As far as I’m concerned, there are four major consoles on the market right now: Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Valve’s Steam. Of course, you have to be willing to have a somewhat flexible view of what being a console is to share this view, and there are certainly other arguments to be made about what Steam actually is or is not, but right now it’s as close as you can get to a universal PC-based platform for games and content delivery. And, though I can’t necessarily stream HBOGo or Pandora through Steam (nor would I want to), it has become the central source for my PC life.
Even if you don’t buy into the idea that Steam is at least console-ish, it’s hard to deny the substantive impact it has had on the PC-gaming industry. Which is why I have this kernel of fear that steeps in the recesses of my mind, a vision that’s just a little too clear, a little too easy to conjure. It’s a vision of some Joystiq or Kotaku headline that reads something like, “Activision buys majority stake in Valve.” Besides the terrible question of how you might portmanteau that company now (Activalvizzard?) the possibility that this company might someday be lured from its lofty philosophies is deeply troubling.
I realize that many of us in the media and many of us in forums have labelled Valve a White Knight in an otherwise a dark time. Some would argue that there are no shortages of reasons to keep a skeptical eye turned ever toward a company that has the keys to the locks of our games -- games that some of us have spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars on. After all, if a company like Blizzard can undergo a cultural shift that seems to skew them away from the interests of their customers, presumably anybody can.
But for now, I can’t help but feel that the recent whispers of the PC returning as a competitive force in the business of gaming can largely be attributed to the success of Valve and Steam.
It’s not often I say this, but our own Pyroman brilliantly predicted the future back in September, 2003 with an article that I really wish I had written. At this point GWJ was still in its infancy, trying to figure out whether it was a news site, a forum community or a place for commentary. Less than a month later we would be the site that broke the news of the Half Life 2 source code theft -- though most of the attribution ended up going to Slashdot which referenced our story, so I guess I’m discovering that I’m still bitter about that -- but Pyro’s analysis of Steam which was only just coming out of beta at the time was almost prescient.
It talks about all the ways the kind of technology that powers Steam could be misused and at a time where everyone was worrying about server load issues, this was an article that looked forward and asked:
“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? “
In the end, or more precisely to date, Valve has been one of the companies that ended up being worth the trust a lot of people invested. But, once the genie was out of the bottle, we were rewarded with the treatment we’ve seen from companies like UbiSoft, Activision and, yes, even Blizzard. While we can take some solace that our faith was well placed in the hands of Valve, they have blazed a trail that far less benevolent overlords have since trod.
But, there’s still no guarantee about tomorrow, just like there wasn’t in 2003. I hope that Steam remains a reliable, customer-friendly platform. I would even say that I expect it to, that for what it’s all worth I actually trust Gabe Newell and the team he has put together to walk that tightrope line of innovative, successful and service-oriented. In an industry that constantly seems to one-up itself on marginalizing its customers, it’s hard not to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
As the latest Summer Sale takes shape on Steam, it’s pretty easy to get a belly-load of warm fuzzies about Valve. After all, before them the idea of clearance discounts for games were little more than a way for the Gamestops of the world to unload two year old EA Sports titles and last Christmas’s duds. Now I can get games like Max Payne 3, Saints Row the Third and Shogun 2 for deep discounts.
That’s all well and good, but the more I invest my games into Steam, the more I can’t help but note how that means I am now married to the platform. Should the unthinkable come to pass and Valve suddenly take a turn for the worst, there’s no eject cord. No emergency exit. I either have to continue using their platform or give up, well let’s just say a lot of games.
I try to keep this in mind this time of year, because every time I start unloading dough into the Steam sales, it’s not just a transaction where I now own a product. It is a commitment that I will remain a Steam client. It is another root planted into the ground tended by Valve. And, for now and hopefully the foreseeable future I am comfortable with that because they have earned my trust.
But, I have a laundry list of companies that have done the same in the past, and most of those names eventually let me down. So, a part of me waits and worries.