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Valve on Steamworks (And Magick Obscura)

Because I’m an internationally awesome globe-trotting journalist of excellent repute, I was able to sit down with Valve’s Doug Lombardi and have a chat about Steamworks within a few minutes of yesterday’s announcement being made. Because I forgot my laptop and was really tired, I didn’t get round to posting the conversation until now. Head clickwards for enlightenment.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: So the Steamworks announcement is kind of interesting. All those Steam features for free?

Lombardi: Yeah, it’s basically it’s all the plumbing involved in Steam, minus the distribution piece. Copy protection, auto-updating, voice, Steam community, and the other stuff on the release. It’s all available for free, and people can use any single part, or all of it. It’s free of charge, and you don’t have to distribute the game itself via Steam.

RPS: So how obvious will the Steam interface be in a game that uses it?

Lombardi: Developers are going to be able to skin this stuff so that it’s basically invisible to the user. If they used Steamworks on their disc and didn’t use Steam to distribute you’d install, then have a box come up and say “hey, you have to create this account and unlock the game” and they’d launch and go into the game. The only time you’d see Steam was in creating an account, everything else can be reskinned, auto-updating will be transparent to the user already.

RPS: And the community stuff means you’d be able to create an instant community for your game?

Lombardi: Yeah, and the developer would be able to instant message users like we do with pre-orders, news, and so on. They can publish information specifically for the guys playing their game. Then there’s all the stuff on the back end, so if they use Steam for the encryption or the copy protection they can go in and one hour after their game is unlocked they can see how their game is selling and in what territory. They don’t have to wait to see how their game is working, and where it’s working. For example, if I came out with Left 4 Dead and was sitting on a bunch of marketing money for post-launch, I can look on Steam and see that the game is selling like mad in the UK and not selling so well in The States, and I can address that quickly. Currently most people have to wait a week or two for data on the sales charts, but if you need to boost sales and stop that product coming back from retail, well, two weeks could be deadly. For us that’s a really strong tool, just like the Steam hardware survey.

RPS: How solid is Steam against the activities of villainous pirates?

Lombardi: It’s solid in what we call “day zero piracy”. We encourage people to preload, so we give the bits of a game away on Steam, but those pieces are useless until we supply the magical final parts that allow all those things to become game pieces, the same will be true of using Steamworks from a disc. All the art assets and game assets will be useless until a user authenticates them and gets the final pieces. What we’ve seen, and what many others have seen, is that piracy really frustrates in that period when you send the disc to the replicator and then the trucks take it from the warehouse to retail. What you find is that during that two week window some guy grabs a copy from the chain and uploads it. So few up to three weeks people can only find this game on the piracy sites. Gamers are generally good people and they pay for all kinds of stuff, but if piracy is the only place they can get it, temptation piles in. The pirates always are going to have some version of the game thrown together after the title is released, but it’s when good gamers get tempted away pre-release that we feel the really nasty piracy occurs. The year Half-Life 2 came out we had distributed all the bits via Steam, and then released both the retail shelf and digital game on the same day. What we saw that year was Doom 3, one of the GTA games and Halo 2 all coming out around the same time, and all getting “day zero” piracy. And there was nothing for Half-Life 2, those guys who might have been tempted weren’t tempted and sales were great.

RPS: Are people going to start releasing digitally before getting anything on the shelves? We certainly saw GSC talking about where Clear Sky was coming out digitally before they talked about retail release…

Lombardi: Maybe. I mean Steam is a really straightforward way of publishing. Steamworks is one thing, but distribution is so easy with Steam too. We’re not getting involved in that “portfolio management” sense, we’re not saying that we have too many shooters, or that there are too many RPGs available at one time, or anything of that stuff. It’s a straightforward deal like that. GSC, who we get on with really well, knew what Stalker did on Steam and came straight to us when Clear Sky was announced and said “we want to do all our online sales like this” and they could do that. In that case it was folks we’ve worked with before, but any smart developers who keep their online distribution rights to themselves [like GSC] will find it super profitable, because only our small cut doesn’t go them. This is where they get the greatest amount of profit.

RPS: Going back to Steamworks, it seems like you’re giving away just the kind of software that a whole bunch of other companies are making money from by selling to developers and publishers – what’s your motivation for doing it for free?

Lombardi: To get people on Steam. Simple as that. We think the platform benefits as a whole if people don’t have to learn to navigate new stuff, say copy-protection systems, or to navigate a new server browsers each time they get a new game. And programming a server browser is boring work, yet people keep rewriting them, over and over, and customers are figuring them out time after time. It’s just easier for people: when we’ve rolled retail games over into Steam and had the auto-updater working through Steam people have always come back and said “I want all my games to work like this”. So there’s a load of good reasons gamers, and a load of good reasons for developers for us to give it away.

RPS: Unified PC gaming through Steam?

Lombardi: “Unified” is a word that all kinds of groups and consortiums push about, but the thing is just that we have a system that we’ve tried and we’re using for thirteen million people. It makes sense for developers to just have access to this stuff that is essential, but no great design challenge – the copy protection, the server browser – and the motivation for us is that if a game uses our encryption and sells millions of copies, all those people who didn’t already have a Steam account have to make one. Once they’re there we can talk to them and turn them on to all the other games on Steam.

RPS: And presumably success with Steamworks also provides developers a good nudge in the direction of licensing Source for their use?

Lombardi: [Laughs] Yeah.

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Jim Rossignol

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