Blowing off Steam
November 30, 2004 4:46 PM   Subscribe

SteamWatch: Observing Our Benefactors Since 2004 - "Who has control over the games I bought? It used to be me. Now it is 'Steam.'" Justifiable implementation of digital rights management or complete insanity? Anyone had any problems yet? (11/18 Half-Life 2 thread.) More on XrML, including Karen Coyle's excellent survey.
posted by mrgrimm (40 comments total)
I'd hit it. The mother that is.
posted by Photar at 4:54 PM on November 30, 2004

oops wrong link damn it.
posted by Photar at 4:58 PM on November 30, 2004

God help us. First the election, and now this? When will my right to frag stop being infringed upon and controlled by the MAN?
posted by pmbuko at 5:01 PM on November 30, 2004

Photar -- I should think so... but that didn't stop me from clicking to find "the mother" in these links... *blink*

I dunno, I have no problem with Steam, and, if I'm not mistaken, that petition is full of crap, since you can install a game off CD and register your key with Steam... Otherwise all those people who bought HL2 at BestBuy would look pretty stupid.

Now, if you want to talk about how rude, puerile, and annoying 99% of the players on CS servers are, then you'll have a good discussion on your hands.
posted by socratic at 5:20 PM on November 30, 2004

Okay, I've tried reading previous MeFi threads, I've tried reading the information on Valve's site, I've tried asking co-workers. And apparently, I have some kind of learning disability. So someone please humor me and help me, for the love of god.

In fifty or so simple, concise, coherent words, could someone PLEASE explain to me what the fuck Steam exactly is and what the fuck it exactly does? I've spent the last two months being made aware of some vague concept of "downloading games instead of buying them at the store" and lots of metaphysical gobbldegook but I feel like if someone could just TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK IT IS I'd understand how awesome it is.

I seriously don't know why it's not working for me. I'm the logical one in the family. The one who can read the maps, follow the instructions, cook dinner correctly. But for the love of god and all that is holy, I simply do not understand any explanation of Steam. I read their "what can Steam do for you?" page and it sounds like a Hare Krishna explaining how Steam is the answer to all my problems. Steam will revolutionize the video game industry. Do not taunt Steam. HELP ME UNDERSTAND THE TRUE LIGHT. I THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE. GOURANGA GOURANGA GOURANGA!
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 5:26 PM on November 30, 2004

XQUZYPHYR -- Um... let's see... you don't buy a box at Best Buy... you go to and purchase the game. The little Steam client software downloads the game for you, authenticates it, and runs it. It's kinda like ... I dunno, it's kinda like playing flash games on except on a much larger scale and for money.

Or.. or maybe it's like the Catholic Church... Alone, I am not equipped to reach God. Only through the intercession of clergy may I know His love. God is HL2 and Steam is the Church (and the Steam client software would be a priest).
posted by socratic at 5:33 PM on November 30, 2004

nice analogy, socratic
posted by pmbuko at 5:44 PM on November 30, 2004

I've been using it since it's early inception, and there were a lot of problems at startup.

But this is hardly surprising. Most new software, especially one like this, is prone to problems, and there was a lot.

Over the last little while, during the CS:S beta, CS:S full release, and subsequently HL2, I have not had any problems at all. Normally, privacy issues and such would cause some raised eyebrows, but in this instance somehow I'm not that worried.

I purchased the game over Steam, got the entire back catalogue, CS:S, DoD, and most (if not all) of the upcoming mods based on the source engine (if distributed through Steam). I think that's a pretty good deal.

Also, Valve disabled 20,000 Steam accounts due to piracy issues. Granted, a few may have been legit accounts, but I doubt a company would willingly shoot themselves in the foot over a game release that would literally make or break them. It could have been a lot worse. Most, if not all, software developers would use government regulations to bring software pirates to justice. Valve's method is to simply revoke the rights to use their software (which is clearly outlined in the Steam policy).

