing a valuable service, one that I didn’t have to pay them for.
Sure in the larger scheme of things its a small gripe but it’s things like this that highlight the reason that piracy exists and will continue to exist for a long time to come. The effort required to fix them is quite trivial since the pirates don’t do this as their full time job and the companies providing the service just need to hurry up and out compete them. If Valve can get digital distribution right then I see no reason why others can’t, but until then I’ll still have to rely on my slightly nefarious friends to make up for their failings.
I’m not a big user of the second hand market but there have been times when I’ve delved into it in order to get what I want. Usually its when I find out about a particular collector’s edition too late to buy a retail copy and will just wait it out until someone wants to hock their copy on eBay where I’ll snap it up for a song. The last game I did this with was Uncharted 3 (although I failed to mention the saga in the review) and whilst I didn’t get all the collector’s edition downloadable goodies the seller went out of their way to make sure I got a similar amount of value as they did when they purchased it new. I certainly didn’t expect this but it was deeply appreciated all the same.
However his generosity is a symptom of the larger problem at play here. Almost 2 years ago a silent war began between developers (well mostly likely the publishers) and the second hand market where first sale doctrine was being usurped by crippling used games. The first title that I purchased which was affected by this Mass Effect 2 and whilst I have no intention of ever selling that game the fact that it was crippled after initial sale didn’t sit particularly well with me. The trend has been on the increase as of late with many games including some form of one time use DLC in order to make second hand titles less attractive.
It gets even worse when rumours start surfacing that the next generation consoles will start supporting features that cripple second hand games natively removing the requirement from game developers to implement their own system. The justification would probably be something along the lines of “this is what we’ve done for ages on the PC” which is kind of true if you count CD keys but they were usually transferable. There’s also the sticky issue of digital downloads which currently have no method on any platform for enabling resale which is why many publishers are beginning to favour those platforms instead of physical retail releases.
The golden days of unsellable digital titles (and by extension crippled second hand titles) may not be long for this world however as the German consumer protection group VZBV has started legal proceedings against Valve in regards to the Steam platform. This isn’t the first time they’ve gone up against them but recent rulings in the EU have set up some precedents which could lead to digital distribution platforms having to implement some kind of second hand market. Considering Steam has been dealing in digital trade for many years now it’s not like they’re incapable of delivering such functionality, they just simply haven’t had the incentive to do so. Heavy fines from the EU could be the push they need in order to get them moving in the right direction but we’ll have to wait until the court case resolves before we’ll see any real movement on this issue.
I have real trouble seeing how the second hand game market is such a detriment to publishers. Indeed many people use trade-ins in order to fund new game purchases and removing that will put a downward pressure on new sales, to the tune of 10% or so. Now I don’t know how much revenue that publishers are making off those second hand uncrippling schemes but I’m sure a 10% increase is above that, especially if you count the amount of good will generated from not being a dick about the used market. Valve would be heralded as the second coming if they enabled used game trading on Steam, even if they charged a nominal fee to facilitate the transaction.
Really I can’t see any downsides to supporting the second hard market and actively working against it doesn’t do the publishers any favours. I’m not saying they have to go out and actively help facilitate it but they could simply not try to work against it like they’re doing right now. Digital distributors do have to pick up their game in this regard however and I hope it doesn’t come down to strong arming them with the law. Should the EU ruling hold up however that’s could very well be what happens but it would at least be a positive result for us consumers.
My first interaction with Steam wasn’t a pleasant one. I remember the day clearly, I was still living out in Wamboin when Valve released Half Life 2 and had made sure to grab myself a copy before heading home. After going through the lengthy install process requiring multiple CD swaps I was greeted by a login box asking me to create an account. Frustratingly all my usual gamer tags: PYROMANT|C, SuperDave, Nalafang, etc. were already taken leaving me to choose a random name. That wasn’t the real annoyance though, no what got me was the required update that needed to be applied before I could play it which, on the end of a 56k connection, was going to take me the better part of an hour to apply.
