Paper or plastic …. or digital?

If I have not already made it clear enough, I am highly preferential to products developed and distributed by Valve.  If you were to accuse me of being a fan-boy for a company and associated products, I would bow and take it as a badge of honor.  This leaves me in something of a dilemma, as this leaves me with a great deal of interest into the new and budding digital distribution market for games, but at the same time, a great deal of personal emotional investment in one of the competing companies in this new market.

You would be right in thinking that this would skew my perceptions of the market, and whereas this doesn’t bother me all that much as I’m here to editorialize, as opposed to simply pump out objective fact, I can still post about this with a clean conscience.  I also want to stay honest and relevant however, and as a result I realize that my own delusion that Steam is the only thing from keeping the Large Hadron Collider from killing us all makes it difficult to see other companies without colored perceptions.

I want the digital distribution platform to gain credibility as a market. When this happens, there will be an upside and a downside.   The downside is that it will attract investors and a lot of money will flow in that will influence the people making my games in ways I may not want.  The upside is that it will attract investors and a lot of money will flow in that will keep the people making my games in business.

It’s not encouraging when the CEO of a well established prior partner to Valve and damn good developer, Gearbox, accuses Valve of holding a monopoly over the market with Steam.  I get mixed feelings about this.  I mean, is this a bad thing? Valve can do no wrong!  … Okay, I’m not that deluded, but I do think that the people currently running the company are smart and trustworthy, and are making money hand over fist not for manipulating the chosen market, but by inventing the market and then proceeding to do better than anyone else.  At the same time, the rest of the real world will have a hard time taking a fledgling market seriously if one company dominates the market, while a couple smaller competitors fight over the table scrap remnants.  Is this the future of software sales or just a flash in the pan? Yes, this is how I see things, and yes, I know it probably isn’t completely accurate.

This all takes me to the article that got me going on this.  It’s no surprise that digital distributors have analyst meetings, what is a surprise is that there’s something of a spat going on over a report published in one of those meetings.  Direct2Drive is disputing a report published by Stardock that breaks down an estimation of the current market share of the digital distribution market.  According to the report, Valve’s Steam platform currently owns close to, if not more than half the market for games sold and revenue collected revenue through Digital Distribution, leaving the rest of the market for the likes of D2D, Impulse and Stardock to fight over.  This makes me feel all well and good, because the company I like is ‘winning’.

But one thing I must ask is whether or not I as a consumer really benefit from such a lopsided market.  Furthermore, petty bickering and accusations of outright fabrication is not unusual for any industry, but does it really improve the industry as a whole?

The only thing that is certain is that where things stand right now, it is difficult to draw solid numbers on sales. No physical products are being sold, and privately owned businesses like Valve have no obligation to reveal sales figures, further muddling the issues, possibly to the company’s own benefit.  I’m not implying wrongdoing, only that Valve’s control over its own company gives it leverage over public companies, compounded by its apparent market dominance.

I will rue the day Valve changes hands, or becomes open to public trading, but as it is now, I feel that the company can be trustworthy to work in my best interest, as I (the paying customer) am Valve’s primary revenue incentive.  That can change.  No good thing lasts forever, I only hope that Valve and Steam last in their current form for a long time.

It’s difficult to say where digital distribution goes from here concerning the PC. I’m no business analyst, just an opinionated consumer.  Digital distribution isn’t perfect for everyone, as not all gamers have access to high-speed broadband, leaving them out in the cold if the retail PC market continues to slowly wither and die like it has been doing.

It is my hope that no matter who comes out as ‘the most profitable’, the ones making and selling games are the people who genuinely care about the quality of the product and the art form that is gaming.

tl;dr: Digital distribution for the PC is a new and expanding market that has yet to define and establish itself. Valve seems to be on top for now and I think that’s a good thing … for now. Where do we go from here?

Entitlement

You’ve got to love the PC vs Console debate, so much angst and gnashing of teeth as to whether or not it is preferable to enjoy the gaming experience on a couch with a controller, as opposed to sitting at a desk with a mouse and keyboard.  Recent newslines in various gaming blogs and other sites have only exacerbated this debate, specifically the launches of Left 4 Dead 2 and Modern Warfare 2.

