Do you really want Steam to be your only option? Are you sure?

Published on Monday, February 9, 2009 By Brad Wardell In PC Gaming

One of the things I routinely see on-line when they hear about something new about Impulse is someone commenting “I wish they’d all just consolidate under Steam.”  In fact, as Impulse has become increasingly successful, the cry has gotten louder.

So strong is Steam’s fan base at this point that one of the most common comments about Impulse on third-party forums is the desire by some that it didn’t exist and that everything was just on Steam.

I admire Valve on two levels.  First, I admire their excellence in what they make. I like companies that strive for the highest quality possible in what they produce.  Second, I admire Valve’s business practices. They are incredibly effective, competent, and adaptive. In short, Valve is a fantastic company.

I’m a professional zealot. My tendency to get behind the best technology has led me to be, at various times, an OS/2 zealot, an OpenDoc zealot, and yes, even a Valve zealot (Source engine).

But I’ve also been around long enough to know that you don’t want one player calling all the shots.  The companies we love today may not be so loved later on.

People routinely give me a hard time because I like Electronic Arts a lot. How is that possible? Because to me, when I think of Electronic Arts I think of Archon, MULE, Seven Cities of Gold, Starflight, and Summer Games.

When I was an OS/2 zealot, the up and coming star was Microsoft. Its fans helped ensure that Windows, not OS/2, became the standard OS.  For many people today, it’s hard to imagine Microsoft as the fanboy favorite – the company that could do no wrong – the company that would never do anything “evil”.

Now, we live in an industry absolutely dominated by Microsoft and Electronic Arts.  Its fanboys got their way.  Is there anything wrong with that? You tell me.

Today, the pattern repeats itself. Steam is doing phenomenally well. It has fans that actively wish that competition would just go away in the name of “standards” (whatever that means).

And yet, even though Impulse is just an up-and-comer, the competition has already helped consumers.  Before the “Impulse Weekend Buys” it was relatively rare to see regular organized major sales on Steam. Now we get them every weekend. 

I would like to think that we’ve had some impact on people’s awareness that you don’t need nasty DRM to be successful. 

I think Impulse’s focus on trying to encourage one price, worldwide in local currency right out of the gate has made some impact too. 

I think Impulse's very fast download speeds have helped encourage competing services to keep increasing their bandwidth capacity.

At the very least, Impulse’s growing success, I think, is something most people can agree has been very beneficial to consumers.

Steam’s most successful venture yet, Steamworks, has helped Steam get an increasingly firmer hold on the market. In my opinion, Steamworks is 90% copy protection, 10% game-related features.  I know that publishers are looking at Steamworks as a replacement to SecuROM for protecting games.

The problem is that Steamworks requires the user to have a Steam account and Steam installed to use it – even if you buy it at retail or through a third party like Direct2Drive.  I think that’s the basic strategy for Steamworks -- give developers a bunch of “free” features that they used to have to pay for (copy protection, DRM, GameSpy type stuff) with the only catch is that the user has to become a Steam user and have Steam installed. As a result, something like Dawn of War 2, for instance, won’t be on Impulse. 

Even with the case of Steamworks, competition has helped here too though, since Stardock is producing Impulse Reactor to compete with Steamworks. Impulse Reactor doesn’t require Impulse (the client) to even be installed to work. 

Steamworks, obviously, has a head start and publishers have been following THQ’s lead by setting up with Steamworks even when it means they’re distributing a third party store with their game.  After all, right now, Steam has the numbers. 

Based on the #s I hear from publishers, Impulse, which has only been out for 6 months, has already become #2 in terms of actual units sold on a given title. But Steam still has a massive lead.  Obviously, if we can’t even carry certain big name titles because they've hooked in Steamworks, the competitive trend will reverse.

And while some people might very much like seeing there be only one option, especially if that option comes from such a cool company like Valve, they may not be considering the long term ramifications.

For example, last weekend, Steam and Impulse both had sales on Titan Quest.  Steam had it for $7.99, Impulse had it for $3.99. Neither I assume knew the other was going to have a sale on it.  But that sort of competition is good for consumers.

Competition is good for consumers. It’s also good for companies. I’m a Steam user. I enjoy watching it evolve and improve over time. But I am also thankful that there are still alternatives to it. Because as much as people love Valve today, I still remember how much everyone loved EA and Microsoft in their day too.  Competition keeps companies dynamic and consumer friendly.


Reading through the comments I see some people turning it into an Impulse vs. Steam discussion (i.e. Impulse rulez! No, Steam rockz!).

This isn't mean as a Steam vs. Impulse discussion. What it is supposed to be is to make people aware of the long history in which fans have rooted for the up-and-comer (whether it be EA in its day or Microsoft later and Google today) and how perceptions change when said companies dominate.

There are plenty of people out there that with that everything would just "standardize" on iPods and iTunes. And even as an iPod and iTunes user, I am glad there's selling MP3s.

For the record, I use Steam every day. I like it a lot. The question isn't which is better (right now, if I had to choose one client, I'd use Steam because of its superior community features and game library -- how many CEOs would say that publicly about the "competition"?). The objective is to remind users that competition is always a good thing even when you love a particular vendor (whether it be Valve, Stardock, whoever).  

It's never a good idea to explicitly wish for a single source. Some people in the comments area have said "Of course no one wants a monopoly". But I can assure them that yes, there are lots of people and companies who would like just that because a single source is seen to streamline things.

We expect Impulse to exceed 1 million users before Demigod even ships. So suffice to say, it is doing well. It's nowhere near Steam's user base but then again, Impulse has only been out 6 months.  

The point is, Impulse's existence and success shouldn't be seen as an "inconvenience" to consumers but rather as a way to ensure that consumers continue to have choices.


Steam and Impulse at a glance:




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