And, despite all the articles against Steam, remember it's copyright "protection" is not it's primary function. Valve envisions a developer to client paradigm that eliminates the unnecessary cost markup through publishing. Also, it's an easy way to distribute updates/patches to clients.
posted by purephase at 5:56 PM on November 30, 2004

you don't buy a box at Best Buy

Not true.

There are HL2 retail copies. I have one. They exist, I assume, because there is no way I know of to give a Steam download as a present for the holidays.

Steam works like this:

You either buy a copy of Half Life 2 or you order it from the Steam website. If you bought the game discs, it's up to you to install the game. If you ordered through Steam, the Steam service downloads the game for you automatically- no discs necessary, but the game is over 4GB so you better have a good connection. In both cases, the game files are stored on your machine in an encrypted, unusable format. (People who preordered HL2 had the game on their drives for weeks, but couldn't play it until Steam let the authorizations begin.)

When you first start that game after the install, the Steam website is contacted and the files on your hard drive are decrypted and the game launches.
posted by eyeballkid at 5:58 PM on November 30, 2004

Steam is Valve trying to change the economics of computer games. It's a very bold move on their part. Will they succeed?
posted by Nelson at 6:01 PM on November 30, 2004

Only the brave of heart dare venture into the dark and chilling venue of the forums. And even they regret it.

Seriously, the myopic, whiny bitches behind this oddly loyal luddism (starting a website emulating the official forum on which their pointless whining threads are deleted just so they can more thoroughly voice their rage, RAGE against the content delivery system of a goddam video game which they either bought anyway or declined to buy but really REALLY want you to know that they AREN'T buying THIS GAME RIGHT HERE) are a much bigger problem than any potential evil Steam could accomplish.
posted by cortex at 6:06 PM on November 30, 2004

eyeballkid- okay, I think I get it now. So it's like having the game, only you download it instead of buying it (thus removing packaging and distribution fees, I assume) but instead pay a fee to have access to the online decryption, which I guess it the alternative to a CD-in-drive check. Like a MMORPG, except without the RPG, only the online account to access the game. Or something.

Overall, that sounds a lot more like a revolution in anti-piracy technology than it does in game delivery- especially for those still using dial-up.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:08 PM on November 30, 2004

I'm an avid steam user, and I've been pretty impressed. It seems like a great way to advertise, support, and legitimize their software.
I bought Half-Life 2 pre-release, so I could play at midnight on release day, and I thought this was a pretty good deal (and a way for a company to sell me a game that had yet to be publicly reviewed, heh). Steam simplifies the whole HL/HL2 mod-playing process, adding options for Friends and great search parameters, and it's constantly updated to keep dastardly hackers (a HUGE Counter-Strike problem in the old days) out.
It has some bugs occasionally, and it keeps the warez folks from their rightful (I suppose) employment, but it also fixes more than it damages. Steam has made the whole process of finding a game, playing it, and not being shot by a wallhacking idiot easier.
posted by dougunderscorenelso at 6:08 PM on November 30, 2004

And for the people who want to "preview" the sucker using illegal activation codes: just wait for the demo, guys.
posted by dougunderscorenelso at 6:09 PM on November 30, 2004

...but instead pay a fee to have access to the online decryption...

Note that that's a one-time fee, that in the basic case is the same as the cost of the box version.

Overall, that sounds a lot more like a revolution in anti-piracy technology than it does in game delivery- especially for those still using dial-up.

Hence the boxed version. Download the patches automatically through Steam instead of, uh, going to the website and downloading them.
posted by cortex at 6:16 PM on November 30, 2004

I think it's pretty great too, and I'm one of the people who used the invalid CD key to try and trick Steam into giving me HL2.

That being said, however, Valve's response is unecessarilly harsh. It worries me when a company can retroactively take away my ability to play games I've bought legitimately. It's like Vivendi confiscated all my CDs because I attempted to download an MP3 I didn't have a license for. It makes me nervous because other companies are going to follow suit, and I don't know if I want a company telling me when I can and can't use a product I've paid money for.
posted by deafmute at 6:24 PM on November 30, 2004

As soon as that guy opened the letter with 'I am usually the ironic guy', I felt a stab of fear in my innards for the success of this venture. It's a good idea to monitor Steam and Valve since it affects so many popular titles, but uncalled-for smart-assery in an open letter and claiming yourself to be 'ironic' are not good ways to go about it.

