Anger Management #3: Steam

Welcome back to Anger Management, a weekly rant about whatever topic’s taking my fancy at the time. Sometimes it might be specific tropes and flaws, sometimes more general issues; other times it can be even more directed, focussing on individuals, companies or releases. Whatever the case, it’s completely partisan, unbalanced and entirely, wonderfully subjective. Try not to take too much offence.

And this week? This week I’m after the poster boy of digital distribution systems, Valve Corporation’s Steam.

This is actually a multi-parter, as Steam brings up a variety of issues, each of which are worth discussing in isolation. I’d like to point out that for every problem I take with Steam, I don’t accuse it of being the first, or even the worst example of such an issue – it’s just a useful collection of irritating decisions to point to.

Part the first: Hogging the Limelight

Not in the sense that Steam has become the most popular and talked about distribution network around. If I was bothered by that sort of thing, I’d have stopped using Windows years ago, and would never have bought a PS2.

No, in this case the ‘limelight’ I’m referring to is that taken from other processes that your PC might be wanting to run – such as the games Steam plays host to. As Steam insists on running in the background whenever you want to load up or play games bought through it, this is something of an issue, at least if it decides to hog resources. And does it?

Steam playing nicely, yesterday.

OM NOM NOM!

Well, yes, is the short answer. The above screenshot from the 10th May isn’t doctored (but for blacking out details), nor was it taken when the Steam client was doing anything intensive (like, say, booting up): no, here the client was ostensibly running idle, minimised to task bar, not updating itself or meant to be doing anything. Admittedly, this is odd behaviour – I noticed my PC was running badly, and ctrl-alt-deleted to find out what was causing it. But that it happens at all isn’t brilliant.

More significantly, the Steam client absolutely refused to play nice with my two previous laptops (an Acer Aspire 3022WLMi and… something a bit older, which I forget): on both it would routinely take over 10% of the CPU, up to around 30%, making playing any faintly tasking games on the service (like, say, Half-Life 2) an exercise in futility. My current PC is much better off (average of 1-5% taken), but any CPU cycles being taken up by a client required to play games is regrettable.

There are far worse culprits, of course: Gametap‘s system makes Steam look like greased lightning, and is far more intrusive to boot. But when companies like Stardock can implement a client that is only required when downloading the games, so it doesn’t hog resources while actually playing the sodding things, you have to wonder about Valve’s decision not to allow the same for their users. The obvious reason for their insistence on having Steam run at all times is as DRM,* and it’s interesting to note that despite internet-wide hysteria over the inclusion of DRM in, well, any other games, Steam seems to get a pass for its forcing of players to have it on at all times. And it’s not as though the effect of this is limited to the hit on system resources.

Part the second: Always On

steam offline

Just pray that second button works.

The other aspect to Steam‘s active DRM of always having to be on, is that it also always has to be online. The problem with this is immediately apparent to anyone who’s ever had a glitchy internet connection, moved house, or likes to use laptops and other portable machines. It means that the moment a player is disconnected from the internet, he or she is completely unable to play any of the games downloaded through Steam.

There is a workaround of sorts – Steam has a built in ‘Offline Mode’, which allows access to it (minus auto-updating, the store, achievements and any other online-only features, of course) and its games even away from an internet connection. It used to be the case that this mode couldn’t be activated once you were offline – so if the player lost internet access unexpectedly, or forgot to activate Offline Mode in advance, then they were, for want of a better word, screwed. Fortunately, things are better now! Ostensibly, at least. So long as you have Steam set to automatically log you in – all well and good, so long as you don’t feel the need to be security conscious about your login – Steam now crops up with a friendlier window, which allows you to switch of Offline Mode should you try to access it while away from an internet connection. Sometimes, it even works!

The other problem with Steam‘s wanting to be online at all times is the fact it doesn’t play nice with PeerGuardian 2, meaning either telling PeerGuardian to ignore Valve’s looking into your system (assuming the user trusts Valve enough to allow their intrusions at any time, even outside of Steam usage), or temporarily disabling PeerGuardian when using Steam, so losing part of your PC’s line of defence against online intrusion.

Of course, how much of this is Valve’s fault, and how much is down to PeerGuardian being over-zealous, is questionable. All that is clear is that it’s a bit of a pain in the arse.

Part the third: No Happy Returns

Thanks, Valve.

Thanks, Valve.

