Letting out the Steam

Digital downloads are certainly a big thing at the moment. There’s Valve’s Steam, there’s Stardock’s Impulse, there’s Gametap (“Yours if you can ever get it to work” – Judge Dredd), there’s gog.com and more.

These are generally good things, however I’m going to pick on Steam for a few minutes. Actually, not quite on Steam itself, but on a couple publishers using it, who need a bit of a spanking.

Strategy First, I’m looking at you particularly, and actually yes, you also Valve.

You see, the purpose of Steam is essentially twofold. Well, okay, there are a few other aspects involved, but the purchasing and delivery of games is a primary item, and so is the provision of updates, that is: Keeping the game bloody working.

While gog.com does an ace job of revamping old titles, and making sure they go on our modern equipment and systems, the contract (as it were) between me and gog (our dark and hideous pact, if you prefer) is that I don’t expect them to keep it that way. I’ve bought a download (hooray!). It works (double hooray!). Beyond that, though, is more or less my own business. When my brain-in-a-jar installs Windows 17 in the year 2187, I expect I’m going to have to fiddle a bit with my quantum computer’s compatibility modes in order to play Fallout 1.

Way to go, gog. You are both convenient and meeting my overall expectations, and that is what I require most of you. Thankyou. You may have a gold star now. Actually, you may have a second gold star for being attractively priced. Your cheap prices allow me to afford more gold stars.

Now, back to Steam.

Steam does more than deliver the game. Steam makes sure that the game keeps working. That is, if the publisher/developer can be bloody bothered.

Strategy First’s Ghostmaster? You’re hard-pressed to find a modern system that will run the Steam version of the game. Thankfully, I still have the original on CD, which works fine! Do you see what’s wrong with this picture? My scratchy old CD works like a treat on my nice modern gaming powerhouse. The Steam version delivers a scorching 1.5fps and pretends to be a non-interactive flip-book.

Okay. Now and again, a little rain must fall and all.

How about Steam’s Jagged Alliance 2/(Gold)? The Steam edition of that was broken on release, rendering the game nearly unplayable (actually it is quite playable so long as you never actually try to load a saved game. Best to play through a detailed, lengthy tactical/strategy game in one long session. Hope you didn’t need any sleep for a week or two!).

This one was broken from release. The publisher says they sent a fix to Valve. Valve say they never got it. The publisher says did-too! Valve says did-not! Then they started pushing each-other over and crying. Thankfully I’ve got disks of that also — which is so not the point here.

There are other problems with Strategy First’s lineup as well. And with Bioware’s Mass Effect, and even Valve’s own Opposing Force (well, sort of their own – It’s a Gearbox title, but Valve’s the publisher here). They broke it midgame in an update some months ago, but there’s no sign of a fix yet.

Steam, let me remind you of our dark and terrible bargain:

Receive automatic game updates
Hunting for patches and downloading from unorganized web sites is so twentieth-century. On Steam, your games stay up-to-date by themselves. No hassles.

“No hassles.” Right there, where I signed in blood all those years ago.

Oh, granted, I’m one of Steam’s steady customers. I have a rather absurd number of Steam titles (even where I already own the game in some instances, as I mentioned). That’s because of the deal.

Remember the deal, Steam? You promised me games that worked (and I think there was something about immortality, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, but never mind that) and that would keep working. That was the deal.

It might be that you’ve perhaps forgotten to mention that part to your publishers — that they might need to get that skinny kid who is trying to get promoted out of QA to just make the occasional check of titles and potentially arrange a small update now and again.

Publishers, if you’re not prepared to do the most minimal maintenance on the title, you probably shouldn’t be putting it on Steam. Give it to someone else, and perhaps our expectations will be met.

I’m pretty sure that the publisher arrangement isn’t “Throw down a pile of dodgy old binaries that won’t work on more than half the hardware we surveyed or won’t work at all, and then pretend it never existed.”

If you can sort that out, I’d be most appreciative. I’ll even let you off the hook on that whole immortality thing. If you’re good.

Maybe there will be cake.

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