Don't forget, you can buy any and all of the games on Steam off-the-shelf. It's just usually cheaper and can be good for those in isolated (yet high-bandwidth) regions or who can't get it retail. It's primarily a means of distributing new software and software updates (patches) online, with the secondary benefits of authentication and anti-piracy elements.

XQUZYPHYR, you don't pay a regular fee or anything like that a-la MMORPG. It's the usual authentication code scenario you use on installing any game, but you can either get it off the box (if you buy it off the shelf) or it's online certification (if you download it through Steam).

The main thing though is that it connects these certified games to your (free) Steam account so no other person can use those codes. Also, VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) can ban an entire Steam account and all connected verification codes if one is caught cheating.

It also has a standard 'friends' Instant Messenger service with it, etc. and similar nice little side-features, but removes direct control over the game from the user (IMHO).

I've had to re-download all kinds of patches and updates, even Day of Defeat and Counterstrike: Condition Zero (the entire mod) even though I had the disks, because Steam couldn't 'find' the correct versions on my HD or something...unnecessarily painful waiting ensued. And if another person is using the same computer and wants to play the same game as you, but uses a different Steam account, it's got to re-download patches, etc. and won't leverage off those files you already downloaded with your account. Painful.

The main controversy for me is that you require Steam to play your game, even the single player games...which is ridiculous. Other than free marketing info for Valve I don't know why they do it. Also - and I am uncertain - but a friend of mine has said it needs him to connect to the internet even whilst playing offline.

It should be optional, in my opinion. I'd continue to use it, but for some things - e.g. single-player gaming - it just denigrates the whole experience.

On preview, cortex may have said it using 1/4 the words I did...
posted by kamus at 6:33 PM on November 30, 2004

"whilst playing offline" in 2nd last paragraph to mean 'whilst playing single-player games offline". My bad.
posted by kamus at 6:34 PM on November 30, 2004

I should be able to install and run software without needing the internet.
posted by Kleptophoria! at 6:39 PM on November 30, 2004

deafmute: Unfortunately you've only purchased a license to use the software--even if you have shiny plastic discs (theoretically, since I don't believe there's case law on the legality of EULAs.)

Stuff like Steam makes me nervous. For the most part if I purchase software right now, I can install it, uninstall it, use it whenever I want, re-install it, etc. until the medium wears away. But if I need to connect to the companies servers to authenticate (or use, per kamus' friend) then I'm at the mercy of the company. Nice companies may use it to cut distribution costs and perhaps to curb piracy, bad companies may allow it to run only when they want it (say until the next version with SuperUseless feature is released), and bankrupt companies won't have servers running at all.
posted by MikeKD at 6:46 PM on November 30, 2004

damn it, "the company's servers", not "the companies servers".
(Is it too early for me to ask for a grammar-checking pony?)
posted by MikeKD at 6:50 PM on November 30, 2004

XQUZYPHYR - it's like iTunes for video games. It cuts out the product distribution middle-man (in the case of Half-Life 2, that is Vivendi Entertainment).

I think it's a fine idea. I want my money to go to the people that created the game, not a bunch of packaging and distribution goons. Not having to go to fileplanet to get patches is a big bonus. I hate fileplanet. Oh god, I hate it.

I have had no problems whatsoever. I can play the game offline if Steam is down. I was able to download the entire game (encrypted) before the release embargo was lifted and be able to play the game within minutes of its release.

The Steam app itself is pretty buggy. The friends list stuff does not work for me. I show up as offline to everyone else, and anyone I add shows up as offline even when they are on. It's like I'm in my own universe, but I'm used to that.
posted by cj_ at 6:57 PM on November 30, 2004

kamus said: And if another person is using the same computer and wants to play the same game as you, but uses a different Steam account, it's got to re-download patches, etc.

