Tag Archives: Origin Store

Challenging Steam

I suppose the real questions are how Steam got to be so popular in the first place and why it hasn’t really felt much in the way of heat from challengers up until now?

In hindsight it seems like some sort of crazy accident. A little over 15 years ago, in September 2003, Valve launched a replacement for World Opponent Network, the Sierra Online created platform and which Valve ended up owning, because they wanted something that would do software updates, DRM, anti-cheat, and online matchmaking in one package.

And thus Steam was born.  First it was for Counter-Strike, but the real test came with the launch of Half-Life 2, the first game that made it mandatory to register with Steam.  Problems with that, including inadvertent suspending of a lot of people whose only mistake was buying the retail box (myself included) did not seem like an auspicious moment for the fledgling platform.

That’s me being beaten by the metro cop

Me being me, that soured me on Steam and all things Valve for a good five years.  I burned my account and walked away.  The arbitrary nature of my experience and the whole “I have the physical disk why can’t I just play the damn game?” question kept me away.  But it was an era where the physical disk was still king, so one could do that.  I walked by the Orange Box on the shelf at Fry’s with my nose in the air, knowing it was another Steam scam.  I wasn’t going to play Portal because I felt Steam was the lie.

But things changed over time.

The coming of Civilization V was the turning point for me.

Up until then I had purchased every new version in the Civilization series at the first possible opportunity.  The fact that the game required you to register it and use it with Steam gave me pause for a couple of days, but eventually I caved.  I created a new Steam account, which is the one I still use today, so I could get in on that traditional day one Civ fun.

Same as it ever was

I remained wary of the service.  Again, the idea that one company could basically remove my ability to play video games I had purchased… not MMORPGs, but single player games… kept me from getting comfortable with Steam for a long stretch.

But then we entered the era of the Steam sale.  I think that, more than anything, made people get on board with Steam.

The concept, as initially explained, was quite simple.  Any game that launches… and we’re talking about games from big studios with marketing budgets, not indies… will have a certain amount of demand for it at the list price.  Once that market has been exhausted one can stimulate further sales by lowering the price.  That gets people who weren’t going to give you any money to buy in.  You get less money, but it is better than no money.

This was the price/demand curve from Economics 1A of my freshman year of college.  This was supposed to make developers more money.

What it really did was train a lot of people to wait for the inevitable Steam sale, or at least that is one of the complaints you hear from devs now and again.  Steam ruined the concept of list price.

Along the way Steam went from being a service for Valve games to being the DRM and matchmaking for certain third party games, to being the sales platform for just about anybody.  At the same time Valve went from being the company that make good games (that inevitably arrived late) to the company that runs Steam.  Being an online retailer turns out to be a pretty profitable business compared to video game development.

The problems of success are the best problems to have, but they are still problems.  Over time Valve removed just about every barrier to entry that kept any dev from getting on to Steam.  And every dev wanted to be on Steam because, during a short period of time, being on Steam was the key to success.  That was the visibility you craved as an indie dev.  But the mad rush towards success and Valve simply letting everybody in got us to the pile of garbage that is most of the games on the service today.  Getting on Steam is no guarantee to sales or even visibility anymore.

Meanwhile, competitors lurked.

Sure, a lot of people were happy to sell through Steam.  Buying a discounted Steam code for a title at Amazon or Green Man Games is a pretty normal thing.

Others were unwilling to cut Steam in on their action.  You don’t find any Blizzard games on Steam.  They don’t need to sell there, they are big enough on their own.

For some reason Activision was okay putting Call of Duty on Steam for ages.  I suspect that, in a world where a lot of CoD sales are on consoles where the retail channel and the platform owner take their cut off the top, Steam taking their due didn’t seem like a bad deal.   But with the coming of digital distribution that seems to have changed finally.

There were small players who tried to get into the Steam-like sales platform business.  I remember the late Trion Worlds trying to turn their Glyph launcher into a third party storefront.

Then there was EA, who wanted to take on Steam by being, in their words, the Nordstrom to Steam’s Target.  That didn’t work out for them as well as they had hoped.  EA’s reputation, hardly akin to anything like Nordstrom, kept them from being a overall competitor to Steam. But with their Origin storefront they were able to opt out of Steam with SimCity and The Sims 4, depriving Steam of some revenue.

