Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

A few years ago Valve rolled out their “Steam” service, a form of direct download for their games. The idea behind Steam is that when you want to buy a game, you pay money for the right to buy a game, and Steam downloads it to your hard drive, no CD involved. It’s more than just an online purchase, because Steam is doing some sort of authentication to try to avoid piracy. There are lots of services like this now (Stardock’s service, and direct2drive, for example). You can think of Steam as being an attempt to make something like iTunes for AAA games.

I tried it out at the time and gave it my key for the original Half-Life, which I had bought at retail. I was fairly put off, mostly because the Steam application is such a sham and a travesty – it’s one of those Windows facehuggerware programs. It starts itself up automatically on a reboot, it opens dialog boxes at inconvenient times, and worst of all – this should be a firing squad offense, by the way – when you click the “Quit” button it minimizes to your taskbar and puts up a dialog box telling you “I didn’t really quit! I hate you and I hate freedom! Tee-hee!” I more or less ignored the broader debate going on about Steam: it was clear to me that anyone who didn’t like it must be right, because it was so obviously bad. The broader debate, it seems, focused what it means to “purchase” a game. The “Out of the Box Experience” for Half-Life 2 was apparently terrible, because of Steam. You would go into a store and pay them real money for a sticker with an activation key and a real CD, which apparently contained a 20kb Steam installer and a few hundred megabytes of porn. Then you would wait for 36 hours while Steam actually downloaded the real application, browsing the porn while you waited. Eventually, the servers would time out, the download would fail, and you shot yourself. This is why everyone who enjoyed Half-Life 2 played it on the Xbox.

This install procedure, purportedly, was traumatic enough that I could imagine it permanently scarring anyone who went through it. I don’t know; I didn’t buy Half-Life 2 because my computer at the time wasn’t expensive enough. I believe psu did, however, which would explain why, when I told him I was writing this post, he gently reminded me that anyone who says anything nice about Steam is his mortal enemy.

The other day a publisher set me up with a CD key for use with Steam to review a game. So I downloaded Steam onto my Windows box, and started it up. Incredibly, I remembered my username and password. And there, waiting for me, was a menu item with all of the old Half-Life games that I had registered with it.

Now, you need to understand the context here: I am not what you would call an organized person. I lose games. I lose CDs. I lose those little goddamn stickers with the CD key on them. If you held a gun to my head and asked me where in my house the Half-Life discs are, I would not be able to answer you. So for Steam to have remembered this for me and made it possible for me to play these games again, on a new computer, by just clicking a button seems to me exactly the sort of wonderful thing that technology should be doing.

There are downsides to systems like this. Obviously, it just about squashes your ability to resell games. But since I have an irrational habit of installing old games, I never do that anyway.

So sign me up for the lock-in, fellas. If it means I don’t have to remember where I put those stupid discs, I’m all yours.