You can manually move files between different steam accounts, it's not the files themselves that are associated with an individual but the authorization code. I nabbed all of Half-Life2 from a pal's hard drive and then simply put in my magic numbers and I was crowbarrin' like crazy.

And BTW, isn't Steam basically the .Net dealie that Windows has going, what with authenticating XP? I'm not real keen on the idea of verification via internet, but I'm afraid it's looking like the future.
posted by undule at 7:03 PM on November 30, 2004

And another thing...

This guy from steamwatch is claiming that Valve has a policy to cut off all your Steam-purchased games if you are caught pirating one. I see no supporting evidence of this on his website, or in the links in the FPP. Is it even true?

I have a hard time taking this guy seriously when he compares Steam to proponents of capitol punishment. Someone had 2 lumps of hyperbole with their coffee this morning.
posted by cj_ at 7:13 PM on November 30, 2004

Steam is a great content delivery tool. Using it this way to try to stop piracy is a colossal blunder. First of all its totally ineffective, there was copy released that allowed the game to play without steam (distributed on IRC and BT) 45 minutes after the game was officially released. Thousands of legal customers faced antagonizing delays because of server overload. Valve accomplished nothing but annoying paying customers in the interest of "security" Ironically, Valve comes off like the heavy handed combines you spend fighting as Freeman. What should have been a complete triumph for Valve generates considerable bad PR and customer backlash. (Off Topic: The story is better, but technologically this game is not even close to being in the same league as Far Cry. The AI just stands and shoots.)

Valve (as most software companies) wants to sell software as both a service and a product, depending on the situation. It's slick and disingenuous. As stated in another comment, valve has shown its willingness to ban steam accounts as punishment for EULA violations, Say you own 5 Valve games that require steam, and then you get caught doing something that violates a EULA on another Valve game You get banned and loose legal right to use products legally purchased. ah, but didn't you read the EULA? That box you bought in the store isn't a product at all its a service and Valve can revoke you anytime for any reason we want. Didn't know that, TS, didn't read or agree to the Eula, TS, buying the game is agreement (on preview, nope no case law)

I'm a contractor. I come you your house. Put up some walls. In the process I create some debris which I'm responsible to remove. I get paid and leave. Later at the dump I see that you put some household garbage into the debris pile. Thats a violation of my EULA! I push a button and your walls fall down. You didn't know about the Eula? Too bad its on my toolbox and by letting me into your house you agreed to it. TS. Think that would stand up in court?
posted by clubfoote at 7:27 PM on November 30, 2004

Steam is an example of something I have heard rumblings about the music industry trying to do. The idea is that by putting down your money for their disk, you are no longer "buying" anything, but "licensing" it. That's why it wants you to constantly connect to the internet. (Yes, I know that this is a fairly obvious, duh-worthy intro.)

I see some serious threats in this model in relation to privacy rights (both in the need for ongoing connections even when you want to play offline and in the Steam EULA which is a model of a contract of adhesion). More importantly, though, is the attempt to turn a basic sale, i.e., purchase at a store or online, into some sort of licensing contract. The "licensing" model is basically an attempt to create through contract law all sorts of rights that IP holders don't get through copyright, but without providing any of the protections provided either by contract law or intellectual property law. IP law and contract law both have their own built-in safeguards against abuses, but Steam's EULA practices could easily be used to try to get around first-sale and fair use principles by arguing that the EULA contracts away the consumer's rights under those doctrines. At the same time, increasingly intrusive copyright legislation will give them even further rights to control how you use their software.

The really sad thing is that the Steam model could be a way to revolutionize gaming sales and possibly (with some more work) music sales by avoiding the distribution costs that sap revenue away from the creative party (I read that Valve gets $30 per Steam-sold copy vs. $5 for an instore sale), but Valve has set up a system that brings little or no benefit to the consumer (other than avoiding an in-store purchase) while giving Valve all sorts of rights over their customers that are not reasonably within the scope of a simple consumer goods purchase.

