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Six years ago Half-Life 2 came out as a Steam exclusive. Fans of the series got a chance to figure out what the platform was all about, and then they had to decide if they were willing to accept it, or miss out on the flagship of all FPS games. Part DRM, part digital delivery system, part store and (later on) part social network, Steam offers a very different system for buying, installing, and playing games. Some accepted Steam enthusiastically. Some (like me) grudgingly. And some walked away entirely. Now that same drama is playing out again for the Civilization series.

The news has come down that Sid Meier’s Civilization V will ship with Steamworks, and there has been an outpouring of outrage from longtime Civilization fans. Now the flagship of all strategy games is going Steam, and the hardcore strategy crowd is coming to terms with this new world order of Steam based gaming.

I get the sense that a good portion of the Civilization fans are pretty much hardcore strategy types, with a preference for old-school depth and turn-based gameplay. They don’t seem to go in for shooters and other action games, which explains why they’re just now becoming aware of Steam. The thread I linked above has all the same debates we’ve seen played out a thousand times already:

1) The hassle of online activation vs. the convenience of auto-patching.
2) “Steam is a stable lightweight client” vs. “Steam is a crash-prone resource-hungry virus.”
3) Concerns over never owning or controlling the game vs. the convenience of never needing the disk again.

And so on. We’ve been there, done all that. I’ve said before that Steam is a tradeoff where you give up a bunch of rights and privileges in exchange for a bunch of convenience. A deal like that will appeal to some and repel others, and I don’t have anything against either the Steam fans or haters.

But it’s worth noting what a huge step forward this is for 2k Games. They were early to the party when it came to the activation-based DRM that has all of the drawbacks of Steam and none of the advantages. At the release of BioShock, people were screaming at 2k Games to give up this mad nonsense and just use Steam. It took them a few years, but the publisher has finally done that.

But while this is a step forward for 2k Games, it no doubt feels like a draconian policy to longtime Civilization fans. If they want to play the game they must install Steam, even if they don’t want to play multiplayer. Even if they bought retail. As far as they can tell, Steam doesn’t have anything to offer them. (And for many, this is true. Steam fans go wild for Valve’s insane weekend price cuts, but if this group of hardcore number-crunching gamers doesn’t care about 99% of the games in the store, what then? If they don’t want the store, don’t need the matchmaking, and don’t care about Steam’s auto-patching, then Steam has nothing to offer them but hassle.)

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This also means that other digital delivery services like Impulse and Gamers Gate won’t carry Civilization V. And I don’t blame them. From a business perspective, this is like releasing a game for the PS3 that requires you also own an Xbox 360 in order to to play it. Why sell a product that will strengthen your competitor? In fact, this digital distribution war is probably going to end up looking a lot like console wars. Some games will be cross-platform, but others will be platform-exclusive, and whenever an exclusive comes out gamers will have to choose to either miss out on the game or adopt yet another platform. Thankfully, digital platforms are a lot cheaper than hardware ones. The cost of running Steam, Impulse, Direct 2 Drive, or Gamers Gate is basically no more than the memory, CPU, and hard drive the thing eats up.

A while back I talked about how different online services will dogpile on a single game, like how Grand Theft Auto IV required Games for Windows Live, Rockstar Social Club, Steam, and SecuROM in order to run. This is a very strange time and we’re seeing big changes come very fast. On one side of the battlefield we have services teaming up, and on the other side we have them blocking each other with exclusives. Some services are stores, some are social networking and multiplayer matchmaking, and some are DRM. Some are a combination of these. Everyone can see that the future is digital, but nobody quite knows what it will look like and everyone is trying to hedge their bets.

For the record, I’m cheering for the underdogs. (That is, everyone that isn’t Steam.) It’s not that I want to see Steam do poorly. I’ll admit that Valve seems like Santa today, selling games for cheap and providing free updates and new content for years after a game comes out. Imagine how other publishers would handle the endless stream of Team Fortress 2 updates. They would be trying to sell us a new $20 DLC every couple of months, and the entire community would be balkanized over who owned what and which servers supported them. It would be an expensive and horrifying mess. I’ll admit that nobody but Valve is capable of delivering us the fountain of free awesome that is Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead. (Although I have to give credit to Stardock for doing much the same thing for strategy gamers.)

But no matter how nice Valve is today, I don’t like to see any one company grab too much of the market this early in the game. As I keep reminding the young people, having one company run the show is a bad thing for the consumer, no matter how benevolent the company seems. I want everyone to remember that Electronic Arts began life as a tiny indie art house developer before they became a cutthroat corporate juggernaut. Nobody knows what Valve (and thus Steam) will look like in ten years. Companies usually either collapse or grow, both of which change the behavior and personality of a company. Stasis is exceptionally rare and not something you should bet on.

In any case, the strategy gamers are being yanked into the world of Digitial Distribution, DLC and DRM in one abrupt move. To those gamers I say: Welcome to the zoo, folks. Do try to have some fun amidst the chaos.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Spoiler Warning, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels. He likes Civilization. Even though he’s rubbish at it.

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