With the third phase of the preloading of Half-Life 2, many are finding that Valve Software's Steam Delivery System is proving a heck of a lot more reliable than it has done in the past. After being almost flamed out of existence a year ago, Steam lives on and is, apparently, holding up to the task of giving gamers what might just be the game of the year. What's going on?
Steam has had a troubled existence. Even the very principle of its conception is dubious. A developer doing its own distribution? That's got to get the publisher's goat, not always a wise move when you plan to get your game to the maximum amount of people possible (although, granted, the $6m ATI pumped into the process must have eased the cashflow just a little). Arguably, however, it's the smartest thing they could have done. Many pundits have been predicting that the best move for music is to be self-distributed online, cutting out the big publisher chunk and enabling music to be sold for less money, with more going to the artist. Distribution costs of selling music online are far lower, but Valve have perhaps gotten an even better deal. With companies like AMD sponsoring the Steam servers, and other content providers sponsoring bandwidth in exchange for marketing, it's like UPS offering to pay to have 'Delivered by UPS' on the game box – in other words, a chipper weeze for the provider.
"Clan matches couldn't get played, practices couldn't be had, games were dropped mid-session, and the overall experience rather sucked compared to what had gone before"
The problem with Steam in the first place was that it was just so flakey. The infrastructure wasn't there, the features weren't there, and the features that were there were buggy as hell. Valve attempted to move the entire Counter-Strike community to Steam in one fell swoop, and massively underestimated how much of a task that would be. (Massive underestimation seems to be something of a problem over there: wasn't HL2 supposed to ship last September?) The resentment that this caused was tangible, as clan matches couldn't get played, practices couldn't be had, games were dropped mid-session, and the overall experience rather sucked compared to what had gone before. How was this possibly a move forward?
Fast forward 12 months, and Steam is now starting to come into its own. The unified platform for running Valve games has meant that voice communication is now commonplace, and the better mods for Half-Life get more promotion than they might otherwise get. Valve have really upped the reliability and speed of their infrastructure, which means that there is nowhere near the level of sheer annoyance at the software. But where it is really coming into its own right now is in the delivery of Half Life 2, and how that works from both a logistics and marketing perspective.
Its almost possible to visualise the thought process.
1 – we want to get HL2 to as many people as possible as quickly as possible so as to build a) hype b) userbase c) word of mouth sales.
2 – to do this we need to make it easy for gamers to get hold of.
3 – gamers all have the internet.
4 – let's distribute over the internet!
Valve, clearly getting over their bout of misunderestimation, knew that trying to deliver 4GB of data to every gamer that wanted HL2 on opening day would be an insane prospect, it just couldn't happen. Servers would die, bandwidth would max out, and we'd be back to where we were a year ago – resentment. The pre-loading architecture, then, is fantastic. Not only does it ensure that everyone gets a chance to get the game on opening day (thus creating the userbase and word of mouth sales), but it creates weeks of hype in the run-up to release and is an interesting feature of the release for press to write about. (Err, so I see. Ed.)
Plus, if you leave the juicy bits until last, noone gets a chance to crack it open in the meantime.
"The pre-loading architecture is fantastic"
No one knows what the price of HL2 over Steam will be yet, nor even what the gap, if any, there will be between the Steam release and localised retail version. If there is little or no price difference between the two, and the release date is the same, then many users will opt for the physical version, if only to avoid having to download 4GB every time you re-install your machine. However, if Steam undercuts retail or if there is significant delay with the retail version, there will be a definite incentive to get it. And without the costs of the traditional publishing model ie production, distribution, retailer margin etc most people would expect the Steam version to cost less.
Of course, the real kicker will be whether or not HL2 is actually any good. If it isn't, Steam will be the least of Valve's worries.