Matt Chat 212: Dave on Blackwell & Steam

Dave Gilbert returns this week to chat about his Blackwell series, a great adventure game franchise featuring a very unlikely duo–a medium named Rosangela Blackwell and a ghostly detective named Joey Mallone. If you’re a fan of classic LucasFilm and Sierra On-Line adventures, you’ll really enjoy it. We also talk about publishing third-party games, including the best-selling Gemini Rue game. Regardless of whether you’re into adventure games or not, you’ll really want to hear the final part of the segment, which covers Dave’s trials with Steam. See more of my thoughts below the fold.


Dave’s insights into Steam from an indie developer’s perspective was really enlightening for me. Like most people, I love Steam’s fantastic sales, and have quite a few games that I would probably have never heard about (much less purchased) without the service. Having so many gamers on a single service is great in some ways and, as Dave suggests, also quite dangerous.

I’ve talked to many other developers (including Jon Hare) who talked about the perils of publishing online. Before Steam, they had to try their luck on several different “portals,” each vying for dominance so they could extract the highest fees from developers and gamers. Obviously, Valve was able to leverage the weight of its Half-Life series (and engine) quite effectively in building Steam, and their “slash and burn” sales policies were (of course) a great win with gamers.

Most of us agree, though, that Steam does have its downside. Few like the copy protection angle and the need to login to the service just to play a game. There is an offline option, but it’s not exactly simple (or without issues). Still, the fact that the option exists is enough to soothe many people’s fears about not being able to play the games they purchased.

Another concern is privacy–obviously, Valve has good reason to collect as much information about you as possible, including what you play, how long you play it, how good you are at it, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also monitor steam chat (their user agreement allows them to do so). I doubt Valve would use this information for anything other than marketing purposes, but it’s still a red flag for some people.

Probably the greatest threat of Steam, though, is simply that consolidating so much power in the hands of one company has seldom worked out well for end-users. Remember the “glory days” of AOL, and how hard they fought to keep people from realizing that they didn’t need their service and special browser to surf the web? It seems to me that Steam is coming from the opposite direction–gamers already realize that they don’t need a service like Steam to buy, install, and play games, yet the convenience and value are driving them to it. Pretty soon–I’m guessing within a few years–all major releases on Windows will require Steam or some other proprietary service (which will become less and less popular as Steam continues to grow its market share). You can already hear some gamers complaining when Game X isn’t available on Steam–especially when Game X requires them to register on another service.

In short, I think in a best case scenario, Valve will be a benevolent despot, helping to promote great games and avoiding irritating gamers to the point of insurrection or defection. However, it seems to me that one thing that has made Windows such a great platform for gaming all these years is that it was a relatively free (even anarchic) place for games. Steam seems, more than anything, a step to make PC gaming more like a console. Heck, they’re even pushing controller support and full-screen…And of course their own “box.” Hmm…


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