How Will Valve Help to Shape the Future of Gaming and Linux?

This was originally an email I sent to someone else about Valve, I think that it merits being read publicly. I originally started typing about Valve and their relationship to Linux, but it all really centers around concerns about DRM and video game distribution control. I’d like to share my thoughts with everyone on this topic.

This is a posting about Valve’s intention’s for their development debugger for Linux and Steam OS.

I use Linux and love how Valve’s attention is helping to get things improved with certain elements of it, namely native games support. Some have posted before that the Valve Corporation uses misdirection (wheels on desks) and other people’s work (some of their games) to make their money while hiding their intentions publicly. I agree with that sentiment – sometimes. Steam OS will be open source, available to anyone and will help to make Linux a platform more friendly for game development and game releases. Valve’s aim, of course, is to control distribution of the games. An open source strategy will work perfectly for them since it will allow for Steam and all of their other work to be more easily spread. As long as it ties into Steam services or at least spreads word about in some form, it helps them to reach more people. In the end, Valve can do their bit of work and get plenty of other people to work on their software for free and still offer the Steam experience to everyone.

This places a player like me in an awkward/difficult position. I want more games of every sort to come to a single platform that meets most of my computing needs. For any company that can bring serious improvements to Linux gaming, I will want their attention and support. I show my seriousness with my spending, I spend my money solely on what I would like to support. The only problem is that my money (or Linux gamers money) is nowhere near as enticing as the money that Windows and Mac gamers spend. If Valve improves the viability of Linux as a third PC platform then that’s great, but if they control the distribution and convince everyone to target Steam as their distribution method then I might as well go back to Windows for gaming. I buy my games without DRM and plan to continue doing so. I have used Steam and still use it, but I have not purchased Steam games for myself in a long time.

I did break that stance last year to support some early games that I liked that released for Linux (Serious Sam 3 and a couple of other games, it broke a nearly 1-2 year hiatus of Steam spending). I immediately stopped after that first round of spending since I remembered that I hated the confines of drm. Valve using Linux to promote its’ distribution and game value sapping services is a blessing and plague all at once. They offer things that are good for gamers and developers in the short-term but it will harm everyone greatly over time. It’s great to buy a game cheaply, but is it great to seek an audience that will only buy games because they are cheap? Without being able to actually compel your audience on merit alone it is doomed to become unsustainable. The best (and possibly worst) part about this is that they don’t force anything on anyone (except for the drm), you have to opt-in on both sides of the equation, developer and gamer. People are so shortsighted (myself too sometimes). The devil doesn’t make you do anything, it just holds open the door. People need to stop walking through it no matter how good the other side may look if they value the future of gaming.

If I had to offer a solution I would just ask developers to make their work both on and off of Steam (without drm). This solution is actually being practiced now by quite a few developers and even publishers. Unfortunately, I am only a game player and not a developer. I don’t completely understand how companies are able to make profits and sustain them. At this moment I can only go by what I observe, I hope to eventually find and understand the source perfectly instead of going after the symptoms of the blight that I see in the industry. If it means anything, I’d like to present the words of Jeff Vogel from Spiderweb Software.

“In any place where your game is sold, pick the price that will maximize the profits. This ideal price changes depending on the nature of the place where it is being sold.

Steam is a big, sprawling gaming bazaar where practically all of the games are cheap. People see a game, spend a moderate amount of money on it, and try it out. People experiment there, and you need to charge a price that encourages customers to pick you as their experiment. Also, if you charge $20 for your game there, it will be on a list with ten good games at half the price, so you will get murdered.

Spiderweb Software’s web site, on the other hand, only lists our games. It is generally only visited by fans of role-playing games. People on our site are generally really interested in the specific sorts of games we sell, and so the higher price doesn’t scare them off.

This sort of logic isn’t my weird invention. It’s basic business. World of Goo is $20 on the company site, $10 on Steam, and $5on iTunes. Each marketplace has its own norms, and you price your game to maximize your earnings there.” – Source

DRM isn’t much of a deterrent to piracy anymore unless you go the extreme route of always online drm (successfully). I’d also like to share the content of a recent Ars Technica interview with Rambourg, the managing director of Good Old Games. Have you been tracking data or researching how DRM-free gaming impacts sales?
…’s DRM-free, day-one release of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, a AAA+ game by any standards, is a great case study. At release, the version widely available on torrent sites was not the DRM-free GOG version but the one that posed any sort of challenge to the hackers, the one that included DRM…
…in our own experience we’ve found that trusting users to treat us well pays off and that our DRM-free approach is certainly not costing us business. Two of the many examples that come to mind: we see an average number of downloads per game that’s somewhere below two—which means that users aren’t taking advantage of DRM-free gaming to share accounts around.” – Source