Occasionally, someone will ask me why exactly it is that I boycott Steam. I’ll try my best to explain it here. Put it this way: I don’t think Steam is good news for PC gaming overall.
Fundamentally, I’m opposed to DRM from an ideological perspective. These days, the majority of us have heard the arguments against DRM. You merely have to state your position on the matter and most people will understand the reasons – even if they don’t agree – so I won’t say too much about it.
The theory behind DRM is that if you use a big enough trawler net, you catch lots of edible fish. You also catch plenty of dolphins and other nice sealife but who cares about them, right? DRM is the police force that arrests whomever they want without any reason. Sure, you’ll be let out eventually because, after all, you’re innocent, but your time has been wasted and your patience, tested. The problem is that DRM isn’t even a very effective police force; a lot of the criminals have convenient alibis, with names like RELOADED and TiNYiSO. In practice, software DRM punishes legitimate customers while having really very little effect on pirates.
DRM alone is not a good reason to boycott Steam, however. Almost all modern games, whether acquired through Steam or not, are DRM-encumbered through the nose. What makes buying games on Steam worse than buying them outside is that Steam simultaneously functions as both DRM and an unnecessary vendor lock-in. Say that one day you get tired of shopping on Steam (heaven forbid) and want to take your business elsewhere. Man, have they got you by the balls. Sure, you can just stop buying stuff from Steam but you’re going to need their shitty little client installed for the rest of your fucking life just to play games you’ve already stumped up cash for. Once you’ve made a purchase, you can never truly pack up and leave because you’re always going to have monetary value tied up somewhere you can’t get to it without having the Steam client installed. You can’t transfer your games and you can’t truly leave. Once you’ve bought a game from Steam, you’re locked into a baseline level of involvement with the Steam ecosystem forever (with them trying to encourage you to buy more shit all the while).
Let’s say, instead, that I buy a DRM-free PC game. There’s no perceptible lock-in because I’m probably always going to own a PC and, for the foreseeable future, that PC will probably be capable of virtualising current operating systems so that I can play it for decades to come. Effectively, I’ve purchased a product that I’m free to use in any way I can for as long as I’m able to. Anything less than this is just a rental or right to consume.
With a lock-in, you also have to be concerned about the possibility of the business or service shutting down and taking all your shit with them. This is a pertinent worry for Steam users – especially those who’ve invested sums of money large enough to justify paranoia – considering that access to their games is contingent on the availability of the Steam infrastructure. Valve’s method of keeping the masses docile on the subject is to claim that, in the eventuality of Steam closing down, all users would be given access to their games without the need for Steam. Excuse me for being cynical but you have to wonder whether Valve, sans Steam for leverage and presumably now strapped for cash, would have the clout necessary to make it happen.
I regularly buy games from GOG as a form of voting with my wallet. By virtue of its entire business model, GOG is intrinsically free from all the bullshit that clouds my perception of Steam. With the recent regional pricing fiasco still at the forefront of many users’ minds, it remains to be seen whether GOG is the benevolent saviour of PC gaming that some like to think it is. That doesn’t matter though. I don’t buy games from GOG because I love the people behind it. I want to promote DRM-free as a financially viable alternative business model. Brand loyalty, on the whole, is naive bullshit.
I guess that last point brings me nicely to the subject of Valve fanboys. Let me tell you something: I never managed to finish Half-Life 1 or 2 because they both bored me to tears. Needless to say, I have no sense of loyalty to or affection for Valve as a developer of games (y’know, those things they used to make before Steam put them on easy street). In fact, I’d go one further and say that Valve is the single most overrated developer of all time.
A lot of people like Valve as a developer and that’s cool. To some extent, loyalty to a developer makes sense, because the same group of people working on the IPs you love have a good chance of creating something that you’d want to play. What I don’t understand is allowing a love of Valve, the games developer, to spill over into a love of Valve, the operator of Steam. A proven track record of creating games that many love is insufficient evidence that the same company can wield the power of something like Steam to the unanimous benefit of all parties. When it comes to corporations, you have to be skeptical of their every move. Why should you ever trust an entity whose superceding directive is often contrary to your best interests?
Steam now acts a gatekeeper to the PC gaming market. Its near-monopoly position in the market allows it to do so. The amount of times I’ve heard people say they won’t buy games that aren’t on Steam is hard to believe. Not putting your game on Steam is commercial suicide and it’ll only get worse. This puts Steam in the position of deciding what sells and what doesn’t. If they blacklist a game for any reason (as they recently did with Hatred), it’ll tank. There will never truly be parity of promotion. In an age where some gamers are basing their purchasing decisions on the content Steam shows them, this is bad news. I don’t know much about Greenlight but I’ve read some scathing things from indie developers so I assume Valve aren’t doing a great job of opening Steam up to the indies either. It all comes down to this: can you trust Valve to act as a responsible gatekeeper to the industry? For me, the answer is a resounding “fuck no”.
Let’s briefly talk about yet another problem with Steam: its vehemently anti-consumer policies on refunds and resales. For starters, Steam’s “no resale” rule is actually illegal in the European Union (at least by my reading of EU consumer protection laws, which are pretty clear on the matter) but nobody is calling them out on it. Not giving consumers the ability to resell their games is restrictive at best. Even worse is their policy of not giving refunds under any circumstances. No refunds for products that aren’t guaranteed to work? What the fuck? Honestly, from the outside, Steam’s terms and conditions read like they were written by a company with complete distain for its customers.
What will Valve do once Steam becomes a legitimate monopoly in the PC gaming market? Well, probably not a lot. I’m not saying they’re a fundamentally evil company or an Illuminati conspiracy. Monopolies are rarely good news, no matter how well-intentioned those involved are. Personally, though, I don’t want to wait around to find out what’s going to happen. I’d rather take my pre-emptive leave now.
And, Gabe, if you’re reading, I found this cool new product for you: