Sales Boycott over Modern Warfare 2 with Steam 'Trojan Horse'

Steam, 1984, Big Brother

Steam, it seems, may finally have tromped across the proverbial bridge too far. The online PC games storefront with the sales leverage of a lion but the transparency of a two-way mirror reportedly signed a deal with Activision to load its Steamworks technology into retail and digitally distributed PC copies of Modern Warfare 2, and online sales competitors are bristling.

Don't call them nonplussed, though. Key digital storefronts Impulse, Direct2Drive, and GamersGate--all three boasting comparable games software catalogues--have responded by stating they simply won't carry Activision's first-person modern military shooter, which arrives next Tuesday. Their rationale? Put it this way: Would Walmart sell retail products that required the customer periodically drop by Kmart or Target for service, support, or just basic use?

"We don't believe games should force the user to install a Trojan Horse," a spokesperson for Direct2Drive told games blog Kotaku. The company's Modern Warfare 2 store page no longer offers pricing or game information, and instead displays the following notice:

At Direct2Drive, we believe strongly that when you buy a game from us, you shouldn't be forced to install and run a 3rd party software client to be able to play the game you purchased. Because COD MW 2 requires you, the consumer, to do that, we aren't able to offer the game via Direct2Drive at this time.

"We share some of the same concerns as Direct2Drive over the bundling of the Steam client with the game," an Impulse spokesperson told Voodoo Extreme. "The most obvious issue is the forced inclusion of a competitor's store that blocks us from carrying the game."

Steamworks, it's important to note, isn't synonymous with Steam. Steam comprises Valve's combination online storefront and social gaming network, a relatively low-impact wrapper that embeds itself in your operating system and puts its tendrils into your gaming environment. The Steam client is necessary not just to purchase games from Valve, but also to play them thereafter. Without the Steam client and steady online access, games can't be purchased, downloaded, played, backed up, or restored.

Steamworks, by contrast, is a separate (but related) set of development tools--an API, if you will--designed to help publishers keep games up-to-date, handle DRM, and manage saved games.

It's not yet clear which of the above components come bundled with the PC version of Modern Warfare 2, and whether you'll be forced to access the Steam client and/or storefront itself every time you want to play the game. In either case, it raises questions not just about fair market competition--this is unambiguously a hostile move on Valve's part--but also digital rights management (what's the difference between Steam and something like SecuROM?), application-encapsulating (how many "fail points" should we tolerate?), and privacy rights, i.e. the traditional right to play a game without feeding back unlimited "User Generated Information" to a company that brazenly states it "may share aggregate information and individual information with other parties" in its privacy policy.

Update: According to Impulse, Steamworks does include the Steam client, as well as the requirement that a user create a Steam account to be able to play the game. In other words, anyone buying Modern Warfare 2, whether the retail or online version, will have to install, access, and log into the Steam client.

Another day, another Modern Warfare 2 controversy. Before this, it was terrorist gameplay. Before that, it was dedicated multiplayer servers. And last but not least, who can forget Washington in flames?

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