I recently got a new computer, bidding Captain Old, Old Laptop farewell, and welcoming General Shiny Strong Desktop, and, since I play a ton of games, took this opportunity to re-acquaint myself with PC gaming. The first thing I did was pop the 2004 hit Half-Life 2 into my disk tray, since I'd never could play it on the Captain. But then a strange thing happened. The disks didn't install as usual, and a program named Steam took over. Little did I realize that these disks I'd been hanging onto for years were now obsolete, and that I would be ushered lavishly back into PC gaming by Steam.
Steam is, essentially, iTunes for games. Created by Valve (the gods who bestowed Portal upon us), It has an ever-growing library from most major publishers - Final Fantasy's Square Enix just hopped onboard - and is fantastically easy to use. Here's how it works...
You download Steam (like downloading iTunes) and create a free account. Finding and buying games is also similar to iTunes. Give your credit card information, and the game is yours, but that's where things get all happy and fun. Steam keeps a games list linked to your account of every game you own, whether the game is installed on your computer or not. This means you can uninstall and reinstall games on a whim, and save yourself all the hassles of hanging onto disks. And when you up and buy a new computer, just install Steam, sign in, and you've got all your games right there. On a standard cable modem connection, you can install a full game in about 10 minutes. Oh, and Steam also features a community with friends lists, chat, and voice chat, so you can link up with friends for online games.
So...who the hell cares? The industry does, and here's why. Steam may not be news to many people. It's been around for over 4 years, but it is a comforting glimpse of the future for the entire games industry. The industry is gradually transitioning to digital distribution (say goodbye, Gamestop), and Steam shows how it can be done properly. This is important because it means the industry is providing the service customers want early-on, exactly what the music industry failed to do, which prevents piracy from becoming the standard for gamers before the industry can catch up to digital distribution. It also means cost-saving. Games are getting more and more expensive to make - tens of millions of dollars - while the average price of a video game hasn't budged in the last 20 years. If more of the price of a game can go back to publishers and developers instead of Gamestops and disk-printers, that's more money that can be used to make the next game.
Digital Distribution is a scary thing for a lot of us. It summons images in our heads of icky iTunes sound quality, or DRM that keeps you from playing downloaded songs on anything but an iPod, or the terrible video quality that comes from buying a movie digitally, versus going out and buying a Blu-ray. But for games, you're getting exactly what you'd get in the store, avoiding the middle-man and getting the game saved to your account so there's no disk to lose.
You may not play many (or any) PC games, but whether you play on a computer or on an XBox 360, sooner or later you'll be buying all your games online. You're in good hands.
P.S. - Braid, the brilliant and beautiful XBox Live Arcade game, is coming out for Windows on March 31st, most likely available on Steam. Now you have no excuse not to play this game.