On preview: I agree with clubfoote, who seems to have said it better than me (and with an analogy, to boot). Also, I am not basing my argument on the open letter with the poor grammar, but rather on the snippets of the Steam EULA that are posted in the steamwatch forums.
posted by Planter at 7:43 PM on November 30, 2004

I assure you, eyeballkid, those boxes aren't at Best Buy because kindly ol' Valve wants to make sure that HL2 boxes can go under trees.

I'll explain it in five words so XQUZYPHYR can get his simple overview: Steam eliminates the middlemen.

Valve, creators of HL2, make games. They do not put the game onto discs and ship the game to stores - Vivendi Universal Games does that. They do not offer you a place to go and exchange money for the box - your local retailer does that.

So when you buy a boxed copy of HL2, Valve gets money. But so does Vivendi, and so does the retailer. Their involvement decreases Valve's cut.

When you buy HL2 through Steam, Valve gets money. End of story. The consumer pays the same price for the game content, but the people who actually made the game get to keep the money players are willing to pay.

What does this mean to John Q. Gamer? Well, several things. One is the chance to pay a game's creators directly. This is important to some people, and it's easy so see why. When you buy a CD, would you rather give most of your money to the creators of the music or to the people who put that music on a disc?

Another benefit: publishers are risk-averse by nature. They have investors to please and they have to ensure that retailers like Wal-Mart will stock their games. Thus, they tend to finance titles that are sequels, movie tie-ins, etc. - games that will have a guaranteed audience regardless of quality. Game developers are smaller and typically not publicly held. If they can sell directly to gamers, they can ignore the desires of publishers' stockholders and conservative retailers. Through Steam or similar direct game sales systems, totally original or niche titles are much more feasible.

That's the side of Steam that can be viewed as positive most folks (other than game publishers and retailers.) But the system would obviously be worthless if games bought through Steam could be redistributed. People would rather pay creators than distributors, but people would also rather pay nothing than something. And that's where Steam hits the same problems that other digital rights managed content has - DRM is inherently annoying to the user. That said, I think Steam is a little more user friendly than traditional DRM. If I want to play most games, I need the CD in my drive even if all of the game content is on my hard drive. If I lose/break that CD, I'm screwed. That's into the case with Steam. I just need to remember my Steam login, and the server knows what games I've bought and can play. For me, at least, connecting my computer to the internet is less annoying than tracking down a dish I haven't seen in months.

As for this SteamWatch's an incredibly poor argument. They're basically asking Valve to turn a blind eye to piracy, which is an absurd thing to ask any media company to do. Analogies for digital content vs. physical content are imperfect, but let me offer one anyway. Here's what the SteamWatch guys want to do:

"Hey, Best Buy guy - I'm not sure if I'm going to like this game. Can I open the box and load it on to my laptop? Don't worry, I'll reseal it so you can sell it to someone else. I can just download a crack and play it without needing the disc. And if I like it, I might come back tomorrow and pay you for it! Or I might buy the next game from these guys. Point being, someday I might give you money for this game or some other game. Don't kick me out, though! If you do, I'll never buy any of these games and I'll tell my friends not to buy 'em either!"

Obviously, this would be great for gamers, but donation-based business models just don't work. And effective methods of piracy (read: Napster) tend to spread like wildfire if not curtailed.

Valve's response is a zero-tolerance policy. They want you to play and enjoy their games; they want to get paid to provide you with those games. But if they ever catch you stealing one their games, you forfeit your right to play any of their games. (Or so it seems from SteamWatch, I'm not 100% sure this is the case.)

Is this harsh? Yeah, a little. But the game industry has only one significant revenue stream: retail game sales. If someone downloads an mp3, the band and label might benefit if the downloader goes to a concert or buys a t-shirt. If someone downloads a movie, they might later get the dvd for extra content. And in both cases, radio or tv stations might pay to broadcast the music or movie. If someone downloads a game for free, game developers have no way of getting money from that person. If everybody downloads a game for free, the developers have no other means of making money from the game. Because of this, game developers and publishers need to be harsh on individual pirates if they want to survive.

