I’ve been using Steam for a fair while now, in fact pretty much since the beginning, and have seen the program grow on from its fairly humble origins. There are now hundreds of titles available, including games from big-name publishers and independent game houses alike, and the usual crashes and quirks that afflicted the early releases are pretty much gone. Nevertheless, there are still a number of key areas in which Steam continues to live up to standards, at times making using the system a bit of a nightmare. This is a list of some of those issues which in my eyes prevent Steam from becoming a really top class product, delivering everything the platform really promises. Some of these issues admittedly have their origins outside of Valve’s headquarters, but the way in which they are dealt with only compounds the problems further, for both customers and clients.
It’s an instant messenger on a budget. Think of your favourite system, but without any of the frills. There are no file transfers, no webcams, none of the various add on junk you find with most of the big name instant messaging clients. And let’s face it, Steam Friends is all the better for it. It’s a simple service that does what it needs to. At least most of the time. Which is exactly where this little service fails to live up. Steam Friends suffers so much downtime, it makes you wonder what the system is actually running on; it crashes about as often as Windows 95.
For the most part, that downtime isn’t much of a problem, since few people use it for anything important, and even if the service is up and down like a yo-yo, the periods of downtime generally aren’t particularly long. But the outages are sufficiently frequent to leave you wishing that Steam really did have some of those standard added extras common to other instant messaging services. The lack of being able to send offline messages means you end up having to hold staccato conversations trying to keep in time to the downtime conductor’s baton. And with no chat logs there’s no recourse to checking what was last said if you happen to close the window. Which can be doubly troublesome if you happen to have the Steam overlay open at the same time, since the messages people send might appear on the window on your desktop, but not on the game overlay, meaning you’ll still have to ALT+TAB out of the game you’re in to read the messages, one of the supposedly key advantages of using Steam Friends in the first place!
Why hasn’t this API been opened up to third party clients? Why can users navigate the Steam Communities pages, leaving messages and reading profiles, but have to run Steam as soon as they want to send a live message? The downtime, exclusivity, and lack of ‘regular’ frills leave Steam Friends to be a last resort mechanism, when it has the potential to be a very promising communication tool.
Steam Group Chat
Similar to the Friends service above, Steam’s Group Chat provides every group on the Steam Communities page with their own little chat room. Very generous, very appealing, but does anyone actually use it? I’m sure there are some groups out there in the dark corners of the gaming world who actually pop into those chat rooms and spout some drivel, but for the rest of us, I really can’t see the point. Most other groups have already come up with their own solution to such problems, using IRC or other such technologies, and those who haven’t will have difficulty finding the Group Chat options anyway. If group administrators had the ability to tie in their chat rooms to other pieces of software, particularly IRC for example, these rooms actually might find some use, but as it is they stand pretty exclusively neglected among Steam’s various other appendages.
One of the key supposed advantages of buying games via an online content distribution service such as Steam is that the savings made by the ‘publisher’ are passed on to the customer. And not to do Steam any discredit, the customer has certainly had the opportunity to benefit from some great prices and bargains, in many cases undercutting in-store prices considerably. But that isn’t always the case. Particularly since the introduction of prices in Euros and Pounds in December, 2008, customers have been able to see the discrepancies between the various zones. Especially in the Eurozone this could leave games for sale that were actually more expensive than their box-and-disc in-store equivalents, and significantly more expensive than the prices listed in pounds or US dollars.
Whilst Valve cannot be held to blame for the price differences of many of the titles chosen by other publishers and distributors, the discrepancies can often also be seen with Valve’s own titles, most especially when games are put on limited-term offers. Of course, some users can work around the restrictions, by having others buy them games as a gift (see below) or else logging in themselves in another country, and making their purchases in the relevant currency.