Which brings us to the situation as it stands now.  Steam is a mess.  New titles get lost in the morass of new titles that spring up every day.  Steam wavers on how to deal with its problems on that front.  Meanwhile, Steam’s cut of sales, once tolerable in the age of physical media, is now starting to be a drag on margins, a concern to any dev who is publicly held.  So things are running against it.

Big devs like Activision are more than happy to sell Call of Duty to you directly (or via the Blizzard launcher).  Fallout 76 also chose to give Steam a miss, a first for the franchise in a long time.  And it seems like that plan is going to become more common.  To counter that Valve has announced a new revenue sharing plan, so if you make more money Steam will take less of a cut.

And then there was Epic Games’ announcement earlier this week that they plan to offer their own platform and only take 12% off the top compared to Steam’s default 30%, even waving the fees for using their Unreal Engine if you go with them.  They even have a nice revenue split chart with their announcement.

Look how much more Steam takes

And if that were not enough, both Discord and Twitch have been backing their way into becoming game selling platforms.  Amazon, which owns Twitch, has been priming the pump with free games available via the Twitch client (the one time Curse client that a lot of us had already installed to manage WoW addons) for Prime members.  And you can just bet that will be the platform used to sell their upcoming games.  And Discord has had its own storefront going since August.

What is Steam going to do?

Well, they do have all the advantages of the incumbent, including a lot of players with large investments in their Steam libraries.  I’ve said in the past that this is a huge barrier to any competing service showing up.  I certainly do not want to have to keep track of which game I have on which service.  I have problems enough remembering which show or movie I want to watch is on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or Comcast.

And then there is all of the community stuff like mods that Steam has accumulated over the years.  You can’t make that sort of thing happen overnight.

So how do you assail an incumbent?  Be better, be cheaper, or be different.

There are certainly ways to be better than Steam.  I do wonder what Epic’s plan on that front is.  By lowering their take so dramatically compared to Steam they are going to see a lot of interest from smaller devs who will feel like they are getting the shaft from Steam and the announcement that big players pay less.  Epic just has to figure out how to curate so they get quality rather than quantity.

Being different is hard to assess, so I’d have to see more from any Steam competitor.  I don’t like the Steam storefront interface, but I dislike it less than most competitors.

And then there is being cheaper, which Epic went for in a big way.  Not cheaper for you and I, but cheaper for the developers using their platform.  At the percentage they are talking, and with the muscle they have developed pushing Fortnite, they might be able to woo some bigger titles their way.

We shall see.  The path of Steam over the years has been a strange one from time to time.  I doubt it will be over any time soon, but Valve’s dominance does seem to be under an actual threat for the first time.

Others assailing this topic:

Quote of the Day – We Just Work Here

The Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate and don’t think should exist…

-Erik Johnson, Who Gets to be on the Steam Store

It has come to this.  In the face of some questions and minor controversies Valve has decided that they won’t judge what goes on their Steam service.  Aside from items that are “…are illegal, or straight up trolling…” anything goes on Steam now.

I have to admit that my initial gut reaction was one of surprise at the idea that the barrier to entry for getting a game on Steam could be any lower or, in a situation where something like 35 new titles show up on the service every day (up from 25 a day in 2017), that more titles would in any way be better for anybody.  The Steam store is already full of titles I don’t think should exists, not because they offend me, but because they are just poorly conceived and badly executed.  Adding the loathsome and offensive is not going make things better.

I suppose I can appreciate Valve’s issue.  The whole Steam thing seems to have gotten away from them.  It has gone from a service to host their games to DRM for some quality titles like Civilization V to a way for some select outsiders to get onto a popular online service to a desire to be the biggest source of unfiltered video garbage games on the internet pretty fast as the platform seems to be an unending source of success (and revenue) for Valve, to the point that they just don’t make games anymore so far as I can tell.

They’re a victim, in a way, of their own success and now the idea that they can police every bit of software is daunting as subjective decisions can’t be made by Gabe, or people who report directly to Gabe, or people who report to people who report to Gabe any more.  Now there are a bunch of people, distant from the core of the company, charged with making value judgements that no doubt vary wildly with the personal context and experience of each individual.

You probably have to either reign things in drastically or just let go at this point.

Still, I don’t buy into everything they’re saying.  This for example:

It also means that the games we allow onto the Store will not be a reflection of Valve’s values

That is going to prove to be some prime, grade A bullshit in the long run.  If you sell porn, cigarettes, or alcohol in a store that you own, if you make money off of those items, while claiming that they don’t reflect your values, that is a straight up self-deluded evasion.  The owner of the store doesn’t get to distance themself from the items they sell like it was all happening to somebody else.  At best, it says that money is all you value.  Cashing the checks while saying you don’t support something is just hypocrisy.