As a game developer myself, I'd like to see this situation change, and Steam is a significant movement away from the retail-dependent model. It's flawed, but it works. Even console games like Halo 2 leak onto the Internet well before their release. Half-Life 2 is the only major release in recent memory that didn't. Remember, Steam is the first iteration of this distribution model. The stress of a huge title like HL2 is showing Steam's best and worst aspects. I think, in time, the problems can be resolved. I sincerely hope to see Steam or other systems evolve to the benefit of game developers through better profit sharing arrangements with publishers and to the benefit of gamers through the availablity of more high-quality, diverse, and unique games.

On preview, I see others have covered several of my points. Sorry for any redundancy - I hope that you found this post informative anyway.

And clubfoote, that analogy is a real stretch. It would be more fair to say if you don't pay the contractor for his work, he knocks down the new walls and that other extension he built last year. If you steal something he made, you can't have anything he made.
posted by Fourmyle at 7:47 PM on November 30, 2004

Fourmyle: actually the analogy is spot on. The 20,000 accounts were banned for violation of Steam's EULA, possible copyright and IP violations (none of this has ever been confirmed by a court, its all made up law at this point).

The client in my analogy didn't steal anything from me, they violated our service agreement which they agreed to by hiring me which specified the punishment for violation was total destruction of the "service" I performed for them.

Even if someone had "stolen" something from Valve in the former and me in the latter, its not legal for me to go back and destroy property which I had already sold to my client. I have to go to court and put a Lien on them. Which further illustrates my point. Valve, and every software developer for that matter is using ridiculous bullshit that flies in the face of every thing common sense and common law says about commerce and property to gain rights that don't belong to them.

I agree, the publishing system is horribly out of whack and Steam has the potential to fix that if it can sell games at a profit. Using it to bludgeon people out of their property rights is wrong, even if it seems like good business. They may side with Machiavelli, as many these days seem to do, but I'll stick with Locke, Rousseau, and Smith.
posted by clubfoote at 8:34 PM on November 30, 2004

And clubfoote, that analogy is a real stretch. It would be more fair to say if you don't pay the contractor for his work, he knocks down the new walls and that other extension he built last year. If you steal something he made, you can't have anything he made.

His analogy is a bit of a stretch, yes, but your rephrasing doesn't remove any of my concerns with their new model. If I hire you to build room A on my house, and pay you, then we are done for that transaction. If we continue the same for rooms B, C, and D, same situation-I received services and you received payment. If on room E, we have a dispute, why should you be able to go back and wreck the other four rooms? That is not how contracts work in the civilized (i.e., not full of over-reaching IP owners) world. If I buy four Valve titles and like them, but the fifth title I buy from them sucks, do I get to take my money back for the other four games? And do I get to rifle around on their computer or monitor their internet activity to make sure they aren't doing anything I disapprove of? Why not? Why should they be able to require you, in order to continue using a product for which you only very recently paid $50-80, to leave an intrusive application running on your computer and excuse themselves per the EULA for any mischief that it causes?

I am all for a system that provides more money to the people who do the real work. I am perfectly happy to accept the model Steam has up to the point where my game is verified via the steam server. After they have determined that I have a legal copy of the game, their intrusions into my system go beyond any contract that the purchase of that game may or could have created.

On preview: Dammit clubfoote beat me to it, but I still have some comments that aren't redundant of his so I'm posting anyway...
posted by Planter at 9:01 PM on November 30, 2004

If I lose/break that CD, I'm screwed. That's into the case with Steam. I just need to remember my Steam login, and the server knows what games I've bought and can play. For me, at least, connecting my computer to the internet is less annoying than tracking down a dish I haven't seen in months.

But now the weak link has shifted from the CD to Valve's servers. At least with a CD, you can (could) make copies (Macrovision fubar'ed discs excepted) and take other measures to safeguard discs. With Steam, you've lost control; DDoS attacks, server crashes, fiber-slicing backhoes--anything that interrupts your connection stops you from playing the game. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that the developers (of all types of content and culture) can get more of the money once going to the distributer-gatekeepers. My concern is with end-of-life issues (software, company, hardware) and onerous licensing terms.

