Is Steam evil?

Gabe Newel

Well, yes. What happens if the ownership moves to someone... evil? Valve is owned privately, mainly by one man: the angelic Gabe Newell. A one-time producer on "the first three versions of Windows", Newell was one of approximately 12,000 early Microsoft employees who cashed out their stock options in 1996, after they'd increased in value a hundredfold. Newell is rumoured to have walked away with half a billion dollars.

It was he and fellow Windows programmer Mike Harrington who, with the encouragement of id's John Carmack and Michael Abrash, decided it was time for a new, clever PC gaming company and put their windfall money into founding Valve in 1996. Harrington sold out in 2000, leaving Gabe in sole control of the company.

If Gabe Newell sells out or passes away, or is forced into a sale by legal action or personal financial problems, this might happen (though the latter is unlikely, given his $1.5bn fortune).

We've seen companies sell out that we never thought would, that seemed financially secure - id Software, BioWare and Bullfrog, for example. There's no reason to think Valve couldn't go that way too.

So how would an Evil Steam change its behaviour on price? Well, the company has most developers (especially indies) over a barrel, so it's likely it would renegotiate profit shares with them and probably also renegotiate control over price.

Once Steam can alter the price of products, it can raise prices as-and-when to maximise its profits, even at the expense of developers. It might also mean more regional inequality, more incidental charges, and more price-gouging in other areas - but that's unlikely because Valve knows how vocal its community is and how fast they'll move if there are problems. The developers are the ones who will lose out as they can't afford to move away.

More evil options

How else could Valve be evil? Could it introduce DRM? Well, Steam already has that, in the form of its always-on connection; you can play in an offline mode, but the tech is old, clunky and requires setting up. You can't play your games on more than one computer at the same time.

Is it silly to be scared of losing access to all our games? Well, software developers do change their terms of service. Ask anyone who bought the original Guardian iOS app, which promised unlimited access to the Guardian for ever, for just £1.49. This was far too good a deal and the Guardian discontinued it a year later.

Valve is extremely unlikely to do this, but if it goes bust, as unlikely as that is, we will lose access to all those games we think we own. At least Direct2Drive and Good Old Games give you the entire DRM-free installer for any game you buy from them. Steam games simply won't work without that always-on connection.

Barring technical problems, or the closure of Valve itself, legally we shouldn't lose access to our games, as the EU is on our side. The courts of the European Union ruled in July last year that software was a product, not a service, that reselling properly purchased software is a legitimate business, and that the original company (Valve, in this case) has the same duty of service to the owner of second-hand games as new ones.

When Valve tried to change its terms of service to prevent end-users starting class-action lawsuits (presumably to prevent any such lawsuit about the transfer of games between users), the EU ordered it to change back.

Meanwhile, the way Steam links games to accounts and prohibits the sale of accounts, precludes any ability to sell games on - despite the tech being trivial for Valve itself (as evinced by the ability to 'gift' games on the system).

While I was writing this piece, a German consumer rights agency instigated legal action against Valve because of this. Simply put, in terms of consumer rights as dictated by the normally business-friendly courts, Valve is already acting like it's evil. This highlights that the real problem with the Evil Valve concept isn't that it's unlikely - it's that it wouldn't make that much difference to the end user, because Evil Valve is not Stupid Valve.

Today's Valve isn't Saintly Valve either - it's much more human. It simply isn't going to do anything that threatens its ability to do what it wants to: make and evangelise great games. Developers would see their Steam profits diminish, but the external market is fairly healthy these days, and Valve is still the best place to market PC games of any type.

How would an Evil Valve affect the Steam Box? Well, some games might end up as Steam Box exclusives - for example, big-name indie games or Valve's own titles. At the moment, Valve says:

"We think you should get your game in front of as many people as you can, therefore we do not require exclusivity on titles." Again, making any games Steam Box exclusives is unlikely, as it would damage the most profitable part of the business and doesn't fit with Steam as a platform-agnostic system.

It might be that Valve behaves more like a business, forcing developers who want to be on Steam to support the Steam Box's biometrics, but, again, this would be good for consumers.

Goody two shoes

Steam box

Whatever the Steam Box ends up looking like, it'll be interesting

Despite our worries, we're aware that this is rampant speculation. We expect that Gabe, one of the cleverest, wisest men in computing, has put elements in place so that Valve continues once he's gone.

The team he'll leave behind, through strict hiring policies and a flat internal hierarchy, is the most creative, well-intentioned and talented anywhere in games. When Chet Faliszek, one of Valve's writers, tells us that "I hear, see, and speak no evil," we're inclined to believe him.

