Steaming me up
It's not much of a secret that I'm not a fan of Steam. Then again, that can't be much of a surprise to anyone else who has put up with it. It doesn't work well, in the first place. Second, it offers little to gamers. Third, it threatens us.Discuss the article on the FiringSquad forums!
That Steam doesn't work well is clearly evident to anyone who has tried to us it. It's gotten better over time, but recent outages have proven that it's hardly a stable, reliable application. Every major patch or update, especially to the very popular Counter-Strike, brings the network to its knees.
With a regular patch process, yes, you do get haphazard downloads of the patch - people come and get is as they want it. So your favorite servers might not update until a few days after you do. With Steam, everyone is offline together, as they wait for the network to come back to life. The utility actively denies attempts to play Valve games and mods, even offline, without a Steam connection. Valve has gone about updating Steam in order to incorporate BitTorrent technology, but we'll get to that later.
This is the downside of trying to offer a uniform experience. Steam connectivity permits a great many features that are otherwise much more difficult. You can achieve far greater system-wide cheat protection, through the automatic downloads of updates that counter the latest cheats, as well as the ability to permanently ban abusers. Punkbuster allows some of these features, but by being optional, it can't deliver them completely.
However, Steam lacks flexibility. Do you think that CS beta 6 was the be-all, end-all? Tough, you're going to have to play the latest version, no matter how much it tries to eliminate all traces of skill. Do you want to do some heavy customization of your server? Well, your choices are more limited with Steam than they would be otherwise.
Steam is almost a console application. It kills the freedom available on the PC and the uniformity it enforces resembles that of console games. Anyone who's played Steel Battalion, Mech Assault or Rainbow Six 3 on Xbox Live knows that those are hardly inferior gaming experiences, but where's the variety? Imagine if Steam came along before the mod scene. Would it have provisions for mods? Doubtful.
But clearly, those aren't even the serious problems. The network can be strengthened and Steam does support modding. Steam's real problems are in its potential. But why would Valve risk a public backlash over Steam in the first place?