There is an ongoing theme, in the discussion of why Microsoft shouldn’t have done an about-face on its disastrous DRM for the Xbox One, one comparison comes up, again and again: Steam. Even very intelligent people keep saying this; Jesse Schell, a game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor, actually said “There’s one mistake that they all make, and that mistake is listening to their customers.”
And then he trots out the Steam comparison again. But it’s facetious, at best, and it needs to stop. Here’s why.
Console Games Become Obsolete, PC Games Don’t
There’s not a one-to-one comparison here, between console and PC games. PC games, you buy it once and you own it until the last vestiges of the operating system it was coded for are wiped, and even then, it’s still there, still accessible if you want to put in the work. We’ve all installed Steam in multiple computers, we’ve all downloaded games from it; it’s one of the first things I do with a Windows install, in fact.
Console games are different. Console games are, like it or not, intended to become obsolete. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up for considerable debate, but Microsoft had no intention of getting rid of that planned obsolence; your Xbox 360 games weren’t going to be waiting for you to reinstall them on the Xbox One.
Valve Doesn’t Have A Stranglehold On The Market
This isn’t to say Steam isn’t everywhere, as a verification and distribution system, because it is. But if you want to buy your PC games from somebody else, Valve doesn’t care, or rather Valve wants to compete for your dollar. That’s why you can buy either Steam codes or copies from Amazon, or Green Man Gaming, or GOG, or any of a host of other sites. If we buy a game from Steam, it’s not because we have to. It’s because we want to.
The same just is not true of console games. Although it must be said that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are all making enormous strides towards freeing up access to their consoles, they’re still walled gardens under the total control of their owners. And that’s perfectly reasonable: It’s what we’ve signed up for.
But the market is more controlled and restrictive by its very nature, compared to the PC market. The idea of Steam showing up on the PS4 or the Xbox One is a joke; they would never allow another store on there. One concern, cited repeatedly, is that games would never lose value: With no downward pressure from used games, the costs would stay at $60 forever. And whether or not that’s fair, that illustrates a problem nobody can escape.
Gamers Trust Valve, And They Don’t Trust Microsoft
I’ve easily dropped a few hundred bucks on Steam over the years, and I’m far from alone in that category. It’s never bothered me for a very simple reason: I trust Valve. Valve has screwed up on me, but in the end, I’ve always either gotten my money back, gotten a game that works, or figured out the problem.
Whether fairly or unfairly, it’s clear Microsoft doesn’t have that same degree of trust from consumers. And without that trust, what Valve has achieved with PC games will be impossible with console games.
This isn’t to say a Steam for console games is impossible. But it’s going to have to involve a company with, frankly, no horse in the set-top box race. And that means we’ll be waiting a long time.