Over the holidays, Steam gave gamers quite the present: an ongoing series of sales with big-name games running as low as $2.50. It was hard to resist many of the deals, and many of us snapped up a large variety of games across a series of platforms. Bioshock for $5? Killing Floor for $5? Burnout Paradise for under $10? Who could say no?
With all those games flooding into all those computers though, the flaws of Steam have never been more apparent; Valve may be the leader in digital distribution for PC games, but things are far from perfect. We have some thoughts on how to make a good thing great, and we hope someone, somewhere is listening.
Get rid of the third-party DRM
Steam is its own DRM. Gamers need to be logged in to play their games, and Offline mode requires games be fully updated to play without an Internet connection. Steam is a good thing for gamers and publishers because it represents a powerful anti-piracy tool that gamers are more than willing to put up with in order to enjoy the convenience of the service.
The problem is that many games on the service still use third-party DRM solutions like SecuROM. For many gamers, the use of these technologies is enough to sour a purchase; and there is no reason to add another layer of protection—especially using such a contentious program—when piracy of Steam games is such a nonissue.
The best thing we can say about this practice is that the use of SecuROM is disclosed, but that's cold comfort to gamers trying to keep the program off their system.
Use Steam for multiplayer
Borderlands used GameSpy, Red Faction: Guerilla requires a Games for Windows account, and Burnout Paradise forces you to sign up for an account with EA before you can play online. These are just three examples I ran into over the weekend, but it's common to buy a game on Steam and find yourself filling out online forms to access parts of the game.
Steam's online play and social networking options work just fine, thank you. Anything else is an annoyance. Buying a game on a service that already works well and meets your needs, and then finding out you have to use something inferior within the game, isn't an optimal experience.
Increase the amount of available bandwidth
Valve knew that these sales were going to cause massive spikes in traffic, but downloads were still achingly slow at times last week. Worse, many people found servers that simply weren't available. You could help this problem by changing your location in your Steam options and downloading from different sites, but that's a workaround, not a solution.
Steam is only convenient when it doesn't take all night to download and install your game. Putting gamers in a position to wait for hours for their games to download or getting server errors due to overload kills one of the major draws of the service.
Worse, this happens nearly every time there is a big release. Being a victim of your own popularity may be a nice problem to have, but it's still a problem.
Allow us to sell our games
This isn't a problem unique to Steam, but since Valve offers a closed service with a variety of publishers on board, it can attempt to be part of the solution. Once you a buy a game on Steam you can't resell it and you can't return it. It's yours, tied to your account and locked down until the end of time.
During our premier chat with Brad Wardell of Stardock, he laid out a plan to make reselling PC games profitable for the publishers as well as gamers. "If a user knows that when they're done playing their $50 game that they'll be able to resell it to someone else, they're more likely to buy the game in the first place," he told Ars. "So instead of going to Gamestop with that $50 game, selling it to them for $10 and having them resell it for $20, you'd sell it through some sort of virtual market place where you could sell it for $20 —cutting out the retailer—and the original publisher makes money and the license transfer service takes a nominal fee."
Will this happen? Of course not. Publishers love digital distribution because it doesn't allow a secondary market for games. This sort of idea may fly with console games where publishers would happily run towards a solution that gives them some payment instead of the current system where they're locked out of earnings, but there is almost no reason to move from a perfectly closed system to a more open one from a business perspective. Still, we can dream.
That's not all!
We asked our readers how they'd improve Steam, and the responses were many: Mac support and a more attractive and leaner front-end were popular suggestions, but the issues we've raised in this post were the big ones. Locking content down by region was another popular gripe.
The problem is that most of these problems have little to do with Steam and much to do with what publishers will allow. It's a hard sell to get the companies behind these games to remove existing DRM or to forgo their own in-house solutions for social networking or online play. Still, the more games we buy through Steam, the more annoying these things become... and we can dream, can't we?
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