The other issues with Steam are largely to do with customer service. One thing that is absolutely not offered by Valve Corporation is the opportunity for refunds on games. To some extent, this makes sense: as the files are digitally distributed, a player cannot ‘return’ them – the only direct expense incurred by Valve in the sale of the game has been that of their bandwidth in sending it, and they can’t recoup that.

However, it does mean that players who purchase games that simply do not work – for the myriad reasons that PC games will do exactly such a thing on certain configurations – are stuck with having shelled out their hard-earned cash on what is, to them, useless data. Of course, the good news with Steam is that the player should have access to the game in perpetuity, meaning that one day they may well be able to play it. But this is of little comfort to somebody who’s just shelled out twenty quid and has nothing to show for it – especially as there’s good odds that, by the time they do have a system that will play the game, the title will likely be much cheaper.

There is a second solution to the problem, of course: patching. And here things get less clear – Valve can clearly not be expected to patch up other developers’ games. But by selling them, and refusing refunds, they close down the consumer’s options, and for that they have to take some responsibility.

Part the fourth: Problem-solving

Who loves ya' baby? Because it certainly isn't us.

Who loves ya' baby? Because it certainly isn't us.

But there’s more than just buggy games to worry about – what about a flaky service? Steam has its missteps, as all things run by humans will, and once again I’ve perhaps been unlucky in my experiences. Twice I’ve had major problems occur, and both times their service left something to be desired.

The first major bug I encountered with Steam came when I purchased Mount and Blade on the 24th January: for some reason, during the process Valve’s system glitched, and ended up dividing my purchasing account from my client account – that is to say, I now had two accounts by the same username, with the same password. The immediate effect was that any purchases I made would show up in my purchasing account, but not in the client (so I couldn’t actually play them), while my older titles were playable, but no longer appeared in my purchasing account (making it seem as though I had never bought any titles aside from Mount and Blade).

This was rather irritating, as it meant the game I had just purchased was out of my reach, sitting, waiting for my client to register that I had, in fact, purchased it. I immediately sent a support ticket through Steam‘s support section, hoping for a prompt solution. It took one week (31st January) for a response, telling me that “There is an error in your account that we will fix”. It took another week (7th February) for the problem to be fixed. A fortnight to solve a problem that left me incapable of playing my new game, or indeed playing any other titles I might have chosen to purchase in the intermitting period. Was there any apology, or perhaps some sort of renumeration? Not at all. Their final communication with me regarding the issue simply read “It should be fixed now.  Let me know if you have any more errors”.

Not fantastic service.

The second issue came more recently, with Steam‘s weekend deal of Universe at War. For some reason, the release coincided with Steam distributing a number of invalid CD-Keys (not only incorrect, but in completely the wrong format), leading to a large number of players, including myself, unable to play the game they had purchased online, or indeed to have access to the auto-patching service or the achievements built into the game.

How much of this was the fault of Games for Windows Live is impossible to know, but Valve’s response was again somewhat lacking: perhaps due to it being a weekend, despite the hordes of players suffering from the problem (and cluttering up the game’s forum with said issues), Valve issued no explanation of what had happened, or what (if anything) they were going to do about it. It wasn’t until the Wednesday that Valve redistributed CD-Keys to those individuals who had been unable to validate their copy of the game online – a long wait for anybody who’d purchased the game at the beginning of the weekend deal.

Part the fifth: Conclusion

"I don't hate you!"

"I don't hate you!"

Despite all of the above complaints, Steam is far from terrible. It has helped bring attention to games that might otherwise have never found their audience; has fostered a broad, centralised community of gamers – ideal for arranging online games; and was instrumental in making digital distribution a viable alternative to physical media. Moreover, as stated before, all of the problems mentioned above are far from unique to Steam. However, this doesn’t excuse the flaws: just because customer service is often a secondary concern to online retailers doesn’t make it okay for that to be the case. Just because other, more intrusive DRM and clients are around doesn’t excuse Steam‘s intrusive nature. These are real flaws, and they are really irritating, if you’re unlucky enough to end up suffering from them.

Valve are justifiably seen as a forward-looking, progressive company: hopefully, all of the above issues are on their to-do list. Hopefully, in the sooner rather than the later section. The only way to make sure that they are, however, is to make some noise about it.

Do it.

*Digital Rights Management – or, more simply, anti-piracy measures.

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