Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Xbox One and Steam Are Not The Same

Note: I started writing this post last week, and I decided to wait until after the Microsoft press event at E3 before I finished it, and of course, I missed that deadline as well, and Sony basically curbstomped Microsoft with their own press conference, so at this point this article may really end up being too little, too late. While I believe everything that I say here is accurate, I may make a minor error of fact here and there, so please keep that in mind. I am writing this from the best information I have at my disposal.

Ever since the Xbox One was announced and rumors about the way the console deals with used games, there was this recurring theme that if no used games was good for PC gamers using Steam, then why should there be problems for players with that on the Xbox One. 

Which made me wonder if those people who were making that comment understood just how fundamentally different Steam actually is than the service that Microsoft is both currently providing and hypothetically creating with this new console.

Sales: I have to start with this one since it is the most obvious argument when you compare these two platforms in terms of games being attached to an account. Valve has created a platform that supports massive sales that console makers and their publishers would never dream of following, especially with their physical games, despite the evidence that this model works very well. That is not to say that the Xbox Marketplace doesn't have some amazing sales, but there is no real external pressure to reduce prices as regularly and as drastically as there are on Steam, since the latter platform has to compete with Amazon, Gamersgate, Green Man Gaming and Gamefly for sale prices. Microsoft, especially for the digital stuff, doesn't really have to do that, and I think that has and will have a negative effect on pricing. And really, I am not going to be as upset about not being able to resell a triple-A title that I was able to buy with all the DLC for less than 5-10 dollars.I sort of shrug about it. You care a lot less about that when you can get games for so much less.

Fees for Usage: Steam doesn't charge you to use the service. At all. And they give you access to at the moment, 69 Free-to-Play games, (and more which do not show up on their official list), most with multiplayer. I am not saying that all these games are high-quality or aren't really pay-to-win games, but there are quite a few, including Valve's Team Fortress 2 which do not require a player to buy anything to win. There are three limitations on these limited accounts: you can't start a chat or send a friend request to another user (but a non-limited user can do that to you) and you can't vote in the Greenlight program, all of which are fairly reasonable, especially given how upgrade your Steam account: buy or activate a game on the service. That's it. If you have one game on your account that cost any amount of money, you have a full account. If the choice is between paying for a service which is required for anything more than the basic operation of your gaming system or spending that money on actual products, one clearly seems better. I know that Xbox Live Gold (and especially PS+) offers additional non-gaming content for their monthly fee, but as someone who just wants to play games, Steam is offering a better service.

Backwards Compatibility: For the upcoming generation of games, if I buy a new, better computer, all the games I've purchased on Steam are still in my library, ready to be played. At no point has Valve said anything like Don Mattrick's now infamous statement "If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards," and I've read a lot of comments from people on boards saying that they were willing to give up even their physical games for the 360 if their digital games made the leap to the new system, which was something even the Wii U offered, and to tell your fanbase that even that was not possible is sort of a soft slap to the face after all the other indignities Microsoft has offered their paying customers.

Indie Games: While the wall to get your game onto Steam may be high for some indie developers, once you are through and onto the service, you are allowed to push a lot of content and updates for those who have purchased your products with no fee, whereas the current and seemingly future model that Microsoft is following forces its developers, indie and otherwise to pay large sums of money to update their games, as Tim Schafer disclosed last year. Indie developers on Steam seem to be a lot happier with their experience with it, along with the revenues they are making and the control they have over pricing and content delivery. I think the story of Team Meat, the people behind Super Meat Boy is very illuminating when it comes to the differences in how indie developers are treated by Valve and Microsoft.

Offline Mode: I will admit that when I first started using Steam, this was definitely something that needed improvement, but from my experience they've managed to get right now, where if a game doesn't require an online connection, if you find yourself offline before launching it, generally it will start and Steam doesn't need to phone home like it used to. It still does occasionally, but it is a matter of something of the order of many weeks or even months now. Of course, by now we all know about what the Xbox One is going to require: a connection to the internet at least every 24 hours for authentication or you can't play games. This does not seem likely to change as just today, MS's Phil Spencer said that if you didn't have internet access, don't buy the Xbox One. Simple as that.

Kinect Is Always On: OK, so Microsoft says that they aren't going to record you with Kinect and that you have complete control through key privacy settings. But think about your experiences with Facebook and your key privacy settings. And keep in mind that the current version of Kinect, the one on the 360 has as part of its terms of use that, and I quote "You should not expect any level of privacy," and given the recently released reports about Microsoft's role in the NSA's PRISM data-collection scheme, I am very wary of the console despite the company's denials regarding how voluntary their alleged participation was. But when you look at all those pieces together, that is a scary package: a console which forces you to have a voice activated camera and no expectation of privacy from a company that is implicated in one of the most massive information gathering operations on private citizens both at home and abroad in American history. Valve/Steam meanwhile have a rather privacy agreement and subscriber agreement stating that aside from a few instances, they will limit your exposure to third parties, and they certainly haven't stated that you should have no expectation of privacy.

Now I could go on and talk about a lot of other issues, but I think I've covered most of the basic differences, so when someone brings up the argument that in essence, Steam and the new Xbox are almost the same, you will know how false that comparison is.

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