Be it DRM'ed music, eBooks, or software rentals, there must be a compromise between the rights holder and the user of the content (unless Big Content gets Congress to legislate compulsory content purchases).

Oh, and HL2's entire source code was leaked to the net. via /.

posted by MikeKD at 9:27 PM on November 30, 2004

I haven't bought a computer game since the first HL some five years ago. As good as that game was/still is, I had to get meself a new cpu and snag a box with Gordon Freeman's mug on it on the way out. Yes, I was in need of a new laptop and the straw that finally that broke the camel's back was the release of HL2. Killed two headcrabs with one stone I did I did.

Well, I've got a new laptop. I have yet to really play the game as my box happens to be a living example of the worst bug that seems have affected many willing and able systems. And like XQUZYPHYR, I just don't get this new Steam automation. Has piracy and cheating really gotten this bad that a consumer can't even control what software he uses and how you uses it?

All in all, it's pretty damned ironic. A gamer who would like to play a game that simulates a dystopian police state must jump through the bureaucratic hoops of a corporation who is actively undermining the digital rights of the end user.

That said, I wish they'd cough up the patch I need to play the game. I got as far as the tenement housing filled with sickly, beaten-down citizens just as the security forces were swooping in and the game crashed. It won't even load without first crashing now.
posted by crasspastor at 9:43 PM on November 30, 2004

clubfoote & Planter - I'll grant that I haven't read the EULA, so I don't know all of the potential for customer abuse that its clauses might be hiding. And I do admit that, in my desire to support Steam's lofty goals and see game developers' products better protected, I was a bit overeager to defend Valve's ability to control their software. After your responses, I better understand your problems with the whole "product as service" concept and its potential for violating consumer rights. But without examples of people who have paid money for games and later had their access to those games taken away, though, we're only arguing about nebulous possibilities.

Have any of the 20,000 come forward and said, "Hey, I paid for HL2 - here's proof in the form of a paper/Steam receipt - and now I can't play the game I bought!" That would be a very strong case against Steam, far more convincing than SteamWatch's description of potential future abuses. Thus, I imagine that anti-Steam folks would make a very big deal about someone in this situation. Have you seen any cases like this?

If no one has come forward, then I have to think it's likely that the 20,000 banned accounts must have been people who registered for free, did something they weren't supposed to do, and lost their free account.

I can see how the EULA gives Valve the potential to abuse Steam's power. If they do so and it can be proven, however, I think the backlash would be swift and severe. Any relationship is built on trust, and there are repercussions for breaking that trust. A contractor can build walls that crumble after a month, but he won't be in business long if he does. Similarly, Valve could theoretically could take away customers' software, but I think they won't be in business long if they do.

That point ties nicely into MikeKD's end-of-life concern. Should Steam become non-viable for whatever reason, it seems like it would be sensible to release an official Steam requirement removal patch. That ought to be easy enough from a software standpoint, but, given the Valve/Vivendi legal wranglings, that simple patch might never be allowed to be released. It is a problem, but, as you say, any copy protection involves some compromise. Online and disc authentication both have their pros and cons, though I can see your point that online authentication is more restrictive to consumers in some ways.

As for the leak, Mike, I was referring to Steam's effective pre-release copy protection capabilities. The code leak was a failure of Valve's network security, not their copy protection. As long as the key file was not released through Steam, nobody could play HL2. Whereas once one person had a copy of Halo 2 in hand, that disc could be duplicated and uploaded.
posted by Fourmyle at 10:29 PM on November 30, 2004

Looks like there may be another problem with Steam, just a while ago Valve released a Half-Life 2 Deathmatch expansion over Steam and many people can't run it, not only that it looks like many people can't even run Half-Life 2 single player... myself included.

