Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chugga Chugga Chugga Chugga Chooooo Chooooo!

Move over, Watt. Hello, Newell!

The new Steam power is controversial, and has the potential to make a great change in our lifestlyes if it is embraced. I'd usually be all "cool it is like the steam engine!", but I don't think there's anything that sets it up as some kind of spiritual heir, or anything; the similarities are all superficial, and moreover are commonalities of solid, innovative developments. I might as well be comparing Steam to the Polio vaccine, or radio broadcasting, in any case it would just be an ill-conceived attempt to ascribe to Steam the same greatness inherent in all of the above-mentioned inventions, which isn't terribly appropriate. Steam is more like the Pentium 3-at-speeds-of-more-than-one-gigahertz (say it three times fast?): the original implementation was botched and probably didn't do much for consumer confidence, but eventually with some serious work, a viable product was born (for people whose idea of a good time does not involve the obsessive reading of Tom's hardware guide, I'll explain briefly: the original Pentium 3 core had some incredible stability problems when Intel tried to release it at 1.1Ghz, presumably to fight the awesome AMD Athlon which had beaten them to the 1GHz punch and beyond. Some time later - I think it was after the launch of Pentium 4 - Intel developed a cooler, more advanced Pentium 3 [codenamed "Tualatin"], which was shunned on the desktop, and relegated to notebooks. It ran stably up to 1.4GHz, possibly more). Anyhow, this convoluted simile is really just here to say that Steam wasn't a very good product at first, but has now matured considerably. Sure I could have just said that, but what fun would that have been?

Looking at the comments below the story, you'll see the same tired arguments about PC versus console gaming. PCs can be upgraded, Downside: they essentially MUST BE. Consoles have wonky controls for FPS games or anything resembling "strategy games". Consoles are, on the whole, a cheaper experience, even with the HDTV included. Geforce 8800GTs are awesome and cheap and will save high-end PC gaming, etc. Same thing is true for arguments about Steam, there are the lovers who preach the gospel of downloadable content, auto-patching, and cool community features, and the haters, who think Steam is for the sheep-citizen of the Valve police state (wouldn't it be funny if those same people were on Facebook and bought stuff with their credit cards EVER?). The latter group seems to think that the Steam DRM is too harsh, which surprises me: I can install my Steam account on ANY PC - as far as I know - proceed to download my games, and play them. Sure I can't set up my own private LAN by logging in simultaneously, but how is that worse than "Thou shalt not install me on more than one computer at a time!", as it is written in most EULAs? I've lost one freedom (namely to violate the EULA, and that's not entirely true because some Steam titles have been cracked), but gained another (a legitimate way to use my games on more than one computer). I'm a little more perturbed by the ad-ware aspects of Steam, but I let it slide because it mostly plugs stuff I want, and isn't that the ideal of Capitalism?

But back to Steam and the future of PC gaming, and how I think that even in a non-ideal world things could actually end up going in the right direction. Go back to my original analogy for Steam, and forget I said anything. The gaming industry on PC is like the music business, and Steam is our iTunes; the result of a collision between easy piracy and conservative bigwigs who want their fat cheques. I think that Steam could be the harbinger of the PC gaming dark age, where we have to accept DRM (as much as we may struggle against it) as a part of the business model, until sanity prevails. I'm not saying "accept" as in "submit to", which is personal discretion, but as in "it's a fact of life". Now, the good part: listen to the pundits as they foretell the unmaking of the large studio labels, and rejoice at the thought of a similar fate for EA, or Ubi Soft, or even Valve-as-publisher (as a development house they are too good not to love)! Remember shareware Doom? Wouldn't it be cool if that was gaming again, you download the game, play level one, name your price, and boom! Full version ahoy, DRM-free! I'm not 100% confident in my prediction, but I'll go on record as saying that it is what I expect and fervently hope for in the future. Finally, if I'm right and Steam is our dark age, things aren't all that bad.

To close up this post as a whole, I'd like to note that I'm not on anyone's payroll. READ the EULA and DON'T CONSENT TO WHAT YOU FEEL IS UNFAIR. DON'T pirate the game if you don't agree. Instead, use common sense: write a polite letter or email to the publisher and explain that you don't like it when they put StarForce in their game, or say that they are being unfair by making a game Steam-exclusive. Sure, it's not likely you'll change company policy all by your lonesome, but if a lot of people feel this way, that's when it starts being about lost profits, and if anything gets fat corporate asses out of their comfy relining heated leather chairs, it's people not giving them money. I feel like a public service announcement, or a grandfather, or a school assembly, but someone had to say it: calling game publishers a bunch of "[racial and/or homophobic slurs deleted]" or perhaps suggesting that they "[action which is of dubious possibility due to the inherent limitations of human and/or animal physiology and cannot be printed here for reasons of I don't want to think about it]" just isn't going to solve problems. Not buying stuff and not saying anything leads publishers to the conclusion that PC gaming is dead, and that's a decidedly non-optimal result, too. I guess the only pitfall of being vocal is that it could be a moot point: suppose the PC gaming demographic is actually shrinking and we're all screwed anyway?

That would be very uncool, indeed.


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