Valve’s Steam system converts video game pirates into consumers

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.

12 Comments on Valve’s Steam system converts video game pirates into consumers

  1. Steam is incredible. I hardly play computer games anymore. But sometimes I’ll buy a game on Steam just because it’s so cheap and convenient.

    Yesterday my wife was bored so I installed Steam and told her to browse the casual game section. She ended up buying a small collection of Popcap games and was happily playing in minutes.

    Steam understands the crux of the digital age. The world is swimming in media and media must be sold very cheap. But people still enjoy buying stuff. So make digital media cheap and easy to buy and people will still spend a ton of money.

    I’ve said before, when ebooks cost ten bucks each I won’t buy any. Instead I’ll search out free books. But if ebooks cost one buck each I’d probably buy twenty or thirty a month. Ebook publishers COULD have $300 bucks a year from me. But, as it stands they have nothing.

  2. Frode Aleksandersen // July 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm //

    Ah, but the DRM does get in the way. Ever tried downloading/installing a game on say a laptop, while playing a game on your desktop? You need two separate accounts for it to work.

  3. Frode, that puts me in mind of that old joke, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “So don’t do that!”

    Wanting to access Steam on two machines at once is a rare enough situation for me that I’ve run into it a time or two but not often.

    If I want to download something to my laptop, I’ll just do it overnight or some other time when I’m not interested in playing on my main computer.

  4. Frode Aleksandersen // July 6, 2010 at 11:19 am //

    Right, but you shouldn’t have to. The use case i was referring to in particular happened when I was preparing my laptop for travel. DRM is still DRM and it inflicts limits on how you can use the software.

  5. DensityDuck // July 6, 2010 at 1:08 pm //

    @Frode: …it’s like you’re complaining that you can’t play the same DVD on two different players at once.

    If the price of having Steam is that I have to stop playing the game on (computer 1) before I can install it or play it on (computer 2) then by damn I’ll pay that price gladly!

    @Binko: Personally, I don’t even think it’s the price. Yeah, Steam has a lot of cheap stuff, but the first-run stuff is just as expensive. The issue is convenience–I want, I click, I have. As the letter-writer in the article points out, he just didn’t want to get up and go to the store.

  6. scarybandit // July 7, 2010 at 2:48 pm //

    some ppl like steam, enjoy it… for me it’s pointless and removes the second hand market for any purchaser…

    density duck’s analogy is retarded. you can take a dvd to a friend’s house in another country and play it in any dvd player you want… steam specifically restricts that. thank you for helping prove the point though.

    you want drm free or steam free convenience, the publishers are making piracy the easiest option. even the vpn servers are free these days: http://itshidden.com/

  7. DensityDuck // July 7, 2010 at 4:20 pm //

    @scarybandit: …it’s like you’re complaining that you can’t play the same DVD on two different players at once.

    …on two different players at once.

    …AT ONCE.

    Do you get the analogy now, or are you too retarded?

  8. Play nice, children. Don’t make me turn this blog around.

  9. @scarybandit – actually, you cannot take a DVD anywhere in the world and play it in your friend’s house. DVDs have country/region specific encoding and makers of DVD players must include code to recognise the location restrictions and not allow a “foreign” DVD to play.

  10. When steam implements reselling games that you already own, or family licensing ( I.E. xbox 360 allows 4 players at once, steam should allow a household or single IP address as many simultaneous copies as they want ) I’ll like it.

    Until then, piracy is just the smarter thing to do for a consumer that wants full access to software. Perhaps if cracking DRM wasn’t as much of a crime as downloading the illegal software I would feel differently, but under this ‘damned if you do anything’ methodology, I find myself choosing to just leave hell to its own devices.

    Meaning: I am a lost customer who does not pirate because these companies are putting me in between my morality and intelligence.

  11. Ha to trolling =D

    Anyways, as much as I love steam I hate it. I can install non steam boxed set games without online drm to my laptop and play a different boxed set on my desktop. Cant do that with steam. Once you are logged in you are screwed on the other machine. I have over 100 steam games, 3 laptops 2 desktops and a server. So just because you are poor and can only afford one device well it shouldn’t affect the rest of us who want to ‘obey’ steams crap rules of having only one account. But I tell ya, running your own mail server is one easy way of creating and keeping track of many steam accounts ;D 1 game per account tracked in a db. or howabout [email protected] will log ya in to ya steam account just for starcraft ;P

  12. My thing is I want a disk if they game is dropped from the servers. If I can’t redownload it. I want an option to have the disk. Now, if I say no to a disk that is my choice.

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