It is time to publish PC games as Steam exclusives

For over 25 years now PC games have been available on disks and in boxes at retail stores around the world. This business model is now well and truly broken because most people would rather steal games over the internet than pay for them. Game publishers have tried a number of protection strategies (DRM or Digital Rights Management) but none of them work and they cause a great deal of resentment amongst legitimate users. Why alienate your customers?

However there is a form of DRM that consumers like, and that is Steam. They like Steam because it adds value in lots of ways so they don’t even realise that it is mainly there for DRM, they just see it as a download service and as a community. The problem is that publishers tend to release a game in boxed retail format and on Steam. This is silly because the boxed version is the one that is going to end up being copied over the torrent network. It is obvious that the time has now come to release PC games only on Steam. This has many advantages:

  • If your security (and Valve’s) is good then there will be no piracy. If software thieves want to play your game they will have to pay for it. Which is as it should be, but isn’t at the moment.
  • No need to design and manufacture all that packaging and all those disks.
  • No need to distribute physical stock around the world.
  • No need to give sale or return.
  • Higher gross profit percentage.
  • Simultaneous global launch into every country on earth.
  • Lots of added value services for the consumer.

Quite simply we have reached the point where making the boxed version actually reduces sales and costs money. The piracy that it allows costs far more than the income it provides. Publishing a game as a Steam exclusive will make you more money and involve far less work. In fact using Steam as the exclusive distribution fixes the broken business model. So it makes it worthwhile to develop PC games once more.

All this depends on the Steam DRM not being cracked. So Valve need to keep one step ahead of the thieves. Also publishers don’t have to use Steam. They can make their own Steam-alike. For the biggest publishers this may be viable but for most the existing Steam community is a very powerful reason to give this service the sole rights.

And now I am going to back my thesis up with this market research. 85% of these PC gamers are software thieves, 55% have avoided buying a game because of DRM and 58% have had issues arising on their computer from the DRM on legitimate games. Yet, and this is the big one, 51% would have paid for a game they have pirated if it had been available on Steam. 

So, if publishers have any sense, boxed retail PC games are dead. It is a pity EA didn’t realise this with Spore.


  1. The arms race will never work, there are always clever crackers out there looking for a challenge. Many 1st party Steam releases have been cracked, some can even connect to cracked servers for online play.

    What these do miss is the service a player can get through Steam: any accounts with cracks or cheats running are banned, and installs are completely automated.

    Next week’s code is an unknown quantity and it’s foolish to try and compete there. What Steam gives is A1 service, the DRM has never really worked and, going by the past decade or so of efforts to apply DRM to anything, won’t.

    People (generally) take the shortest route with the lowest energy costs. Not necessarily the most rational route (which would be fair for everyone including developers), but the most rational egocentric route (i.e. cheapest for them in money, time, energy). Steam is a lot more convenient than torrenting and cracking games, especially when Valve offer immense value with things like the Orange Box.

    I may be talking out of my hat here, but I’ve also noticed that things like Steam and XBLA seem to give a boost to the credibility of smaller games. We’re so used to AAA games that a £10 price point for a boxed game seems to make people think “What’s wrong with it?”, whereas people seem to be becoming accustomed to many different price points for new releases online.

  2. At last, one of your piracy and PC game posts I can not cringe reading.

    What was needed was a different approach to curbing piracy, rather than poor DRM and threatening legal action. Steam does this by offering a convinent service, with a DRM that doesn’t irritate and allows you to download and play your games on any machine that you’re logged into.

    The DRM still doesn’t work, few do, but at least it stops a game being cracked straight away when most of the sales are made and Steam also stops early versions leaking out.

    The only thing that developers have to realise now is that you can’t just throw your singleplayer game onto Steam and that is that. People will still pirate. Smaller developers can take that dent and still be happy they are selling more than if they weren’t on Steam. Larger developers will have to turn their games into a service as Valve have done with their constant updates and addition of content.

  3. Even though I don’t exactly agree with every point in this article, I’ll admit the conclusion speaks the truth.

    I’ve downloaded many pirated games, but choose to buy games when they are available on steam.

    The guarantee of a working & bug free game, ease of purchase at a time that suits my whims, good support, discounts, game packs, automatic updates….. all good things, that contribute to the decision to buy titles when availabe.

    Go Steam.

  4. I’m 38 years old, and I haven’t pirated a game in better than a decade.

    All of that said, I have taken an friends old game and installed it on my system, and I’ve given a friend an old game of mine to install on theirs.

    All of those people, with the exception of myself, work in the software industry. And I believe that all of them would pass on pirating games if that game was easily available at a reasonable cost…

    Most recently I’ve been looking for FEAR for a couple of months. It’s not a new game, and I couldn’t find it in any stores. While I didn’t want to, I was going to take my friend’s pirate copy (this is a friend I have previously taken games from that he has “passed on” as he is no longer plahing, but it seems all my friends are still playing FEAR, at least ocassionaly.) Fortunately I found copy at the last minute at a local store…

    Putting games online at Steam will, I belive, cut down on pirating to a huge degree

    Mind you, that’s because I respect game designers, workers, and producers.

    The entire time I’ve been typing this my personal machine has been pirating a DVD. Hollywood makes far too much money…

  5. Apologies for the misspellings in the previous post. First night drinking in many, many months.

  6. You’re right that PC games should move fully to digital distribution.

    If you think games distributed via Steam can’t or won’t be cracked, you’re sadly mistaken – but the convenience and exposure that Steam offers goes a long way to compensating for that.

  7. The only games i have purchased on the PC for the last four or five years (when did halflife 2 come out?) have been via STEAM. Again, for reasons already mentioned, ease of purcahse, constant updates, additions etc. I just cant wait for M$ and Sony to bite the bullet and start uploading new releases via their respective portals. All the new consoles have adequate enough HD space now, so why not? I hate shopping me lol.

