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Thoughts on Steam

Steam is probably the most interesting product Valve has ever created. Starting off on shaky ground, it’s grown to become pretty much the dominant digital game distribution platform on the internet it seems. More and more games are tying into Steam, whether for copy protection or for the whole caboodle of patching, achievements and so on.

With the falling ADSL prices in South Africa, I decided to reinstall my copy of The Orange Box a week ago. I’ve been sitting with this bundle for well over 2 and a half years now, during which I installed it once on Windows XP, played for a while then lost everything when I moved over to Vista.

I began the process by getting the latest Steam installer off the Steam website. It’s a small MSI installer, which automatically retrieves up to date files from the internet when it’s installed, roughly 40MB worth of data. Once that was done, I inserted my Orange Box disk 1 and chose to install everything. Luckily, the installer didn’t overwrite the newer Steam install with the older version on disk. The installer went ahead, download roughly 300MB of data from the internet and then installed off of my 2 dvd’s.

Once running, Steam had to apply a number of updates to the games, which chewed up a lot of bandwidth. As I mentioned above, ADSL data has become a lot cheaper in SA over the last year, and with uncapped starting to make a mark for itself, these download sizes are no longer such an issue.

My experience with the Steam client so far has been mostly positive, it seems to work as expected. It does seem a little fragile at times though, hanging for a while before suddenly becoming responsive again. As I haven’t bought anything over Steam, I can’t comment on how the shopping procedure actually works. Perhaps my minor stability problems were due to Windows 7 x64, though I must stress that the incidents were pretty random.

After really making use of the product for a bit now, I’m left mostly impressed. Increased broadband penetration and falling ADSL prices means that the huge bandwidth requirements are not such an issue like when Half-Life 2 first launched back in 2004. The range of games on offer is pretty impressive, though there are quite a few games not available. I think this is partly due to regional restrictions, as well as some publishers using alternate digital distribution platforms.

Personally, I’m a bit old school and prefer the feeling of a game case, printed manual and game DVD in my hands over a purely digital download, and even more so with things like Collector’s Editions of games. Still, for all the old school folks like myself, there are plenty others who love the convenience of Steam and digital downloads. Steam has become a juggernaut, and rightly so. Valve did their homework and took their time building their platform. They were in the right place at the right time and have developed something that the rest of the industry can only look at with envy.

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