Valve president and CEO Gabe Newell says aggressive digital rights management is "backwards." Half of you are probably nodding your head. The other half are probably wondering what Newell thinks Steam is.
"We're a broken record on this," said Newell in an interview with Kotaku. "This belief that you increase your monetization by making your game worth less through aggressive digital rights management is totally backwards."
Well amen, brother, but isn't Steam also a form of "aggressive digital rights management"? You tell me. I don't mean the DRM some of publishers who sell games on Steam still include with those games, I'm talking about Steam itself. Like the second most aggressive form of DRM, it requires you run special software to launch and continually execute a given game (the most aggressive requires you maintain an Internet connection at all times—Steam, at least, offers an offline play option). Yes, it's also a service, more or less like Xbox LIVE, with friends lists and communication services and—where supported—achievement lists. But if you want to execute game code, the only way it's happening is through Steam.
The primary reason "Piracy is just not an issue for [Valve]" (Newel's words, from the interview) is because Steam's a service, and—generally speaking—you can't pirate a service. In that sense, Steam's clearly more than merely aggressive DRM. But it's still partly DRM. It's still explicitly managing the ways in which digital code is accessed and executed.
"The best way to fight piracy is to create a service that people need," Newell told Kotaku. "I think [publishers with strict DRM] will sell less of their products and create more problems."
That, or they'll just create fewer problems for Valve, who'll simply step in where others fail with a bulletproof alternative.
My beef with Steam isn't that Valve makes me run Steam. Oh, it's that a little, the handful of times I've launched a game and Steam makes me wait several minutes (or hours—yes, hours) to download an update. Or, you know, when it flat-out crashes, which it does (though to be fair, rarely). I'm just concerned about the idea that one of the games industry's biggest game publishers is also the kingdom-keyholder to the industry's largest digital distribution platform.
Borderlands' Randy Pitchford said a few years back, "It would be much better if Steam was its own business. There’s so much conflict of interest there that it’s horrid. It’s actually really, really dangerous for the rest of the industry to allow Valve to win.
That prompted a few blogs to line up a bunch of apparently glowing, Steam-happy developers, so it's not like Pitchford's position is the predomindant one. But it does, as it should, raise the question of whether a major game publisher can be trusted, long term, to also be the shopkeep for all its competition (and vastly more besides).