I like Steam. Sure, you’ve got all the people moaning about not being able to sell on their games afterwards, but I don’t care about that - maybe because I don’t buy that many games compared to some, and I tend to hold on to them regardless more often than not.
It’s the nearest thing to XBox Live on the PC and it does a pretty good job of it. Buying games and keeping them up to date is simple, and it’s indie-friendly with far less of the snooty attitide that seems to be increasing in the console online marketplaces now they’re established.
But one thing holds it back - prices. The simple fact is that it should be cheaper to buy a game online than to buy it in a physical box. To say otherwise is utter madness - after all the boxes have to be manufactured, shipped, placed on shelves and waved through a barcode scanner by a bored teenager on their Saturday job - each stage of which sucks a little more money out of the loop. Even Amazon has to handle physical boxes and add or pay for postage & packaging. The cost of some digital storage and bandwidth pales in comparison, so why can I buy most of the games on Steam for less on Amazon, and even in my local HMV? It’s insanity.
My feeling is that this bizarre situation is forced upon them by publishers, who are simultaneously being leaned on by the physical retailers. This is backed up by the fact that any game that is not by Valve, and is also available in stores, is more expensive on Steam than it is in the shops. I guess if Best Buy threatens not to put your game on the shelf if you let Steam sell it for less, you don’t have much choice but to comply, even if that actually perpetuates the reatiler’s control over the industry, to everyone elses detriment.
Anyway, we were playing Left 4 Dead’s Crash Course expansion (pleasantly free on PC, and a superior experience there anyway) and helpfully a Left 4 Dead 2 pre-order offer popped up after we finished the game. The hooks that were offered were early access to the game and demo, and an exclusive in-game baseball bat. The asking price: £26.99, discounted from the normal price of £29.99. My first reaction was ‘ok, but it’ll be cheaper on Amazon’: except that when I looked, it wasn’t. It was precisely the same price in fact (although in this case Amazon discounted it from £34.99).
So, we pre-ordered on Steam since I’m sure it’s going to be awesome. Still, I think it could be even cheaper given that Valve must get much less than that from Amazon’s sale of the game. Hopefully as digital distribution continues to mature, we’ll see the prices come down. Games are too expensive at retail by a large margin (particularly on consoles), it’s hampering mainstream adoption, driving the second-hand sales market and piracy, and making the hit-driven mentality of the industry worse. Games need to be cheaper at first purchase, and need to sell for longer outside the first month on sale. Movies make the majority of their money from DVDs, not the box office, but the ‘big’ games are still stuck in a chase for a box-office smash. Services like Steam provide a route to a more sustainable model - and by sustainable I don’t just mean the environmental benefits of not manufacturing more plastic and shuttling it around the world with fossil fuels, I mean that games could last longer there and provide a longer tail return for their developers, all while costing the public less.
Ah well - I guess parity is at least a start. We won’t make much more progress towards sanity until the hands of the big retailers can be slowly prised from the throat of the industry.