Stardock on Steams digital distribution dominance

Stardock boss Brad Wardell discusses Steam

I admire Valve on two levels. First, I admire their excellence in what they make. I like companies that strive for the highest quality possible in what they produce. Second, I admire Valve’s business practices. They are incredibly effective, competent, and adaptive. In short, Valve is a fantastic company.

But I’ve also been around long enough to know that you don’t want one player calling all the shots. The companies we love today may not be so loved later on. Steam is doing phenomenally well. It has fans that actively wish that competition would just go away in the name of “standards” (whatever that means).

And yet, even though Impulse is just an up-and-comer, the competition has already helped consumers. Before the “Impulse Weekend Buys” it was relatively rare to see regular organized major sales on Steam. Now we get them every weekend. I would like to think that we’ve had some impact on people’s awareness that you don’t need nasty DRM to be successful. I think Impulse’s focus on trying to encourage one price, worldwide in local currency right out of the gate has made some impact too.

Steam’s most successful venture yet, Steamworks, has helped Steam get an increasingly firmer hold on the market. In my opinion, Steamworks is 90% copy protection, 10% game-related features. I know that publishers are looking at Steamworks as a replacement to SecuROM for protecting games.

The problem is that Steamworks requires the user to have a Steam account and Steam installed to use it – even if you buy it at retail or through a third party like Direct2Drive. I think that’s the basic strategy for Steamworks -- give developers a bunch of “free” features that they used to have to pay for (copy protection, DRM, GameSpy type stuff) with the only catch is that the user has to become a Steam user and have Steam installed. As a result, something like Dawn of War 2, for instance, won’t be on Impulse.

Even with the case of Steamworks, competition has helped here too though, since Stardock is producing Impulse Reactor to compete with Steamworks. Impulse Reactor doesn’t require Impulse (the client) to even be installed to work. Steamworks, obviously, has a head start and publishers have been following THQ’s lead by setting up with Steamworks even when it means they’re distributing a third party store with their game. After all, right now, Steam has the numbers.

Based on the #s I hear from publishers, Impulse, which has only been out for 6 months, has already become #2 in terms of actual units sold on a given title. But Steam still has a massive lead. Obviously, if we can’t even carry certain big name titles because they’ve hooked in Steamworks, the competitive trend will reverse.

Competition is good for consumers. It’s also good for companies. I’m a Steam user. I enjoy watching it evolve and improve over time. But I am also thankful that there are still alternatives to it. Because as much as people love Valve today, I still remember how much everyone loved EA and Microsoft in their day too. Competition keeps companies dynamic and consumer friendly.

I like Stardock, but honestly I would prefer to get all of my PC games on Steam. I hate having 5 different downloaders, its insane. via

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