March 10, 2010
The Good and The Bad of Video Game Convergence

Two recent news items that deserve some commentary:

The Good

Steam Comes to Mac, Offers Cross-Platform Gaming Free of Charge

Valve Brings Hit Games, Steam Service to Mac

The Bad

When Ubisoft takes a break, your games break

Ubisoft DRM Servers Attacked Rendering Games Unplayable

My comments after the jump:

In the realm of gaming, we've seen two developments suggest bold statements about the producer-consumer model in the digital age. It's not anything new that online gaming has taken off, from Halo on the XBox to World of Warcraft on the PC to Farmville on Facebook. With the digital, however, comes a host of problems: mostly with regards to the maintenance of large communities of gamers.

A large problem with regards to the producer-consumer relationship has been the regulation of intellectual property for the gaming industry (and many other industries as well this century). The best solution at the moment seems to be authentication built in to the gaming software. For example, most players sign in with a personal account and information to access the online elements of certain games. The trend among game companies has been to mediate the multiplayer option with authentication. However, Ubisoft Entertainment -- creators of Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia, and a number of first-person shooters -- made the decision to control the entire gaming platform, by necessitating authentication even to play in single-player mode. This means, of course, that players also have to be online: so if their Internet connections are poor or broken... no gaming!

With regard to their DRM scheme, earlier this week, Ubisoft committed a major error (or just got pretty unlucky): their authentication servers were attacked, forbidding all potential players of Assassin's Creed II or Silent Hunter 5 to... well, move to another company's working games.

In comparison to Ubisoft's tactics, most game companies allow one-player non-authenticated sessions, so if you don't have Internet access, you can still enjoy the product. And ironically, while DRM is supposed to be a response to game pirates, the unavailability of the games will simply prompt more pirating. As Henry has explained multiple times before, pirating can occur in response to media's failures to cater seamlessly to the consumer.

Doubly ironic, Techdirt reports that Ubisoft's DRM was actually cracked within a few hours of its initial release. Triply ironic, Electronic Arts decided to take a similar, Ubisoft-inspired DRM route by pushing an online-only suite of games; however, EA has recently encountered similar server crash issues.

But there is hope!

Valve, creators of popular games such as Portal, Counter-Strike, Left for Dead, Half-Life, Team Fortress (... the list goes on!) and currently leader in the online PC gaming market, with an estimated share of 70%, has announced that it will be expanding its Steam online distribution service to the Apple platform. The supposed 70% market share has primarily benefited from the purchasing and management system, which provides ease of access for gamers to hugely popular online PC games. Besides the obvious market expansion that Valve is catering to with this announcement (think of all those college students with Apple laptops), there are two additional benefits:

1) Any PC gamer that currently owns a game on Steam will be able to access the Mac version for free.

2) Any Steam game will be playable across platforms: meaning that if you start your game on a PC, you can switch over to a Mac and begin from where you left off.

The second point certainly sets a few precedents for the gaming industry. Currently, a lot of online games are available on both PC and XBox; however, if you want to play across these platforms, you would have to purchase separate copies of the game.

Even more astounding news? Yep: the next upcoming games, like Portal 2, will be available on both systems upon launch. The Apple gaming market is almost nonexistent even in 2010, so it seems that Valve has discovered a market that will potentially thrive as Apple's hip brand continues to promote hype and sell units.