One phrase I’ve read multiple times … repeated to the point that it sounds like a political talking point is “… PC gamers have such an [adjective] sense of entitlement …”. Being a PC gamer, this grates on me a bit, as I’m being actively called out in a collective statement.

This begs the question however. Do I have a sense of entitlement when it comes to the games I play?  Damn right I do.  I feel entitled to receive a quality product in return for the money I pay, knowing full well that I have little to no options as to return or refund. Furthermore, I’ll be very, very lucky to have an opportunity to play a demo of the product before I make this irrevocable purchasing decisions.  All I have to go on are trailers, game play previews and reviews, none have which have been completely successful at predicting how much I would actually enjoy my purchase.

Let’s put all this into context concerning the two controversy’s that have come up as of late.  I’ll start off by saying that I have purchased L4D2 … and I have not purchased, or pirated Modern Warfare 2.  I refuse to pirate for the simple reason that it would rob me of intellectual honesty when arguing the case for games developed for the PC. Yes, I’m that narcissistic, and I have the money to actually pay for the games I play.  I have not participated in a boycott for either of those games as actions speak louder than words.

When Left 4 Dead launched, I was pleased … the actual game play had the same polish and love that I had come to expect from Valve titles. However, I had some reservations.  It was a Source game that felt like it had been partially redesigned with the console in mind … which it was.  The server browser was gone, replaced by an initially irritating matchmaking system.  The console was still there, and the server browser (albeit modified) and mod support came in time, but there were definite misgivings and alarm about the fact that Valve was starting to cater to the console.

Let me get one thing straight, I don’t hate consoles, but there’s a lot of bad blood with me over the fact that many quality developers who used to make quality games for my platform, had either voluntarily switched to the console gamer as the primary intended audience, or done so at the behest of a gaming publisher.  In too many cases, PC franchises suffered for it.  System Shock to Bioshock, Deus Ex to Invisible War.  At this point there are precious few AAA developers who put a priority into optimizing PC versions of their games.  Valve is at the forefront of those that do … a proverbial last bastion of PC gaming.  ID, Epic, Maxis, Blizzard and many others have switched focus to developing multi-platform titles … with results of varying quality.

The very thought that privately owned Valve might follow in this trend was worrying … as I see very little in the way of PC exclusive content coming out of any of the other AAA developers.  But I kept quiet (for the most part, I still bitched about matchmaking) … I trusted Valve.

Then Left 4 Dead 2 was announced … and oh boy, was that a firestorm of outrage from the PC faithful.

For those of you who don’t understand what all the big fuss was about, Valve takes care of it’s customers, relies on consumer feedback, and takes FOREVER to release a game. I’m talking a five to ten years for a full title launch. Valve had a very clear commitment to quality.  The episodic content for Half-Life was a new and fresh idea that was welcome, as it got good content into our hands much faster and continued the story.  To see a full sequel title announced to launch nary a year after the first game was a surprise. Even bigger was the fact that they would be using the same game engine to simply add more campaigns, weapons and special infected and slapping a sequel numeral at the end of it.

Yes, yes, they promised us support like we were used to receiving for TF2, new weapons and nifty features for free, I got over that “broken promise” in a hurry. What was really troubling was the reason for this move.  Microsoft does not allow content DLC available for XBox 360 titles without forcing gamers to pay for it.

I respected that Valve was trying to co-develop a title for PC and console equally, but in the process it had painted itself into a corner.  Valve would badly damage it’s reputation with it’s core PC gamer consumer base if it started charging for small, incremental updates on the PC. On the other hand, it would not be fair to the 360 players to pay five bucks (or heck knows how many MS points that comes to) for each ‘class update’ equivalent Valve would release if it kept to it’s original plans.  With TF2, PC gamers got quality of service and added content unheard of … we were and still are treated like princes by Valve.  My heart goes out to those who bought TF2 on 360 or PS3, you got shafted.

So, in order to find the best of both worlds, they wrapped up a year’s worth of incremental improvements coupled with a longer set of campaigns than the original, and stuck a big, fat 2 on the end of it.  Not the happiest solution for us PC gamers, but probably the wisest.   I wanted to continue the wacky adventures of Bill, Zoey, Francis and Louis, but with new infected and more weapons … I didn’t get what I wanted. I still got my money’s worth.  L4D2 is an excellent game … an improvement on the original, it’s just a shame that there’s now little incentive to play the original content save for the nostalgia of watching Louis talk about his narcotics habit. Oh, and I may not like the four new survivors as much, but Ellis is so lovable.