This soured me on the idea of Steam for quite a few years, at least until I got myself a stable form of broadband that let me update without having to wait hours at a time. Still it wasn’t until probably 3 years or so ago that I started buying most of my games through Steam as buying the physical media and then integrating with Steam later was still a much better experience. Today though it’s my platform of choice when purchasing games and it seems that I’m not alone in this regard with up to 70% of all digital sales passing through the platform. We’ve also seen Steam add many more features like SteamCloud and SteamWorks which have provided a platform for developers to add features that would have otherwise been too costly to develop themselves.
With all the success that Steam has enjoyed (in the process making Valve one of the most profitable companies per employee) it makes you wonder what the end game for Steam will end up being. Whilst they’d undoubtedly be able to coast along quite easily on the recurring sales and the giant community they’ve built around the platform history has shown that Valve isn’t that kind of company. Indeed the recent press release from Valve saying that traditional applications will soon be available through the Steam platform seems to indicate that they have ambitions that extend past their roots of gaming and digital distribution.
And its at this point that I start speculating wildly.
Valve has shown that it is dedicated to gamers regardless of the platform with Steam already on OSX and will soon be finding its way onto Linux alongside a native port of Left 4 Dead 2. With such a deep knowledge of games and an engine that runs on nearly any platform it would make sense that Valve might take a stab at cutting out the middle man entirely, choosing to create their own custom operating system that’s solely dedicated to the purpose of gaming. If such an idea was to come to fruition it would most likely be some kind of Linux derivative with a whole bunch of optimizations in it to make Source titles run better. I’ll be honest with you when this idea was suggested to me I thought it was pretty far out but there are some threads within this idea that have some merit.
Whilst the idea of SteamOS as a standalone operating system might be a bit far fetched I could see something akin to media centre software that transforms a traditional Windows/Linux/OSX PC into a dedicated gaming machine. Steam’s strength arguably comes from the giant catalogue of third party titles that they have on there and keeping the underlying OS (with its APIs in tact) means that all these games would still be available. This also seems to line up with the rumoured SteamBox idea that was floating around at the start of the year and would mean that the console was in fact just a re-badged Windows PC with some custom hardware underneath. The console itself might not catch on (although the success of the OUYA seems to indicate otherwise) but I could very well see people installing SteamOS beside their XBMC installation turning their Media PC into a dual use machine.
With all this in mind you have to then ask yourself what Valve would get out of something like this. They are already making headway into getting Steam in one form or another onto already existing consoles (see Steam for the PS3) and they’ve arguably already captured the lion’s share of PC gamers, the ones who’d be most likely to use something like SteamOS. The SteamBox would arguably be targeted at people who are not traditionally PC gamers and SteamOS then would simply be an also ran, something that would provide extra value to its already dedicated PC community. Essentially it would be further cementing Steam as the preferred digital distribution network for games whilst also attempting to capture a market that they’ve had little to do with up until this point.
All of this though is based on the current direction Valve seems to be going but realistically I could just be reading way too far into it. Their recent moves with the Steam platform are arguably just Valve trying to grow their platform organically and could very easily not be part of some grander scheme for greater platform dominance. The idea though is intriguing and whilst I have nothing more than speculation to go on I don’t think it would be a bad move by Valve at all.
Nearly every device that happens to make its way into my home ends up being modified in some not-intended-by-the-manufacturer way. Usually this is because there’s some cool feature I can unlock by doing so and the process of modifying the device is usually quite enjoyable, for an engineer like myself at least. There are of course two notable exceptions that have managed to avoid the mod stick and they are my PlayStation 3 and my iPhone. Both of them were expensive pieces of electronics to purchase and whilst the former has long been out of warrenty the iPhone is still good for another 8 months. Additionally I haven’t had a compelling reason to jailbreak the iPhone yet and probably won’t since I’ll be fiddling around with at least 2 other handsets very soon.