  8. I’ve been a PC gamer for over a decade and a half and never, once, pirated a game. BUT… I HATE STEAM!!! It’s slow, you don’t get a boxed copy, you have no come back if Value go bust! I like my boxed copies, I like having CD’s/DVD’s, I like manuals (yes, I do read them too), I like the excitement of ripping the wrapping off a newly bought game and that new smell from inside on opening the box, I like going into stores and looking at all the PC games available.

    So no, I DON’T like this idea and reject it. Not all PC gamers like Steam, go check it out before you start saying outwise. I bought Half-Life 2 on disc, was hit by the Steam nightmare, took 1 hour and 40 minutes to unlock the game!!!!!!!!!!! AAAGGGHHH!!!! Never bought another Steam title to date, not even the addon’s for Half-Life 2. Give me a physical disc any day!

  9. I agree with Paul.

    Even with improments in the world of computers, nothing is ever 100% stable, and it’s far too risky for downloads etc.

    Rather have that physical copy anyday.

    And you are missing the economical points for every other aspect of the market…

    All the games retailers (who’s staff are most likely gamers) would be redundant, and go under, causing mass job loses and major drops in games sales.

    Also only a very small % of the gaming community (generally hardcore)even know of the exsistance of Steam and the like. Therefore no more casual gamer sales, more lost £$£$.

    And finally, no more impulse buying, you only get that kind of sales when they are there, in there shiny boxes screaming at you, NO picture on the intenet has that effect.

    To me it just seems like they would lose far more than they would gain, and even funnier is that the piracy to payed ratio would probrably lean more towards the piracy side, because casual gamers generally don’t know how/can’t be bothered to hack…

  10. Wow. You’ve managed to stir up quite the hornet’s nest on this topic.

    Don’t have much to add in terms of points. Good post as usually.

    My question about marketing games and having them stand out. For a $20 (£10) game, how much can you advertise on it. It would be great if downloadable titles could hit the multi-million unit sales. The (marketing) question is how do we get there?

  11. Well, those early steam nightmare days did put alot of people off so i sympathise with you mate. You also raise a valid point that people are “material beings”. They like having something tangible that validates their efforts and purchase. My step-dad for instance, is very IT literate, but simply refuses to buy MP3’s (yes, he is that honest) and will still only buy CD’s from a shop, hates even being online. He likes the process of going out, browsing the music section, having a collection of cd’s displayed on the wall in genre order . . . . And he is not alone. My friend loves having his xbox 360 games in cases and is dreading the digital revoulution that is coming. Personally, I dont really care. Then again, I have never had to suffer the woes of DRM on PC, as i pretty much made the forced jump to the 360 before this happened ( when i say forced, i mean in that all the top games, as dumbed down as they may be for the console market, are only being developed now on these systems ). Dont think boxed retail will ever die, but online content etc will pretty much ensure that in some fashion all games will have some kind of DRM routine online validation etc.

  12. Sorry but you’re quite wrong, it’s much easier to rebuild Steam games as stand alone installers. Take Stalker Clear Skies as an example. It’s been fairly difficult to crack the legal download/retail copy versions. It’s just been released on Steam and you can bet this particular version will be cracked in no time at all, thats if it hasn’t already.

  13. Steam isn’t bad but a monopoly is never good, consider alternatives which are just as fine as well. Boxed model is something Valve never got right, nobody likes throwaway boxes like the ones of HL² and The Orange Box. If you want retail to be successful then don’t cut on extras, I’ll happily pick up my copy of The Witcher: EE for example, just for those goodies alone.

    Cracks are always going to be available too, whether the game is on Steam or not.

  14. We didn’t say games couldn’t be cracked on Steam. All DRMs can in next to no time.

    The argument is that it does a good job of providing a convenient service that people will happily pay for, stopping release date leaks, and hopefully start to move cost down because of no physical media and a retailer taking a massive cut.

    Add checks for multiplayer everytime you log in (as most games do anyway) and start providing a service to the customer with updates, new content and a community and it should help a lot.

  15. Erm, prices will definately NOT come down if you cut out the retailers.

    For the simple reason that the publishers will decide THEY can get more money.

    Plus without retail places like Steam will charge a premium for their services.

    If anything the cost is more likely to go up.

    You know how much retailers wages are?!

    Now go see how much you pay for site/service techs etc that would be needed for the upkeep of servers etc…

  16. I remember a time when people were downing Steam as a very bad idea and now look at it!

    And Google is NOT buying Steam.

  17. Seems that way. Develop/MCV have been posting a lot of rubbish recently. Their ‘new DS’ report was bad reporting too.

  18. Uhhh… what planet do you live on? Steam games have been cracked for ages. They will CONTINUE to be cracked with ease. Bruce, why do you defend DRM like it is the future of this industry? You are one of very few people who has courage to openly proclaim your belief in DRM. When will you admit that customers hate it and that not all customers are dishonest individuals?

    I am done with DRM. I refuse to purchase products with DRM unless I know there is an escape route.

  19. I’m going to have to disagree with you here: I would NEVER consider buying a game from Steam or the like; simply because I like to have something tangible sitting on my shelf. I feel more content knowing it’s there, ready to be installed with no internet, no other party being relied on. We don’t all live in broadband paradise, either, which is part of the reason. I do not like having to rely on someone else (digital distribution server in this case) to play my game, or install it, or play it offline for the first time, or whatever.

    And yeah, I hate to tell you, but Steam games are cracked a plenty as well, though probably not as much their boxed counterparts.

  20. Your forgetting not everyone has high speed internet to be able to download games quickly. I prefer disc until (if ever) broadband gets here.

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