In the end, I saw my darling developer make a concession away from the PC gamer, and the thought that this was a beginning of a trend terrified me.  I bitched, I moaned, I joined the mindless throng that erupted into an internet firestorm of protest.  For the record, I did NOT join a boycott. I bought the game, and my enjoyment of it, along with statements from Valve, kept my trust intact. End of story.

Activision coupled with Infinity Ward are not Valve. This much is obvious. Activision is a massive publishing company that rivals Electronic Arts.  Activision is publicly traded, whereas Valve is privately owned.  Activision has a commitment to it’s shareholders, Valve has a commitment to it’s customers.  Get the idea?  It’s not a matter of good versus evil, it’s simply a matter of different priorities.  With that said, the announcement that Modern Warfare 2 would be essentially a direct port of the console version was still such a solid kick to the balls that it made the Left 4 Dead 2 ‘controversy’ look like a weak but affectionate punch to the shoulder. Still, the outrage from the PC gaming community, to me at least, came from the same source.  We had lost another PC centric franchise to the name of profit, completely.

I see a lot of people blaming for Infinity Ward for this … but it doesn’t rub with me. I’ve played Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4, enjoyed them both. A developer like this doesn’t make such drastic changes to a flagship franchise that would needlessly upset the original consumer base without someone or something else calling the shots. I took a good look at Activision and I’m starting to see a pattern.  Paid DLC for aditional optional content in WoW … Starcraft 2 being launched in three parts without LAN support, and now we have Modern Warfare 2 without dedicated servers and no promise of mod support. Then I found this article and things fell into place.

I’m not blaming this on piracy, or on consoles themselves. This all comes from a very painful ‘truth’ that has been slammed in the face of PC gamers for years now.  We aren’t profitable anymore.

I’m going to save you some of my more divisive logic on this subject and simply stick with the simple facts.  AAA titles with massive ad campaigns for well established franchises sell more copies off the shelf for consoles than they do for PC. Far more. Digital distribution and the new face of gaming is just that … new.  Lots of money there but it has still yet to prove itself interesting or compelling to the investor looking to get a return on his money. Statistics for products sold at Wal-Mart or Gamestop can be showcased in analyst meetings and draw more investment money. This is how the business world works, behind the times or not. Unfortunately, being behind the times for big business isn’t hurting the gaming industry nearly as much as it is hurting the music industry … yet.

Don’t believe me? Go to your local Gamestop and look at the proportional shelf space they set aside for PC titles as compared to console titles.  The future of PC gaming is in digital distribution, something that the console market is just starting to experiment with.

Activision is taking a card out of EA’s playbook, and arguably, they’re doing a better, more cutthroat job of it.  Take an established franchise, cut out all unnecessary production costs, spend the money you saved in marketing and it’ll sell off the shelves like hotcakes to those console gamers who don’t know any better.  The product may not be any worse for the intended audience … but I’m still pissed because I’m no longer the intended audience.

Even without this trend with the major publishers, it’s hard to shovel through all the crap to find the good titles for the PC.  The fact that all sales are final and demos are a luxury, rather than mandatory … added to the fact that review scores are of debatable value … and any PC game purchase is a crap-shoot.

We as PC gamers could take all of this siting down, or we could say something about it.  And boy are we … as evidenced by all of the bitching and moaning in the steam forums and at Infinity Ward.  But the investors don’t care about a few whiny geeks who boycott a game and then buy it anyway. We don’t have any damn credibility.

I can tell you with a straight face that I didn’t join any boycotts.  I probably would have enjoyed Modern Warfare 2’s single player, and I really wasn’t interested in the multiplayer to begin with. I didn’t pirate Modern Warfare 2.

I feel that my sense of entitlement to get what I pay for is justified. I also didn’t buy the game.

tl;dr: Big publishers are screwing PC gaming for the sake of more profitable markets. Boycotts are innefective. Vote with your wallet. Make your voice known on the forums, but in a way that lends credibility and maturity. Don’t pirate.  There are a few quality alternatives left. Let’s make those quality alternatives profitable by buying them.