Steam, Valve and Trial by Fire
Steam will come out of beta Wednesday, just in time for the launch of Half-Life 2. It's also rather timely for the original Half-Life, as a patch in the near future will require use of Steam to play Half-Life online, replacing the WonID system the game has used since it's release. You have to wonder if like every massive online gaming service that has ran before it, Steam will crash and burn when people actually start using it. Sure it's had a lengthy beta but thats a pittance compared to the stress the servers will face once it becomes required.
That's not what I find to be interesting speculation however. After all, bandwidth problems can all be eventually solved with money and time. Valve has plenty of both. What I do find interesting is this, Steam is much more powerful and complex than a simple WonID/CDkey based system. Steam can deliver only parts of the game at a time letting you load only what you need while downloading the rest later, keep track of your progress remotely and give you instant access to anything Valve publishes over Steam. What most people don't seem to realize is that it can also refuse to do these things. What happens when Steam tells you no? Surely it won't do that, right?Now as I reach for my tinfoil hat I realize how you're all probably looking at me right now, through some government orbital cameras that are in use by the Illuminati. You've also got this expression on your face that goes something like Ã‚"He's finally snapped, call the straitjacket patrol.Ã‚" However before they take me away I'd just like you to keep two things in mind, this is all speculation with a hefty portion of paranoia and I snapped a long time ago.
With that out of the way and my mind secured from invasion by my trusty tinfoil hat, let's figure out exactly what this means. From the Steam FAQ, Ã‚"Communicating with the Steam backend servers, digital rights management allow access to subscription (pay or free) content while at the same time ensuring the user always has current content.Ã‚" While not exactly free of typos the sentence highlights my point. Digital Rights Management, the bane of the computing world, is going to become required to play Half-Life or Half-Life 2. That's the real dilemma and the reason most people I know aren't to keen on buying Half-Life 2 from Steam, there's no guarantee they won't revoke your rights.
Before they could simply ban your CD key, keeping you from playing online. The CD Key was stored in your registry though, you had control over it. If some jackass from your local LAN party hijacked your CD key you could always find another one online and use that (not that I'm advocating that, not at all :). The point still remains that control over your rights to access Half-Life resided on your hard drive, soon it won't. Valve will decide when and what you can access. It can even control single-player content, all from behind their comfy server administrator panels. Using their anti-cheat software they can even control what other programs are running in the background. There's a saying in computer security that goes Ã‚"If there is something on your computer that you can't access and someone else can, it is no longer your computer.Ã‚"
So this is the real trial by fire, at least to me. What will Valve do with all this power? Valve up until this point has been one of the most generous developers out there, right up with Epic and their endless Unreal Tournament addons. Their SDK and mod support is top notch, in fact most of their profits can arguably be attributed to fan created content. Valve treats their community pretty well all things considered, they could charge everybody for the mod SDK at this point and still make a profit with Half-Life 2, or charge everybody who wants to play a mod. Now with Steam, they actually can. Valve practically invented the business model of charging for mods at retail, who's to say they won't try it over Steam?
In the end it really comes down to trust. Do you trust Valve to not screw you? As I've said in several speeches made to my dog while we were hiding from the government mind control beams, Digital Rights Management is a technology ripe for abuse that only works if it's not abused. For every Apple iTunes store there are 30 BuyMusic.coms. DRM has a horrible track record of benevolent enforcement with other media. However Valve has a great track record with regards to community. They treat their fans well and give all kinds of content away, if any developer can pull this off it's them. Really though, it's about trust. Who do you trust?