So what future do we really see for Valve? Well, we think the Steam Boxes will be extremely disruptive - particularly the mid-range 'Better' Box, which will act as a replacement for the next-gen consoles (PS4 and Xbox 720).

Looking at how Steam has progressed from something that had us all digitally queuing for two days to play Half-Life 2 to an ultra-efficient free gaming platform that's the fourth biggest consumer of data in the world, we know that when Valve tries something, it might not be right first time, but it will be polished until it's perfect. And it will listen to its users while it works on it.

Given its record, we expect their eventual reveal of its future tech and Half-Life 3 will go hand-in-hand and will be truly stunning - but we won't see it until it's ready, and it won't be hurried by anyone.

Dystopian endgame 1

Endgame 1

One of the best things to come out of the mod scene? We think so...

The Warcraft games, affectionate knockoffs of Command & Conquer and Warhammer, had a certain goofy charm. But the jump from these simple strategy titles to the world's biggest-ever game, World of Warcraft, was a strange psychological leap for everyone except my editor. Yet the next leap will addle even my editor's super-brain.

Our next dystopian PC gaming future is that many of the next big games will be based on the old Warcraft III map, Defense of the Ancients - and that they'll all be free. This is a bit of a late prediction, to be fair. All the existing giant MOBAs have already been based on this map - Demigod, Bloodline Champions, League of Legends, Blizzard: All-Stars and DotA 2, with the latter three actually matching the map's layout exactly.

It's not just MOBAs. Whispers inside the big strategy game franchises say that they're looking at MOBA versions of their games too - and given the relative simplicity and familiarity of the MOBA model (each player controlling one character, working in teams), we wouldn't be surprised to see elements of it cropping up in the multiplayer modes of other games. Bank on at least one blockbuster FPS franchise having something akin to MOBA in its next incarnation.

Dystopian endgame 2


This might sound like a utopia, but the best dystopias always do. Currently, games are becoming pervasive; it's well known that the average gamer these days is a 40-year old mother of two. Facebook took games to the masses, but they got bored of FarmVille fast, and moved on.

My hairdresser is a grandmother in her late 50s, but she plays Diablo III and World of Warcraft in between cutting heads. At the other end, gamification is being used by large corporations to manage their staff. Games will be everywhere.

"But," you cry, in your rich baritone, "we'll still want to play on PC!" We've talked before about the new game-streaming tech and how it's just waiting for network speeds to be fast enough; why play on PC, when you can play anywhere?

More importantly than that, tablets are already running at higher resolutions than most PC monitors, are approaching the speeds of desktops and are cheaper as well (as they've mostly disposed of the bloatware that is Windows). What remaining advantages will a PC have when other devices are faster, are easier to use and have a wider range of games on them?

Notably, Gabe Newell himself is sceptical of this dystopia, as he said in his keynote speech at the recent DICE conference. "Cloud gaming works until it starts to be successful - at which point, it falls over. All the spreadsheets ignore the producing levels that consumer networks use. When everyone starts using a continuous network connection in order to get their applications, prices are going to go through the roof."

Essentially, because networks can't deal with this traffic, streaming tech will never work. Newell's solution is familiar to Microsoft Media Center users: a PC in the home, streaming to all devices over a local network. "I think there's a place for cloud gaming, but more as a feature or for things like demos and spectating. But not as core architecture."

Dystopian endgame 3

Remember prohibition? Probably not first-hand, so let us recap for you. In the 1920s, America banned alcohol as a highly addictive anti-social substance, with the support of the vast majority of the population, but oddly against the wishes of a substantial minority of non-drinkers. If games are shown to be clinically problematic, gamers could face a similar fate.

The mechanism for this may come from the next DSM - the American Psychiatric Association's classification tool for mental illness. The latest DSM-5 (just released as a draft) says that more research is needed on games addiction, but the next one will likely include recent studies showing that internet usage and video games (particularly online gaming) are highly addictive, on a level comparable to cocaine, amphetamines and such like.

If games are shown to be addictive in this way, we predict that legislators will make access to them more limited, especially to children. Would you let your child use something that's been proved to be highly addictive, even as a gamer yourself?

Like cigarettes and alcohol, a balance will be struck, with age ratings on games taking into account not just moral issues (sex and violence), but also the likelihood of addiction. Game developers, especially those developing for children, will have to think much harder about how to avoid compulsion-based gaming mechanics if they want younger players to be allowed to play their games.

Online games in particular have already been tarred with names like EverCrack and implicated in deaths, crime and murder. It's most likely that these will face the heaviest brunt of any future regulation.