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A Steaming Pile

Valve is a very good company that makes very good games, and I have played and enjoyed a handful of their titles, particularly Team Fortress 2, but also the Half-Life series, Counter-Strike (version 1.6), and Counter-Strike: Source; however, their Steam software is, without a doubt, the company's biggest blunder.

I was first forced to deal with Steam in May 2009, when I installed and then played Team Fortress 2 for the first time. As I continued to play Team Fortress 2 over the coming days and weeks, I quickly became annoyed at Steam—I thought that it was merely unnecessary bloatware that Valve had packaged with the game, and which they forced me to install and run in order to play it. Even today, every time I consider whether or not to play Team Fortress 2, one downside that I still assess is the fact that I will once again have to deal with Steam and its annoyances.

It has been very disappointing for me to witness over the subsequent years the rise of Steam (as well as of digital distribution in general); back then, I believed that Steam was only an anomaly in the PC gaming world, and that you only had to deal with it if you were specifically playing one of Valve's games. I can still remember the days when nearly everybody disliked Steam, and when the general agreement was that it was slow, prone to errors and crashing, and an overall unnecessary piece of bloatware that Valve had, unfortunately, decided to include with some of their games. (I even recall watching a video on YouTube ridiculing it, though I don't think the one I linked to is the specific one I watched years ago, as I remember that the background music was different, but the idea was the same.) One mocking nickname for it that I heard years ago, and which I still find quite fitting and humorous, is Steam(ing Pile of Shit).

Though I have always held on to my original impressions and opinion, it is unfortunate that many others (and, perhaps, even those who were initially critical) have now embraced Steam. Pretty soon I learned that Steam was no longer peculiar to Valve's games, but that many other games from a wide variety of other companies were now being sold through it—this would have been fine, at least, and my complaints much diminished, if distribution via Steam had not started replacing physical copies and becoming the only channel of distribution for more and more PC games. If Steam had only appeared as an additional channel of distribution for games, existing alongside physical discs, then I could have ignored it very easily and simply continued to buy the retail boxed versions of games, just as I always did, and would have been more capable of tolerating it during those times when I played a game from Valve.

I have been rather successful in keeping to a minimum the number of games I purchase through Steam—my entire Steam library numbers around only a half dozen titles, among which Team Fortress 2 is the only one I've spent any significant amount of time playing—and making an effort to seek out the retail boxed version whenever I want to buy a new game. It is typically pretty easy to buy a physical copy and thus avoid Steam when buying older (i.e. released prior to the 2010s) games, and prior to Team Fortress 2, every PC game I had played had been purchased as a physical disc in a box, either at the store or (in a few instances) from an online retailer; in all cases the game was installed from a CD or DVD, and in no instances did any of them require any sort of software as intrusive as Steam. (Yes, it is true that my boxed copy of Team Fortress 2, which I purchased at my local Best Buy, is also a physical copy, but the DVD merely installs Steam, not the game; once Steam is installed, it then proceeds to actually download and install the game.) It has been very upsetting for me, though, to witness an increasing number of more recent games distributed as Steam-only releases, with no Steam-free boxed version available. More than once I have learned of a new PC game, and had quickly become very excited and enthusiastic about it, only to finally discover that, alas, no physical copy was being sold, and instead the only channel of distribution was Steam, upon which I decided to not buy it at all—such is my extreme dislike of Steam. (I would have gladly paid double, triple, or even quadruple the price of the Steam version for a non-Steam version.)

I will never understand the appeal of Steam. I see only a few minor advantages of Steam when compared to the old method of physical discs in boxes: that it is quicker to download and install a game through Steam than it is to go to the store to buy a boxed copy, or to order a copy through an online retailer and have it shipped to your house; that it is more convenient to obtain games from Steam as opposed to the store, for in the latter case you need to trouble yourself by actually leaving your house and venturing outside; and that it is often cheaper to buy a game from Steam than it is to buy the physical copy. I admit that these are genuine benefits, but the $10 or $15 and the few hours or days of waiting which might be saved by buying through Steam are much outweighed by the many disadvantages of the platform:

I am aware, of course, that not every non-Steam game sold as an optical disc in a box has only a product key and a disc check as DRM mechanisms, or is always offline. I have purchased some physical copies of games (e.g. StarCraft II) which, although they never involved Steam at any point, nevertheless had their own restrictive and intrusive online-required DRM bloatware. The important thing, though, is that the physical copies of many games (generally older ones) fortunately do not come bundled with such garbage, but buying them through Steam saddles them with it.

Though I have been discussing Steam in particular, the above criticisms and additional ones could also be extended to any video game digital distribution platform that is substantially similar to it, as well as those that distribute computer software in general, not just video games. I remain deeply skeptical of digital distribution as it currently exists, and wish every day that optical discs would, at the very least, make enough of a comeback that they could exist alongside digital distribution as a method of distributing software, unlike these past few years, where they are getting more and more difficult to find in stores.

I don't mean to say that I am against all forms of online distribution: some software that I happily use, such as Adobe Flash Player, Java, WinRAR, Notepad++, Avidemux, and Audacity, I obtained through downloading them over the Internet and then installing them on my computer—the same method by which games are delivered through Steam. The difference is that, if you were to use those particular pieces of software, you would not find yourself being spied on and fettered by a DRM platform like Steam. I acknowledge that the programs I listed are all distributed free of charge, and that some (namely, the video game and software companies) might say that a certain degree of DRM is necessary for commercial software, but must it take the awful form (as it often does today) of Steam or similar platforms?

Yes, it is possible that physical discs sold in a box can force the user to install Steam (e.g. my boxed copy of Team Fortress 2) or other types of bloated, always-online DRM garbage (e.g. my boxed copy of StarCraft II) before permitting him to play the game; it is regrettable that this is becoming increasingly common over the years. It's unlikely that this trend can be completely reversed, and we can return to the old days of physical discs with DRM consisting of only product keys and disc checks, but it is at least possible, after considering the many and serious disadvantages of Steam, for those who frequently purchase games from it to realize that those negatives far outweigh the small amount of time and money saved and hence to abandon it. If this is done, it is my hope that Steam will either disappear completely from the PC gaming world, in which case optical discs might even see a resurgence in popularity, or Valve will at least overhaul it and make it more sensible.

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This page last modified on 28 March 2021.