Of course, giving your money to Valve for Steam purchases should be one of the easiest things in the world, but unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. Probably related to the differences in pricing mentioned above, Steam has some pretty pernickety requirements when making purchases above the payment method used and the location you’re buying from. I’ve had my Steam account locked from purchases on two or three separate occasions, without notification, for using a payment option on another account (these were the days before Steam Gifts). Clearly that’s one step away from money laundering. And only recently, my payment was refused because the address of my payment option wasn’t in the country I was buying from. This despite there being a clear option to check a box whether or not I was currently in the stated country; quite what this option is for if it is irrelevant to them, I can’t say. Is there something particularly insolent about making purchases from another country that I wasn’t aware of?
As a system capable of delivering content to pretty much anywhere with an Internet connection, it’s perfectly reasonable that Steam acknowledges local laws and adjusts its own system to abide by them. This applies to a large extent to the pricing issues mentioned above, where various distributors only have the right to publish games within certain geographic locales. In which case, it’s up to the people of those nations to find workarounds, or to complain to their governments if they feel they are being unfairly treated. But it does lead to some rather irritating and odd situations when using Steam’s services. Take one of Valve’s own recently released titles like Left 4 Dead 2. The game generated a little controversy with its content, and ended up requiring Valve to publish milder versions for customers in Australia and Germany, according to the laws in those countries. Naturally the government of Germany feels that its citizens are a little more puerile and paramnesic in character than the rest of the world, and didn’t want to risk having a few people see a bit of gore. They might have been incited to invade Poland again, who knows. Anyway, buying a copy of the game in one of those countries will result in the customer having a permanently crippled version of the game, ((As an aside, I’ve tried the crippled version of the game’s demo, and have to say the changes are pretty drastic. Instead of reacting bloodily when challenged, dead enemies instead disappear unrealistically into the ether, an effect which is rather surprising and at times quite confusing. Do German soldiers in Afghanistan get a shock when Taleban soldiers actually start bleeding when shot?)) which as far as I’m aware, cannot be fixed easily. On the other hand, loading up an account with a copy of the game purchased in another country will present the full flavour version that was supposed to be banned.
As mentioned earlier, I had my Steam account blocked from purchases in earlier days because I had the audacity to use my payment methods to log in to other people’s accounts and buy them games. Fortunately, with the introduction of Steam Gifts, this no longer became necessary. When buying a game, just tick the box that makes this available as a gift, and the copy will go to the person of your choosing; similarly, should you buy a game that you already own in a bundle, you can simply give the extra copy away.
The idea is all well and good, except for the limitations listed above about payment options, added to the problems of products only being available in certain versions in certain countries. But this is compounded by the fact that buying a gift means delivering that gift on the same instant; if you actually do want to buy someone a present for a specific occasion and want to keep it as a surprise, you’ll either have to concoct your own time-delay private email address, buy the game on the special day, or just apologise your gift is coming early!
Buy a game, a book, a car, a house, or a tube of toilet paper, and you generally find you have the right to sell it on to someone else. Alright, second-hand toilet paper is still a growth market, but you get the picture. With Steam, buy something and Valve reserve all rights for you to resell your items, including the account you bought the games on, refusing you even the right to “sell, charge others for the right to use or otherwise transfer [an] account.” Some might consider this to be a reasonable condition, for the lower prices and level of service Steam offers, but for those of us used to selling off old copies of games, the physical versions of that software does maintain some of its appeal. Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that tying the serial keys of games bought in the shops to a Steam account can render them similarly unsaleable.
Just how does Steam organise the files it puts on your system? Is there actually meant to be some method to the madness? Whilst I can see that for the most part, Valve have little say over how its clients utilise the Steam system, Valve’s own titles are about as confusing as the lot of them. Most of Valve’s titles appear in the Steam\steamapps directory as compressed .gcf files, whilst third-party titles appear under the Steam\steamapps\common directory. Valve’s Left 4 Dead title, however, does the latter. Some of the titles store their user files in sensible places under in the user directory, others store them in their own folders in the common directory, whilst most of Valve’s titles go one step further, creating extra files per Steam account under the steamapps directory. That’s difficult enough when trying to backup your savegames, locate your screenshots, or edit a config file. But the latter variety causes even more problems if you have even just a few Steam accounts being used on a single PC; since each account creates its own personalised files, items such as cached models, sounds, third-party maps and extensions are all replicated, swelling the size of the installations entirely unnecessarily. I sometimes wonder how LAN centres which have several users signing in per day deal with the associated cruft (ignoring for the moment Valve’s Cyber Café Program).
