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Content Wars: Origin/Steam Scuffle Unfolds

The origin of specious argument

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We never got a proper answer about what dark force it was which led to a few EA games – most noisily Crysis 2 – suddenly vanishing from Steam last month. Valve have kept entirely mum about their side of the story, but EA claim it was Valve who wielded the axe, due to a mystery transgression of Steam’s terms and conditions. Of course, all this rather neatly coincided with the launch of Origin, EA’s latest attempt at their own PC game download service (now with extra social stuff).

Everyone was to blame, no-one was to blame, we all picked our villains and passive-aggressively shook our e-fists at them, and then it went quiet again. Now, EA has broken cover to offer a little more – while the full explanation isn’t there, we’ve got some pretty strong hints as to just why a bunch of their big games were unceremoniously booted off Steam.

The full thing’s here, but below are what I reckon are the key paragraphs:

“Any retailer can sell our games, but we take direct responsibility for providing patches, updates, additional content and other services for the individuals and communities that play our games. These players are connecting to our servers, so we want to provide them with the very best service. This works well for our partnership with Gamestop, Amazon and other online retailers.

“When a download service forbids publishers from contacting players with patches, new levels, items and other services – it disrupts our ability to provide the ongoing support players expect from us. At present, this is the case with only one download service. While EA offers its entire portfolio to this site, they have elected to not post many of our games. We hope to find a mutually agreeable solution to this issue soon.”

Sounds like several possible things going on there. Either EA is stating that it wants to patch its own games rather than have Steam do it automatically (something I’ve seen a few games do in the past – Darkspore, I think?) or/and it wants to be able to prompt players that DLC and similar is available unbound from just Steam’s news and pop-ups.

But then there’s a slightly longer and broadly similar comment from EA bigwig David DeMartini, which includes a few extra tells:

“We also enhance the gaming experience with features like friends lists and in-game chat using the Origin application. Most importantly, we always want to be sure we provide this content and service at the highest possible level of quality. To ensure this, any retailer can sell our games, but we take direct responsibility for providing patches, updates, additional content and other services to our players. You are connecting to our servers, and we want to establish on ongoing relationship with you, to continue to give you the best possible gaming experience. This works well for our partnership with Gamestop, Amazon and other online retailers.

Unfortunately, if we’re not allowed to manage this experience directly and establish a relationship with you, it disrupts our ability to provide the support you expect and deserve. At present, there is only one download service that will not allow this relationship. This is not our choice, and unfortunately it is their customer base that is most impacted by this decision. We are working diligently to find a mutually agreeable solution.”

What I’m reading into/wildly guessing from that is that EA wants to bundle Origin within EA games on Steam, perhaps even making it a mandatory install/registration, to then provide patches and DLC and social networky stuff that way instead of having Valve’s app do it – and maybe that didn’t go down altogether well.

DLC especially would cause fraction – if EA could essentially sell extra content outside of Steam, via Origin, even when the original game purchase did (ha) originate from Steam, then they wouldn’t have to give any cut to Valve for that stuff. Of course, there is precedent for this – see any Steam game with Games For Windows Live in it, Fable III being a good example – but perhaps (again entirely speculating) a change in those T&Cs is behind all this.

Just how much Valve takes from any sale has never been made public, though it’s rumoured to be in the region of 25-30%. I’m quite sure EA would rather not give 25% of its DLC revenues to another company – in the same way people are forever trying to find in-app purchase systems for iPhone games that sidestep the App Store so Apple don’t get their pound of flesh. I’m also quite sure a platform like Steam would really rather hang on to that 25%. Of course, I’m speculating entirely based on limited information, so there’s every chance I’m a million miles away from working out what DeMartini and EA are referring to.

Whether it is anything to do with such guesstimation or really is as simple as EA just want to provide patches, news and whatnot themselves… well, should we be bothered? Is either corner worth fighting here, given it hardly seems a particularly noble crusade from either angle? I don’t personally give a monkey-lung about how my game gets patched or otherwise updated, as long it’s efficient and easy – i.e it sorts itself out rather than has me push seventeen different buttons. If, however, I need multiple logins and/or applications to do so then I get a bit grumpy. It’s like the notorious GTA 4 launch all over again. Unfortunately, just how hasslesome a Steam/Origin double-whammy would be is something of an unknown quantity for now, given the games that would house it are currently barred from Steam.

(Also, this sounds eerily similar to other download services such as Direct2Drive refusing to stock the likes of Modern Warfare 2 due to its Steamworks integration. What goes around…)

So is this a war or not? DeMartini claims not: “To be very clear, except under extremely special circumstances we offer our games to every major download service including Amazon, Gamestop, and Steam.” The only known extremely special circumstance to date is Star Wars: The Old Republic, which will be Origin-exclusive at launch.

There’s a rather telling dig at the end of EA’s official explanation, however: “Going forward, EA will continue to work with download partners and continue offering our games for sale on all major download sites.

The good news is: you’ve got plenty of choices.”

Ooh, get them!

All in all, it’s a bit of a sad situation. Generally speaking EA are actually pretty good to the PC, as the big publishers go, so we’d certainly want their stuff readily available on our download platform of choice. I’m not mad about the idea of being denied access to neat games on Steam because someone there might want them all to tow some line that doesn’t actually bear any relevance to my enjoyment of gaming. I’m also not mad about anyone trying to lure me into yet another mandatory software layer that doesn’t actually bear any relevance to my enjoyment of gaming. There must be a middleground.

In what I miserably suspect will ultimately be just one of many arguments about direct access to precious, precious consumers in an increasingly non-physical age of gaming retail, this appears to a problem of too many pies and too many fingers trying to be in all of them. Hopefully someone will back down (or at least compromise) in this matter, but now that the initial voyeuristic thrill has passed, it doesn’t seem either fun or constructive for this couple (or at least one of ’em) to make their argument quite so public. Can you not sort this out like gentlemen, gentlemen?

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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