Don’t Like the Idea of ‘Always-Online’? Blame Gabe Newell

Last night we learned that some people in the Games Industry don’t care about people’s resistance to the idea of an “always-online” game console. They want you to just shut up and “deal with it,” because this is the path the Industry is going to follow. As we saw in our comments section, a number of people are rather vocally upset about this.

But here’s the thing that critics fail to realize. A lot of them have been supporting the ideas that have pushed always-online to the forefront for much of the past generation…by supporting Steam.

People may complain about online DRM, but let’s face it: Steam is one of the greatest perpetrators of all. Steam has to be present, has to be running, and has to be online to install, manage, and even play games.

“But Steam has an offline mode!”

Sort of. Steam’s offline mode still requires that you jump through the online DRM hoops for it to function. Your games (as well as Steam itself) have to be authenticated and usually up-to-date. And offline mode credentials aren’t permanent. In other words, it’s still inherently based on using an Internet-connected client in order to access games.

“But that’s still not the kind of ‘always-online’ we’re hearing about for the Next Xbox!”

In the sense that at least Steam has a concession for offline mode, yes, that’s true. The Next Xbox is rumored to require an Internet connection to start games period, and that’s not absolutely true for Steam.

However, it was Steam that began the Crusade for providing gamers with “better service” by requiring them to make use of the Internet. It was Steam that advanced the idea that “online” could be the default setting for games.

The amusing thing is, people have been buying into the idea that Steam is the good guy, but DRM – which consumers hate – is the bad buy. They’ve been buying into Gabe Newell’s statements about how Steam is just about making things better for the customers:

One thing that you hear [Valve] talk a lot about is entertainment as a service. It’s an attitude that says ‘what have I done for my customers today?’ It informs all the decisions we make, and once you get into that mindset it helps you avoid things like some of the Digital Rights Management problems that actually make your entertainment products worth less by wrapping those negatives around them.

It all sounds nice and gamer-friendly, but this is an incredibly misleading statement. Yes, Steam does come with some gamer-centric services. Yes, there are DRM-free games on Steam. But Steam itself is actually a DRM client as much as it is a games service. Besides, the really meaningful way in which those DRM-free Steam games are DRM-free is that they can be played totally independently from Steam.

Valve has been getting away with this kind of scheme all generation. Why else do you think companies like Ubisoft, Blizzard, EA, and now apparently Microsoft think they can try to push the “online service” model even further?

One of two things must be true. Either consumers don’t really care that much about online-dependent services and DRM – that’s the truth that Microsoft is banking on if the rumors are true – or they make special exceptions for Steam and all the other games they really want to play (which, incidentally, also suggests that they don’t care that much).

In other words, they’re willing to “deal with it.”

You can’t have it both ways. Either increasing dependence on online is bad, or it is not bad. And if increasing dependence on online is bad, then logically-speaking Gabe Newell and Steam – being the pioneers of this approach – are the source of the problem.