Why Valve needs to come clean on Steam’s EA-aversion

Tuesday, 12 July 2011 08:11 GMT By Brenna Hillier

As EA games drop quietly from Steam’s catalogue, the mega-publisher is painted the villain. But has Valve been given too much credit?

Valve isn’t as popular as incredible profits might lead you to believe. Detractors fear its hold over the PC market is alarmingly close to a monopoly.

While competitors exist, Steam’s collusion with territorial price fixing and censorship can be swallowed; without them, this gamer’s favourite could end up as much a part of the corporate, business-first machine as the worst of traditional retailers. More concerning for those who fear a fixed market, Valve has apparently not reacted well to the arrival of a rival: EA’s Origin.

EA has the financial muscle – and the IP – to turn Origin into a major drain on Steam’s customers, but it has taken a disarmingly mild approach so far. Although hinting that it may offer its services to other publishers and indies, Origin as it stands seems to be nothing more than a glorified revamp of the pre-exisiting EA Store, with some community features, exclusive but optional content, and DRM tacked on.

Nobody’s quite clear on what’s going on between the two companies in the wake of Origin’s launch, but EA has said Valve made the decision to pull EA’s games from sale on Steam.

Angry armchair commentators are crying foul – but Valve is not. If EA had pulled its games from Steam and falsely accused Valve of doing so, Valve could resolve the situation in a heartbeat by making a public statement to the contrary. It has not done so because, it seems, EA is being entirely truthful.

Post-release support

We don’t know why precisely why Valve made the call to pull EA games, but EA has said Valve will not allow it to do something that every other major digital distribution service will. Whatever this forbidden practice is, it’s got something to do with post-release support, according to Origin head David DeMartini:

“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.”

Why would Valve object to the same kinds of direct user communication it demands of other platform holders?

Few of the concepts touched on in this statement seem new. Currently, EA requires PC gamers to forge an “ongoing relationship” with it – by registering an EA ID in order to access multiplayer, DLC, and other online features. It has implemented a DLC system which allows players to buy a core game from one service, and then install DLC purchased elsewhere. The only possible new idea in DeMartini’s statement is the circumvention of Valve’s own patch certification process and hosting.

Why would Valve object to the same kinds of direct user communication it demands of other platform holders?

Valve’s relationship with both console networks fell apart after the launch of The Orange Box. Team Fortress 2, the collection’s most enduring success, has gained notoriety for its constant updates, but the certification processes for both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live are lengthy, troublesome affairs, and Valve got well and truly tired of jumping through hoops for every new hat.

Sony, astonishingly, has since opened its tightly-guarded borders and let a rival platform in. To wield a loaded analogy, Steam is a parasite, sneaking onto PS3 consoles with every copy of Portal 2, building a nest inside the box’s body.

This is, in fact, great for Sony, who can boast the “best” console version of Portal 2, and it’s great for players. Portal 2 can be patched much more quickly and efficiently on PlayStation 3 than on Xbox 360, should the need arise, and console kids can team up with hardened PC fans to conquer the game’s co-operative multiplayer.

It’s also great – more than great – for Valve. For one thing, PS3 owners see the company’s games at their best, making them more likely to buy the next. For another, the chances of “infecting” console players are not insignificant. Almost everyone has a PC or Mac in their home, even in these days of Internet-ready refrigerators, and once they’ve got a Steam ID, why not fire it up on the other box and see what’s available?

It was a triumph for Valve – and precisely what it is denying EA

Gabe Newell publicly denounced PlayStation 3 in 2009, going so far as to temporarily swear off it. When he arrived on Sony’s E3 2010 stage to eat his words (as eerily echoed by this year’s Ken Levine PS Move apology), it was seen as a triumph for the Japanese platform holder. But really, it was a triumph for Valve, asking for and getting what it wanted: direct access to, and control over, the players of its games on another company’s system – and precisely what it is apparently denying EA.

Valve needs to speak out. It needs to communicate what its intentions are towards Origin and other distribution services, and its intention regarding traditional platforms. Because as it stands, it might not come come through this smelling of roses, and the one-time demon of PC gaming should know better than anyone else how fickle public opinion is.