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Pc Gaming And Digital Distribution

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Thundery wintry showers

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This blog article will explore the future of PC gaming using DRM on the one hand, and online extras/support on the other, and how things may pan out if we see numerous competitors such as "Origin" compete (if that's the right word for it, as we will see below) with Valve Software's "Steam".

As many will already know, I am a strong opponent of forcing Digital Rights Management (DRM) on consumers because of the vast potential for abuse (as DRM basically gives the DRM owner scope to set whatever restrictions that he/she wants). On the other hand, I support the use of account-based activation to access online extras, as it's a good way of rewarding paying customers and creating a difference between a pirated copy and a legitimate copy.

I've been using Valve Software's "Steam" quite a lot recently, which is an interesting case in that it follows both models (it uses DRM but is also pretty good on the "rewarding paying customers with online extras" front) and as of November 2011, in my experience the benefits have at least counterbalanced the reservations about the DRM. For instance, the "you can't play 2-4 multiplayer with 1 copy of the game" issue pales into insignificance when I pick up the games for 2-4 times less than the retail price due to taking advantage of Steam's offers and "5 for the price of 2" type "game packs". But the main subject of this blog is, would it be better for PC gaming if we were to have Steam as a near-monopoly on clients and digital distribution or better to have a lot of competition? There are those who say competition is better, while there are others who are dead against it because they want all their DRM-authenticated titles on one platform. I actually think both sides have a case, and will outline two relevant scenarios below.

1. If gamers get a free choice as to which client they use for their games, with at worst a one-time activation on the developer's own service, then I think it will certainly be a good thing. PC gamers will have a choice as to whether they use multiple clients for their games or are happy to stick everything on the one client. Competitors would have to become good in order to get many PC gamers to flock over to them and away from Steam, and if they succeeded, they could offer benefits that Steam doesn't currently have, prompting Steam to improve. Gamers will get a better all-round experience.

2. If we get the competitors selling titles exclusively on their own systems and making the games exclusive to their own clents, then I think it will actually be a bad thing. The likely scenario there is gamers getting no more choice (as each game is tied to the developer's own client), having to use lots of different clients just to play their games. The more powerful companies (such as EA with Origin) could well take a lot of market share away from Steam by forcing essentially inferior imitations of Steam onto their customers. Valve has opted not to heavily abuse the control that Steamworks DRM gives them, but if competing companies choose to abuse the control that the DRM gives them, and manage to eat heavily into Steam's dominance by doing so, it may well make Valve feel they have to use bully-boy tactics to avoid losing a lot of custom- so even Steam ends up an inferior version of what it is now.

In my view, it would be most ideal if these services only required account-based activation in order to access online facilities, and not to install and play the game (going back to my first paragraph). Then, companies wouldn't be able to force people to use their clients with DRM, so it would be harder to "push" the second of the two scenarios. Companies would have to seriously consider both making their online facilities as good as possible and offering access to patches and DLC via alternative clients including Steam, so as to encourage gamers to buy their products for the online extras instead of pirating them, all of which would "push" the first of the two scenarios. I don't really see that happening though, because of the "copying is theft" mantra, the desire to "push" clients on consumers, move away from gamers "buying" games and towards "renting" them, and scupper the used games market, all of which companies address with DRM- although if Good Old Games.com (a DRM-free digital distribution outlet) gets more successful, you never know!

I'm not at all sure which direction the PC gaming industry will go when it comes to clients, digital distribution and DRM, but it is unlikely to be my problem anytime soon, as a large majority of the PC games I get are produced by Valve, Bethesda or id Software (now taken over by Bethesda's parent company incidentally), and the latter two seem quite happy to either use no DRM at all or use Steam.
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Another problem with all this DRM stuff is that it has killed off mod development by users as more and more companies come to care about nothing more than a quick buck, so rather than releasing a game with tools to increase its longevity by allowing players to make new content they simply give you a bunch of encrypted files then occasionally release mod packs which they charge people for.

But again this raises another problem becase when I have purchased them in the past you then fire up the game and there are too few people with the mod to get any games going.

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Indeed, that last paragraph was an issue when I decided whether or not to use the Doom 3 expansion pack (Resurrection of Evil) for my Doom 3 mod, and I decided against it because not enough people owned it.

I find that the three developers I quoted above (Valve, Bethesda, id Software) are among the few who still release mod tools with most of their games (e.g. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim already has dozens of mods out and it's only been out for 12 days) and Steamworks DRM is designed to facilitate such modding, though it largely prevents modding that relies upon modifying game executables which makes it more of an issue on some third party titles.

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