One of the obvious (dis)advantages of Steam, depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting, is the ability to download your games from wherever you are logged in. If your Internet connection is fast enough, you can get your games downloaded ready for play the moment they are ‘released’; faster than it can be delivered in most cases, certainly faster than having to get your copy from the shops. But for those of us with slow connections, downloading items from Steam can be a slow and painful experience, and one that you don’t like to have repeated every time you decide to switch hardware. Which is why the implementation of a backup system to Steam was pretty much a no-brainer. Select Backup games from the main Steam menu and you can have your downloads all neatly arranged in CD or DVD sized chunks, ready to be reinstalled at the touch of a button.
Not a bad idea, except it functions about as well as combing your hair with barbed wire. The backup process is fairly slow, slower than simply copying the files manually, but that’s reasonably forgiveable since it does at least chop up the files in reasonable sized chunks. The real problems come when trying to reinstall games using the backed up files. Installing more than one game at a time left my Steam program actually trying to download the games from the Internet, exactly what the backups were supposed to avoid, and actually left the program so unresponsive I had to kill it. Trying to install the programs one at a time often threw up the error that the servers were too busy to handle my request; when I looked again, the games were being updated from the Internet. Not too busy to suck up my bandwidth I see! Third time lucky and the game actually did start installing from the backups, albeit as slowly as it was backed up in the first place, and for each game I had to go through the same rigmarole, which would have been even more painful had I actually had the backups spread across half a dozen DVDs.
However, the number one thing holding Steam back is Valve. You can normally draw a line in the sand separating companies into those with decent moral standards, and Microsoft, and Valve would almost certainly fit into the former category. They listen to their customer base, they generally keep their products up-to-date, fixing bugs and releasing new content for free, and they opened up the Steam platform to what are essentially their competitors. Each title released is like a mini-celebration in the industry, and is generally met with decent reviews and rewardingly good sales figures.
Yet the power they wield with Steam is not to be underestimated. Since no sales figures are actually published, one can only speculate, though it is bound to be a considerable proportion of the online distribution market. This monopoly type situation is particularly problematic when you consider Steam to be a marketplace run by one of the main competitors. Even if there is no deliberate attempt on Valve’s part to give themselves pride of place, with such power comes great responsibility that should not rest in uneven hands. I’ve seen days in which one of Valve’s titles will take pride of place in their store front, ahead of game of the year winners and new releases. And I forget now where I read it, but the number of people Valve actually has working on Steam is incredibly small, something like half a dozen staff. If it were properly managed, all of the above issues with the platform could no doubt in some way be addressed, for the benefit of customers and clients alike.
Fair play to Valve, they had the idea and they ran with it, dealing with the early teething problems and creating a popular and successful piece of software, and they deserve the financial reward for it. Ideally, however, Steam should now be hived off from Valve as a separate, independent company, to focus on the equal online distribution of titles from all software houses. It’s surprising in fact that many of the larger publishing houses haven’t already pushed for such a move, or made overtures to the courts. Who knows, with that bit of extra development, they could even get round to porting the Steam platform over to other operating systems and opening up the market further. As things stand, however, that little development push on Valve’s part is lacking, and this potentially well functioning, open marketplace is slightly stifled by the monopolistic nature of Valve’s position. Steam is not a bad product. Far from it, the complaints in this list are mostly areas lacking polish, oversights that a little more focused development would soon fix, or issues that arise from Steam’s interaction with national laws and distributors rights. But the basis is certainly there, for a free, open marketplace that gaming enthusiasts and developers alike can benefit from.