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There is a desire among publishers to do for the PC what Xbox Live does for the Xbox and the Playstation Network does for the PlayStation. Everyone has a sense that digital distribution and/or social networking is the key to the future and that there is a great deal of money to be made in setting up shop early and securing your own share of the market, even before the market takes shape. Nobody is quite sure how games will be sold and played ten years from now, but they all know they want to be the ones running the community or selling the titles. We can already see this process at work. On the sales side we have platforms like Direct 2 Drive, EA Store, and Impulse. On the networking and matchmaking side we have things like Games for Windows Live and Gamespy. And then we have Steam, which does both.

Over a year ago, I predicted that the imitation of Steam would lead to a crazy mess where every publisher would have their own content delivery system for the PC, and every game would be linked to one. Remember how these systems usually work: The program sets itself up to run when Windows starts, and it must be running if you want to play the game. If you follow this scheme to its logical conclusion, you’ll see that the system tray of every gaming PC would eventually end up clogged with loaders, patchers, helpers, and monitors. Every publisher would have a program for serving up content, connecting players, managing digital licenses, performing patches, and (most importantly) selling stuff. Some people don’t mind having “just one more” program running in the background. But what happens when you have programs from Valve, Stardock, Activision, 2k Games, Take-Two, Codemasters, Microsoft, Eidos, and Ubisoft? Sure, you could disable them. But then when you fire the thing up to play a game, it will want to spend fifteen minutes patching itself and the game before it will let you in. And imagine how fun it would be juggling accounts for all of them.

This was the horror I forsaw last year, but now I can see that no matter how pessimistic and cynical I get, the games industry is always one step ahead of me. While having lots of programs running at once is a terrible prospect, it is nothing compared to the nightmare of having multiple programs all connected to a single game. This Christmas I picked up Grand Theft Auto IV through Steam (in my defense: I knew the PC version was a train wreck, but it was super, super cheap) and I got a glimpse of the coming digital delivery spamocalypse. GTA IV ran under Games for Windows Live. But I don’t know why, because as far as I could tell it didn’t use any GFWL features. For multiplayer, it used the Rockstar Social Club. And all of this ran under Steam. Steam, GFWL, and Rockstar Social Club all have their own unique login systems, which means the game basically wanted three sets of login credentials. (On the other hand, only the Steam one is mandatory. On the other other hand, Social Club is a hateful, pestering bastard.)

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And despite having three programs trying to be “in charge” of the game, Rockstar still felt the need to include SecuROM. So I was really running five programs: The game itself, and four other stupid, useless hangers-on to eat up memory, cause problems, and make things more complicated.

You can see how deals like this are created. Every company will want gamers to use their platform. So any time two companies make some sort of deal, they will each try to shoehorm their own platform into the game. Developer, publisher, and distributor. I now dread a future where the software interface for a game will be every bit as complicated as the legal relationship between the companies who brought it to market.

This senseless layering of superfluous programs is even more evident in the DRM arena. Batman Arkham Asylum came to the PC on Steam, but they also included SecuROM and online activation. BioShock 2 will do the same stupid thing. Even for highly-paid idiots who don’t understand how DRM works it should be clear that whatever they fantasize SecuROM is doing, Steam is already doing. Only better.

They keep calling these digital delivery platform things “stores”. The Steam store, EA Store, etc. That’s how the people that made them view it. They see it as a store from from which to sell you games. But brick and mortar stores are usually interchangeable. I give them money and they give me a product and the deal ends. I don’t take the store home with me. But with a digital store the purchase is just the beginning. Once you buy from them, you will have their “store” running on your computer. Forever. (Or at least, for as long as you want to have access to the game. If you uninstall the store, you can’t play the game.) This can apply even when you buy a physical copy of the game. (I bought Velvet Assassin this year for reasons I won’t get into, and the game still requires Steam even though I own a physical copy.)

It will take a few years for all of this to shake out. I don’t know who will win in the end (aside from Valve, who was already winning before anyone else thought to join the game) but I’m pretty sure it won’t be gamers.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Reset Button, Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels.

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