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I’ve previously reported on computer game studio/distributor Valve’s take on fighting piracy by providing better customer service with its Steam distribution platform, and pointed out that e-book publishers and stores could stand to learn a great deal from what Valve is doing and the success it is having.

Here is another example. TechCrunch published an anonymous letter from a reader talking about how Steam changed him from a video game pirate to a legitimate consumer—and did so in spite of the DRM restrictions on many of the games sold through Steam.

The reader confesses that a large part of why he pirated games was that he was lazy—he didn’t like having to go to a retail store to buy the game, then knowing that he had to keep track of the physical artifact (the DVD and CD-key) associated with that game for the rest of his life or lose the ability to play it on new hardware.

I already established I’m lazy. Steam understands that’s the norm for most gamers. That’s why Steam makes it so damn easy to buy games. There are top sellers lists, coming soon lists, demo lists, and best of all, legit sales and free-play weekends. I have spent over $50 during Steam’s summer sale on old random games just because it’s so easy and novel. (Today, July 5th, is the last day, btw) There are so many different ways for me to easily buy a game on Steam that’s detrimental to my checking account. Once I click the purchase button, Steam gives me the option to start the install process right away and I know that I will be able to install this game on any computer in the future thanks to the library mode. That’s big.

From personal experience, I can verify that. Over the course of the summer sale, I bought…geez, what didn’t I buy? Left 4 Dead. Left 4 Dead 2. BioShock 2. Beat Hazard. Thief. Mass Effect 2. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Almost all of them at ridiculously low prices.

And one thing that TechCrunch’s correspondent didn’t mention is how easy it is to give games to other people. Just buy it, click “send as a gift”, complete the purchase process, and boom—you’re done. If the friend you’re gifting is on your Steam friends list, it will even tell you before you buy whether he already has that game so you aren’t wasting your money.

During times when they’ve been on sale, my brothers have bought their favorite games for me (Torchlight, The Witcher, Borderlands), and I’ve bought my favorite games for them (Left 4 Dead, the X-Com bundle, Beat Hazard). Their birthday was just a few days ago, and it sure made it easy to buy them presents!

And it’s worth noting again that when you buy a game from Steam that is available for both Windows and OS X, buying one version gets you both versions at no extra cost.

The anonymous letter writer notes (as I also have mentioned) that Steam games do involve DRM, but because Steam makes the process of buying, downloading, and installing so easy, it’s as if the DRM isn’t even there. It goes back to something I used to say about eReader’s DRM, before Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise—DRM that doesn’t get in the way of how you want to use it is effectively invisible.

Steam runs sales quite often, especially on weekends or around holidays, and many of them are 24-hour-only events. However, I’ve found that adding SteamGameSales.com to Google Reader helps me keep track of what’s on sale whenever new ones pop up.

Of course, there are some drawbacks to depending on a “cloud” storage system, as the disappearance of e-books from Fictionwise/eReader users’ libraries in the wake of the agency pricing implementation demonstrates. In that light, some may consider buying games from Steam to involve an unacceptable risk that they might lose access to those games at some point in the future.

But I’m still buying those games even knowing the risks; Valve is big enough already that it doesn’t seem likely it will be bought and crippled by a larger competitor. And if I lose access to the games after a few years, well, I’ll still have had my money’s worth.

How can e-book providers learn from this? By making their systems just as easy to use. Granted, most of them already have the “buy and download immediately” part down—that’s one of the Kindle store’s main selling points. But if I want to give a Kindle e-book to a friend as a gift, how can I do that? Amazon only lets me buy it for myself as far as I can tell.

Valve’s Steam is a marvelous example of wooing customers away from piracy via great customer service. I wish more e-book vendors did the same.

 
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