Steam has been getting a lot of press attention recently, mostly because retail boxes of Half-Life 2, which requires online activation via Steam before it can be played, have unexpectedly made their way onto store shelves several days before the sheduled release date of November 16th.
Valve Software is in a very unhappy situation. They're trying to push Steam as both a content delivery system and an anti-piracy tool, while at the same time fighting a vicious legal battle with Vivendi Universal, their retail distributor. The battle with Vivendi is no surprise; when you buy Half-Life 2 (or any other Valve game) over Steam, Vivendi doesn't get a cut. All the profits go straight to Valve. Vivendi is understandably upset about Steam. As a result of this legal battle, even though customers have been able to purchase and download Half-Life 2 via Steam for over a month now, Vivendi has demanded that Valve agree not to allow the game to be played until the official retail release date of the 16th. So even though stores have jumped the gun and started selling the game early, and even though a lot of gamers have already bought the game via Steam, nobody can play it until the 16th, and Valve is powerless to change this because they are under a legal obligation to Vivendi.
Vivendi didn't contribute a single dime to the development of Half-Life 2. Valve funded the entire project out of the revenues from the original Half-Life, which was itself funded entirely out of the pockets of Valve's founders, two rich ex-Microsoft programmers. By pushing Steam as a content delivery platform, Valve is trying to free themselves (and other game developers) from distributors like Vivendi, who, in return for packaging the game and getting it into retail stores, take a huge cut of the profits -- profits that Valve would rather keep for themselves.
But Steam is more than just a content delivery system. It's also an anti-piracy mechanism, and a damn good one at that. As with any form of copy protection, there are tradeoffs. When you buy a boxed copy of Half-Life 2, you get a set of CDs that contains a Steam client and all the game content, but not the executable actually needed to run the game. Before you can play, you must create a Steam account and activate the game online, at which point Steam automatically downloads the necessary files and lets you play the game.
That's the part most people can't get over. You can't play the game you've purchased -- not even in single-player mode -- without being online, so that Steam can verify your copy's authenticity each time you run it. What if Steam's servers go down? What if I want to play Half-Life 2 on my laptop on a plane? What if Valve goes out of business and I can't play my game anymore? Scary questions.
But if you can look past those uncertainties, Steam is actually an ingenious platform. It's not just an excellent content delivery system, and it's not just a secure copy protection mechanism: it also adds value and convenience for the user. And that's why Steam will work.
A few weeks ago, anticipating the release of Half-Life 2 and dreading having to roam the city looking for a store that wasn't sold out, I decided to purchase the game via Steam. For $59.95, I got Half-Life 2 and a bunch of extras, including the original Half-Life. I was able to start playing the extras immediately, although I won't be able to play Half-Life 2 until Tuesday.
I was astonished by how convenient Steam makes things. I can install the games I've purchased on as many computers as I want, a feat made incredibly easy since installing a game I've purchased is as easy as telling Steam to download it to the machine. This means I can have a legal copy of my games both on my laptop, which is convenient for LAN parties, and on my more powerful desktop machine, which provides a better gaming experience when I'm at home. While I didn't expect to be able to, Steam even let both machines play online at the same time (but not on the same server).
What's more, Steam provides a simple, elegant, and powerful configuration interface and server browser that is shared by all of Valve's games. The server browser is the best I've ever used, bar none, and the in-game Steam interfaces are fast and responsive, unlike most in-game UIs. Most impressive of all is the fact that there was no delay and no glitchiness when I Alt-Tabbed to another application while playing a game. This is unheard of.
There are still more questions than answers about the reliability of Steam's online authentication requirements, and there are certainly privacy issues (if, for some reason, you're worried about Valve knowing how much time you spend playing their games), but on the whole I'm impressed at how Valve has managed to turn something that could easily have been an unfriendly, restrictive anti-piracy mechanism into something that actually benefits customers. Granted, you've gotta be willing to make some concessions in order to get those benefits, but I feel much more comfortable doing so knowing that Valve is a company that actually cares whether or not I have a good time playing their games, instead of caring only about parting me from my money.