Full Steam Ahead

You may have heard that Valve is more profitable-per-employee than Apple or Google – now, forgetting that sensationalist headline, the dubious usefulness of that statistic. It’s about as useful as saying a car doing 80MPG is more efficient than an aircraft doing 6MPG. While it may be true, it doesn’t give you the full picture. It’s apples (pun not intended) and oranges.

There is no denying however that Steam is a massive success. Massively profitable and incredibly huge. It’s a Colossus, sitting astride the port of PC Gaming and sticking it’s middle finger up towards the Coast of Consoles and the naysayers who said PC Gaming was dead.

Then again, you have to ask yourself, in an age when people can download any game they wish, for free, from a torrent site, how the hell has Valve pulled off such a coup in the digital downloads market. Why have other industries stumbled where Valve have succeeded. It seems like every day the RIAA or the MPAA calling for the closure of some site, or suing some old lady who had her wifi jacked and used to steal Jimi Hendrix’s back catalogue.

So why have Valve succeeded where they haven’t?

Well, Valves after-sales services is awesome. They saw the way MMO’s deliver content and decided that it could be done for any game. Indeed, proper integration with Steam allows the downloading of patches automatically, like MMOs do, so you’re always up to date, with the added option to turn it off if you don’t want it. They allow unlimited installs, but only one concurrent account logged in (again, like MMO’s). They struck a balance between end-user freedom and the rights of the developers that everyone seems to be more-or-less okay with. Publishers aren’t so happy, as they’re mostly kept out of the loop.

Thanks to digital downloads such as Steam, D2D and MMO’s, in the last three years I’ve only stepped inside a GAME or a Gamestation once. And that was to buy Spore. Which was a waste of money. Although it did mean I got to clear all the points off my GAME card and get the special edition for £20…

So why, when it comes to the likes of Music and Videos, are things so different?

When I want to download music I use Spotify, and it’s shopping partner 7Digital. But Spotify isn’t available everywhere, and the Open version is time limited. I’m lucky enough to be on the free version (invite only, and unlimited play time). But Spotify does do things that Steam does. The social side, linking playlists, songs and albums to things like facebook. The constant updating with new tracks. It’s just a shame it’s not as popular as it should be. The £4.99/mo minimum subscription fee isn’t terribly high (it’s less than most MMO subs), but there are a few issues that seem to turn people off. It can be a bandwidth hog, and the adverts can be quite annoying. The time limited thing for most new people is a bit of a turn off and the region-specific locking meaning it’s not available outside Europe (and indeed in many countries in Europe)

For movies and TV shows, it’s very much on a regional basis as well. The UK has the BBC IPlayer, and things like 4OD that let you watch recent TV shows you missed, but only for a week or so after they’ve aired. Things like Netflix require you to be in the States, and LoveFilm, the UK alternative, is subscription or rental. If you want to buy a movie, you still have to order a boxed copy and have it delivered.

We’re in the Digital Age, and while Games are actively embracing the new technology, allowing the end user to decide how and when to use the product they purchased, other media are still dragging their heels, trying to keep to their old ways as much as possible, trying to transpose them to the digital world. Rentals, time limits, physical media and region locking are all incredibly limiting. Rentals I can live with to be honest. I wouldn’t mind using Netflix, Hulu or LoveFilm, but not every film is on every site, and region locking prevents alot of people getting the film they want, and if you want to actually own a film, physical media is nice and all, but it’s not in the spirit of the instant-access nature the internet has opened up to us.

So why are they stuck in the past, and not embracing the future? Some claim it’s bandwidth, but to be honest, the majority of AAA Games are the same size or larger than your average film, and allowing digital downloads would reduce any extra bandwidth taken up by constant streaming. I can see no good reason not to.

Music is kind of on the way, there are plenty of sites to buy music from, with differing library sizes. Some with DRM, some without. The whole hoo-ha with the Beatles coming to iTunes last year shows not that the music industry is progressive and embracing, but that it’s still cagey and wary about the internet, since it took so long to publish one of the biggest and most sought after bands, and most people who wanted their music by now already had it, either by ripping a CD or torrenting.

The music and film industry is failing at the internet because they didn’t get in on the ground floor. Valve did. By embracing the internet from the start they forged a service that keeps customers not only by the quantity and quality of the products on offer, but by the genuine feeling that the people at Valve are just that, people.

Valve are people who weren’t rich, but now are, as opposed to rich people who are afraid of not being quite as rich as they were, like the Movie and Music industries.

Who knows, one day something better might come along, and Valve will turn into the latter, and a new company will embrace the future. For now though, PC Games are in a golden age, and whatever your views on Steam, it’s undeniably the driving force behind it.

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