There’s no contest when it comes to PC gaming: Steam is the place to be. Their sales drive interest of games through the roof, their overlay and community features are unparalleled, and their selection goes from all kinds of software to almost any kind of game. Although there have been many contenders that stepped up to the plate to offer similar services, many do so out of a sense of fear; afraid that by giving Valve a monopoly on PC gaming, we will lose that special something business thrives on: competition.
However, Valve is not intimidated by competition and seeks it out regularly with the implementation of bold new features. Last fall it was Big Picture Mode, moving the Steam experience away from the PC and into the living room. Now, it is eliminating the need for a second screen/device to look to for help, with their new community feature: Steam Guides.
In theory, at least, this is fantastic news for everyone who uses Steam. No matter how much we’d like to deny it, we all have to lean on the larger gaming community from time to time to help us through tough areas, glitches, hardware problems, and the like; what the Steam Guides do is cut out the previously necessary step of going to the browser. Now, we can pull up the overlay, go directly to the game’s community page, click guides, and choose the section we need help with. This is right up there with the ease of community-level access that Nintendo has enabled with the WiiU via MiiVerse, and I imagine Sony and Microsoft are paying attention and will be playing catch-up with their next consoles.
While this easily accessible guide system is definitely a welcome improvement, perhaps the best addition Steam made to guides is to actually break them out into a myriad of sections. As a man who verges on obsessive about being well organized, this alone makes it more valuable to me than GameFAQs or a quick Google Search (you should see my folder filing and naming “system” on this computer).
Instead of jumping into a forum and having to narrow down search terms in the hope of finding what you need, every game’s guide area is pre-sorted so you know exactly where to go without any hassle. There is an area for just about everything imaginable: secrets, gameplay, multiplayer, weapons, classes, walkthrus, modding/config, maps/levels, workshop, game modes, coop, achievements, story/lore, crafting, characters, loot, trading, and possibly more/less depending on the game.
However great the Steam Guides are, though, there is an inherent downside to all of this growth and expansion: with more and more gaming culture consolidated into this one place, the impact of network downtime, security breaches, or an evil change of heart, will have a much larger effect than when everything is distributed across separate communities and networks.
Hearken back to the PSN security breach and three month long downtime of 2011. Gamers who were solely invested in the Sony ecosystem were out of luck when it came to online play, patches, chat, new downloadable games/media, and on top of that, the worry about their personal info was weighing over them constantly. Hell, even though I wasn’t completely without games during that time thanks to other consoles, it seemed like the only stuff I wanted to do was online content for the PS3 (which might have been a first, right? hahah…)
Luckily, when your PS3 can’t connect to the internet, you can still play your disc-based and previously downloaded media… however, unless you knew downtime is coming for Steam, and prepared for it with Offline Mode, network problems mean almost all Steam games are unplayable until the issues are resolved.
If there were to be a Steam security breach on the level of Sony’s, many a PC gamer would be screwed until it was fixed; no games, no community, no chat, no guides, no to a lot of things essential to their entertainment needs. And if they are fully invested in the Steam ecosystem, as I imagine most PC gamers are, it would really mess with their freetime in a big way; especially with Steam’s recent move towards software and media distribution, downtime could mess with more than just gaming habits and hobbies.
And, although it’s sort of an afterthought, think about how many users will be stolen away from guide-based communities like GameFAQs, GiantBomb, and specialty sites and forums which serve as the “mom and pop” model of gaming sites on the Internets main street. Whole PC sections, forums, and sites could turn into apocalyptic wastelands in no time at all.
This isn’t to say that Valve intends to destroy other guide sites and communities, that may just be an unavoidable consequence of staying relevant This isn’t to say that Valve is going to make the same mistakes that Sony did, in fact, I would be very surprised if everyone didn’t learn from their mistakes and take extra precautions since then. This doesn’t mean that I believe Valve will turn evil and turn Steam into a pay-to-use service like Xbox Live, because honestly, they have no reason to do that when they are already raking in cash as it is. And this doesn’t mean that we should run away from awesome new features for fear of a complete monopoly in the PC space, because this change will only spur other services and communities to up their game to stay relevant.
However, I do think we should be aware of what is happening and what the larger implications of features and expansion like this could mean. A little common sense, critical thinking, and uncontrollable paranoia can go a long way; so lets think before we enthusiastically jump headfirst into every new thing Valve throws our way.
After all, if they really were the gaming messiahs we make them out to be, wouldn’t we have Half-Life 3 already?