Gamefaqs: DO NOT DOWNLOAD Hl2 deathmatch
posted by bobo123 at 10:50 PM on November 30, 2004

As mentioned by bobo above, the perils of Steam have become annoyingly tangible. Downloading an upgrade to add a new feature, that as far as I can tell was totally unavoidable, broke everything else that had been working up until that point. Automatic updates are great except when they happen at 1am with inadequate testing and no support. Okay, so that's most of the automatic updates. Times like these make me hate proprietary software; I really wanted to throw furniture at people tonight!
posted by JZig at 2:06 AM on December 1, 2004

Well I bought a reduced price copy of HL1 about six months ago to use on an old PC at home. The PC was ok to handle the game but alas, when I got home I found that I was going to have to use Steam to get any updates, that my PC couldn't handle these and that anyway Steam would require 2+ hours of downloading to get them to me. More alas, this 2 hours kept expanding to at least 8 when I actually tried to download stuff and frequently just stopped dead, despite the fact that I have a T1 connection at home. Result - game not played, resolution not to go through steam again. A zero tolerance policy cuts both ways.
posted by biffa at 4:00 AM on December 1, 2004

I've heard claims that older Valve products that were purchased were made inoperable for the 20K people that Valve caught using the pirated HL2 key. How could that happen and could one recover from it?

The best I can figure out is that the problem comes if you have an older game installed and then install Steam. Steam looks for older Valve stuff—and here's the part I'm fuzzy on and speculating about—patches the old stuff so that Steam controls the copy protection instead of via the CD or whatever. You'll note that Steam prominently asks if you want to resigter older Valve products with Steam. (I installed Steam, but haven't purchased HL2 or otherwise done anything with it.) So, if Steam takes control of that older Valve game installation, then it's possible for them to "revoke" your right to play it. Supposedly, this is what happened to those of the 20K people who had some earlier Valve stuff installed (the Counterstrike thing? I dunno).

Seems like if those folks have their old media and regkeys and stuff, they could remove Steam, uninstall the games, and possibly reinstall the old games to get them to work again. There could still possibly be cruft left around that would break it, though. But, obviously, one way or another they could recreate an old installation.

However, here's the tricky part. Does Steam allow you to refuse to let it manage any Valve games that are installed or you install later? Because if it gives you no choice in the matter, then I'd really object to that for a variety of reasons. But even if it didn't, there's no reason that Valve would provide patches to older games outside of Steam if they didn't want to, thus forcing people to use Steam even if they'd rather not.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:59 AM on December 1, 2004

"I've heard claims that older Valve products that were purchased were made inoperable for the 20K people that Valve caught using the pirated HL2 key. How could that happen and could one recover from it?"

I would assume they banned the account that used the pirated key and that account had also been assigned legitimate keys for earlier games. My Steam account has legitimate keys for HL and HL2 on it - if I'd plugged in a pirated HL2 key instead and the account was banned, I'd guess the HL1 key would be lost too. Of course, you'd have to be as dumb as a brick to do a *cough* trial on the same account as one with a purchased game.
posted by Auz at 6:42 AM on December 1, 2004

thanks for all the info and rampant speculation. i thought the SteamWatch letter was pretty crap too, but i haven't seen anything better. he gets to the point eventually, but then offers no arguments against "the paradigm you (Valve) have created."

the way i see it going, much shorter copyright terms are coming. let Valve make %X in 5 years, then the poor people get it for free.

the biggest problem i see with Steam is if Valve gets acquired. by Time-Warner. and they shut down your HL2 if you have file-sharing software on your machine. and then it explodes.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:14 AM on December 1, 2004

posted by mrgrimm at 8:29 AM on December 1, 2004

One thing that isn't entirely mentioned is that Steam's DRM attempt has a nice twist: It's actually a program that makes playing the games online easier. It makes cheating harder, it makes startup faster, and it's just a superior way to run the whole HL/HL2 empire. Incorporating DRM into an actually useful program is an ingenious idea right up there with iTunes.

also, Fourmyle, great comment.
posted by dougunderscorenelso at 9:02 AM on December 1, 2004

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