Gearbox CEO Calls Steam a "Conflict of Interest" for Valve

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Steam, it seems, is getting too big for its britches, or at least that's the sentiment conveyed by Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford in an interview with Maximum PC. Pitchford's on deck for Borderlands, an upcoming shooter that gets Max Max drunk enough to sleep with Diablo II, then stick Halo with delivering the kid. After repeated delays--I was looking at it for a 'games of summer 2008' story--it's finally out end of this month for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows.

Talking about Borderlands in the interview, Pitchford veered momentarily off topic to suggest "a lot of the industry" doesn't trust Steam-proprietor Valve, that the Half-Life 2 dev ought to spin off its military-green wrap-around content delivery service--a service some 20 million of you use, or have at one time or another--to remedy a "conflict of interest," and that it's "really, really dangerous for the rest of the industry to allow Valve to win."

I take Pitchford's point about too much power in the hands of a single distributor, about those distributors using market leverage to dictate terms and margins, about the "little guys" lacking the clout to push back, about guys like Valve become the deciders, etc. It's the oldest story in the world. You can make the same points about retail outfits like GameStop (do a search on "GameStop" and "criticism" and see what turns up). But there's a lot that's wrong with this industry, and priorities are priorities. Steam's been low on my list of topics to cavil about.

And then something happened. Last night I pulled up at my desk, flipped the power switch on my Windows box, plucked tufts of dog hair off the fan grill while it booted, and got ready to play-review a new game.

And then? Then I discovered I wouldn't be playing the game anytime soon.

I'd pulled the game down a few weeks ago using Steam, an all-niter grab. When it finished, the launch line read "100% - Ready" in tiny Tahoma lettering. I booted it up once or twice, fooled around with the tutorials, played a few skirmishes, then set it aside to wrap some other work.

When I finally launched it again last night--this time directly from its icon in the 'Steam' folder on my Windows 7 star menu--I waited through the pregnant pause filled by the whir of cylinder heads firing and dialogue boxes popping, and then...nothing. Or actually, something inexplicable and puzzling: A new message that read "Updating: 0%."

After several minutes of waiting, the 0% incremented to 1%.

Several hours later, the game was updated…and I was fast asleep in bed.

So much for a productive evening.

It reminded me that Steam has some fairly serious control issues.

For instance, I have to wait for the service to load before the games I've bought through the service do, adding anywhere from a half dozen to several dozen seconds launch time. There's no unbundling Steam's austere, utilitarian wrapper, even if the game happens to be available through a storefront retailer, or some other digital distributor that takes its hooks out post-delivery.

Then there's managing the data you've downloaded, say you rebuild your PC fairly often, as I do. You can backup your Steam games offline in convenient CD or DVD sizes, but you can't decompress or install them without installing Steam first.

Once a Steam game, always a Steam game, for better or worse.

And if the service ever goes belly up permanently? Valve's end user license agreement says you're guaranteed nothing. You're not really buying anything, in other words, but rather "renting" games on an indefinite--but viability-constituent--basis.

It'll surprise no one, then, that reselling Steam-bought games is impossible. Blame probably lies with the publishers on this point--some of these guys think reselling games (and purportedly draining off new sales) is the devil. Nonetheless, an artifact of using the service.

Something I find particularly contentious about Steam: If you haven't saved your login credentials--a no-no for security wonks--the client disables its "offline" mode (it lets you play games without connecting to Steam's network). Lose your internet connection, and if you're into security "best practices," lose your ability to access or play anything.

Here's the error message:

Unable to connect to the Steam network. 'Offline mode' is unavailable because there is no Steam login information stored on this computer. You will not be able to use Steam until you can connect to the Steam network again.

It's a "feature" I recently became acquainted with while moving and subsequently waiting three weeks for my new ISP to turn up service.

And then you have those irritating game updates. When Steam connects online, it checks to see if a game you've downloaded has an update in the offing. If yes, you're locked out until the update's been downloaded and applied. Once an update's been applied, you can't roll back (say the patch muddles something) without removing and re-downloading the game from scratch. You can disable auto-updating, but it's "on" by default. "Off," with a note about optionally enabling it seems like the more transparent, consumer-friendly option.

Some might argue no one's obligated to publish through Steam. That's true. Except everyone's going to be obligated to publish through Steam or something like Steam sooner or later. You can't sell what you can't distribute, and even with the grass-roots, democracy-thumping, indie-rific internet, service providers still divide into access "haves" and access "have nots."

So is Steam really "dangerous for the rest of the industry"? I can only speak to my personal experiences using the service. Most of the time it runs fine. Occasionally it crashes (though maybe that's my Windows 7 release candidate, who knows). Occasionally I grapple with one or two of the issues described above.

On balance, though, it mostly works.

Do I want content delivery out of the way of my game experience? Sure. I don't care about Steam awards or friends lists or messaging tools. I have a dozen other better ways to do any of that.

But then I guess it's that "mostly works" mentality that empowers companies like Valve to keep doing what they're doing. Because it works, and because if it ain't standing outside our front doors with a search warrant, why fix it.

Follow me on Twitter @game_on

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