The PlayStation on the other hand has been immune to any attempts to modify it for a long time. You could up the hard drive size (with instructions directly from Sony) and even run some homebrew in the form of Blu-ray Disc Java that allowed people to use emulators for a short time. Sony eventually clamped down on it limiting the functionality only to actual Blu-ray discs but you can still run the emulators should you have the inclination to burn a disc for the experience. Such behaviour is typical for any company wanting to protect their systems from piracy as these small chinks in their armour eventually lead to cracking the system wide open, but it was still a long time before we heard anything about the PS3.
Early in the year we saw the first steps towards a full blown system hack of the PS3 in the form of an incredibly complicated bus glitching memory allocation attack from GeoHot, the prolific iPhone hacker. At the time I dismissed the ideaof pirating PS3 games as doing so would be quite an extravagance considering the cost of discs, burners and bandwidth. In the time between then and now my ISP upped my cap not once, but twice to a grand total of 240GB/month for the exact same price I was paying before. Suddenly the notion of downloading a PS3 game didn’t seem like such a waste of bandwidth, in fact I’d be struggling to use such an immense amount of data without downloading a few massive files like Blu-ray disc copies.
However such an idea was still curtailed by the fact that there wasn’t any way to actually backup or play backed up games on the PS3. Sony managed to get a lot of people off side when they removed the Other OS functionality triggering GeoHot to work towards fully cracking open the system (and thus enabling the piracy nightmare that Sony had thusfar avoided) but many months passed and we heard nothing from the hacking scene. It seemed that the PS3 would be one of the first platforms to resist all attempts to crack into it.
That was until just recently.
The hack was met with a healthy dose of skepticism when it was first shown by the guys over at OzModChips and rightly so, the system has been unhackable for quite some time and every hack that we’d seen so far turned out to be fake. Still they assured us it was real and further reports showed that it in fact was the first legitimate hack of the PS3 to make prime time. The fact that it required no physical modifications to the console made everyone even more curious as to how the hack actually worked as just plugging in an USB stick seemed far too easy.
As it turns out whilst it isn’t a direct clone of the JIG module used to enable the service mode of the PS3 it does in fact contain parts of the JIG code in order to enable the hack. The device itself, whilst looking like a USB stick, is in fact just a USB controller board. Plugging this into your PS3 and then powering it will first establish a connection to your console. Shortly after it begins to load the JIG code which then enables it to load a custom application under the games menu part of the XMB. Once this has been installed you can then rip games to the internal hard drive or an USB storage device. This is exactly what Sony had been fighting against for a long time and now the walls that once stood so tall are crumbling underneath them.
Sony’s initial volley against this hack is to stop the distribution of the devices in Australia where thanks to a small loop hole in the law such devices are in fact legal. There are a multitude of them already out in the wild and Sony has picked up on this and begun banning those who are using the device. No doubt the next firmware release will stop this hack in its tracks and the game of cat and mouse that Sony has been playing with the PSP will begin in earnest on the PS3. I believe that this hack shows a missed opportunity for Sony, one that would’ve struck a major blow against the true pirates whilst rewarding their real customers.
To me: a loyal Sony fan, avid gamer and part time device tinkerer I’ve always wanted to have my large trove of games available on a hard drive, just like I do on my PC. Whilst the beginnings of this are starting to show with online stores like the Xbox Marketplace and the Playstation Network store they still charge me for the privilege of doing the format shiftingfor me. I’d happily pay for a backup application and/or emulator in order to cover for the costs of development and would even accept DRM in the form similar to that of what Steam has so that I could keep my purchases safe on an external drive. This also has the side effect of dismissing the backup excuse that is often used to legitimize the hacks used to pirate games in the first place. Sony could then argue their point from a moral high ground, although the homebrew scene would probably still kick up a stink.
As always it comes down to an argument of perceived value. The product being provided by this hack is perceived as being a higher value than the legitimate product provided by Sony. Indeed it is as it allows you to back up your original media and keep them in storage whilst you reap the benefits of faster game load times and the knowledge that should the media fail you have a backup ready to go. It’s quite possible that the next generation of consoles will end up being entirely digital but until then we’ll be privvy to these games of cat and mouse that the console giants play with the hackers and history shows that they’ll always end up being the loser.