In a discussion over at Wagner Au’s corner of the blogosphere yesterday, the fascinating question of “What is Steam?” came up. This topic always gets my attention because … I’ll go out on a limb here … I think Steam is going to become, very soon, one of the biggest software distributors around. I also think it will become, through its Workshop and Greenlight programs, the mentors of the best new indie developers, as well as the distribution channel for the best new indie work.
Also – and here’s where I stop gushing – I predict that Valve (owners of Steam) will wrap every single piece of that beautiful creative artistic work up in DRM chains so tight, locked with a TOS padlock so un-pickable, that none of those creative products will ever see the light of freedom again.
Steam, which has until now handled only gaming software, plus a few e-books and the Source Filmmaker video editor, has said it will offer a whole cupboard of creativity and productivity software. And Linden Lab has said it will make Second Life available on Steam. None of this has happened yet. But soon … soon.
And so, while we sit here on Steam’s porch, chewing our nails and wondering what Second Life’s little room inside the behemoth will look like, whether it will ever actually be built and, if it is, whether it will be a nice airy place or a prison cell, I thought I would try an answer to “What is Steam?” It’s not an easy creature to describe. It’s big, complex, and always changing.
Steam is a very big “something”
Steam is a very big something whose possibilities both fascinate and trouble me. First off, it is a bloat-ish software program that a user must download and run to play Steam-distributed games, even Steam games purchased at Target or your local video store. This is a form of DRM and is equally hated / loved vehemently. This program sits on your computer and, when running, tracks your Steam log-in, IDs what games you are playing, enables communication with your Steam friends, automatically updates itself, sends you game patches, conducts the business of game purchase and downloads, relays your game hours and achievements to your Steam profile online, includes your gaming activity collectively within the website’s Stats section, and cooks your dinner if you order far enough in advance.
Steam is also a digital octopus
Steam is also a digital octopus of a website (owned by Valve) which distributes its games and hosts an active community, forums, blog, a workshop that mentors and collects “mods” of games from users, plus the Game Hubs where users rate, comment, and share game content; the Steam store(“your source for swagalicious apparel, posters, books, and collectibles for all your favorite Valve games”); and the Greenlight program for indie developers to submit their own games and users to rate which ones they want Steam to distribute.
Now here’s where we enter a slightly murky swamp, and things get interesting: Steam tracks your log-in and your usage of any games in your Games List, which automatically contains any game you have bought on Steam, as well as non-Steam programs that you manually add to the list. (Yep, you gave them permission to do this by OK’ing the TOS.) So the Steam program is talking to the Steam website. What is it saying? And, more important, how is it saying whatever it’s saying? These questions take a better coder than me to answer.
Steam is just a game, right?
And the answers are important, because up to now, unless we were gamers, we could just roll our eyes at the mention of Steam because it was just … well … just a game. But it’s about to become a megaware software developer and distributor … including soon, the little backwater enclave of Second Life. And keep in mind, to use ALL the games currently on Steam, you must run Steam. I’ll repeat, Steam must be running in the background while you play any game that Steam distributes. And soon, perhaps, Steam must be running in the background while we … (gasp) … run Second Life??? (Hush, hush, I didn’t mean to upset you … it may never happen … oh and yes, I know Second Life isn’t a game – we’re just talking here.)
What does it mean to do it “through Steam”?
The big question I have about Steam is: What does it mean to be doing something through Steam? This is a phrase I’ve been seeing around town with growing frequency, and every time I do, it sends chills down my spine. For example, Kadah Coba (the venerable Phoenix coder) commented over at New World Notes yesterday: “If you’re concerned about Steam tracking your SL usage, don’t launch it through Steam.” Hmmmm.
Now how exactly do we launch Second Life through Steam? Does “through Steam” just mean Steam is running on my desktop at the same time as I’ve logged into Second Life, and that by doing so I am somehow running SL through Steam, accompanied by all of Steam’s attendant note-takers and reporting henchmen? That’s a chilling thought. (This is part of what Wagner Au was asking about in his question of whether Steam was tracking SL usage.)
Or is there perhaps some behind-the-scenes “through Steam-ness” that only Linden Lab and Valve are privy to?
Or, more simply, does “through Steam” just mean I’m playing a game I’ve downloaded “through Steam”? Oh but then I couldn’t launch Second Life through Steam … since Second Life is not yet on the Steam platform. Hmmmmm … me puzzled.
But anyway, now I want to get my bullhorn out: Steam only has the power we give it. We are not forced to use it, play its games, or any of its programs to come, if they have DRM chains. There are free alternatives. However, I’m not so sure this would be true with Second Life, should it ever be (shudder) be given over to Steam’s exclusive guardianship. Fleep thinks there are a lot of alternatives to Second Life, but for me there’s only one. It’s my home, and I love it.
As I said elsewhere today, now’s the time to have the conversation about a free and open Second Life – not when it’s too late. Linden Lab has assured us that nothing will change with how we access Second Life once it joins the Steam platform. That’s reassuring. But, well … let’s just say there have been a teensy few times when LL has changed its mind about things.
So, please let Linden Lab know how you feel … now. Write blog posts, tweet to @Rodvik, write on your SL profile. Just get yourself heard.