And since Valve has pretty much declared open season for things that will offend, things that do not reflect their values, I am going to bet that somebody is even now planning to see just how far that sentiment goes.  I hesitate to speculate as to what somebody might try to pass off as a game, but somebody will come up with something so horrible that it will make the press and cast Valve in a bad light.  Some people just want to see the world burn.

And then the policy will change again.  Something will come along that will force them to change.  Something will be bad enough to cause internet level outrage and then the change will be forced upon them.  I give it until September 1, 2018 before something like that happens.

[I’m going to put that in my calendar so I can come back to it if I am wrong.]

[Addendum (June 25, 2018): Since Steam showed just days after this post that they were set to use “trolling” as their loophole to reject games they do not like, I will just admit that this isn’t going to happen right now.  More the fool I for believing them I suppose.]

In the mean time, if I were running Origin, and I could get my mind off of how to screw over the customers for just a bit, I might think about running some easy ads about how “family friendly” the service is relative to the cesspool that is Steam.

I might even think about really pushing a 3rd party program for the service with an eye to maybe poaching some studios from Steam with the promise of both not being lost in the forest of endless titles and being on a wholesome service that doesn’t include whatever edge cases people are going to try to push onto Steam now.

It has come to this, a viable plan to push Origin as a good alternative to Steam.

I will say, if nothing else, that Valve has shown itself to be adaptable in the past and generally doesn’t double down on decisions that go bad.  They might change course before the inevitable bad press, like when they really get down to having to decide what is illegal in every jurisdiction they serve, a problem they cop to in that blog post as well.  It might end up being better to just make some value judgements, protect the brand, and not try to be the sales point for all possible video games.

Also posting about this news from Steam:

 

A Flirtation with The Sims

After about a week of pondering, my daughter came to me and told me which game she wanted to play instead of World of Warcraft.  The choice of a summer game was at hand.

Then she said, “The Sims!” and I went, “Huh?”

Specifically, she had decided on The Sims 4 based on something she read somewhere on the internet.

Just in case you need a picture

Just in case you need a picture

I had to ask if she was doing this because she read something about murdering Sims by trapping them in basements or pools or doors without rooms and, if that was her plan, could I watch.  That did not appear to be her plan at all, but her response made it clear that these were things worth looking into.  A proud parenting moment, where the values of one generation are transmitted to the next.

To my somewhat mild surprise, The Sims 4… and the evil of Origin that is required to play it… were both available for Mac OS.  I didn’t think EA still did anything on Apple products, aside from horrible iOS apps that you have to pay for up front and which then still show you ads.

And, as it turned out, The Sims 4 had been marked down from its original list price to something approximately equal to the three month World of Warcraft subscription, which made the math easy.  I told her she would be giving up WoW for at least three months and using that subscription money to buy The Sims 4.

She was fine with that, so off we went.

First I had to create an Origin account, which proved to be awkward.  EA has apparently somehow come into contact with every single email address I have ever used and had set aside a pre-made account for each.  Seriously, a couple old addresses I hadn’t used in years came up with, “You cannot create a new account with that address because we have already absorbed it into the Origin Collective! One of us! One of us!”

Not creepy at all EA.  I know you’ve tried to meld everything into your evil plan.  I’ve run across these account merges before.  But seriously, I had never before downloaded the Origin software or specifically created an Origin account.  It might be nice to at least make me think this was my idea or something.

Eventually I picked an email address, went through some password reset hoops, downloaded the software to the iMac, and had everything setup short of entering my credit card information.  At that point I asked my daughter one last time if she was sure.

She was sure.

So the deed was done.  The Sims 4 was purchased and downloaded and she began to play.

And play she did.  I have to admit she threw herself into The Sims 4 and played it to death.  She would have taken all her meals at her computer and stayed up all night playing if she had been allowed.  That went on for three days when she suddenly approached me and told me that she absolutely NEEDED to get the Get to Work expansion for the game.

Best expansion name ever

Best expansion name ever

I explained that she had used up the house gaming subsidy for the quarter, which only covers a video game subscription to WoW or other MMO or the cash equivalent.  She understood that and was prepared to spend her own money for this expansion, which ran $30.

I made her hand me the money before I would even get out the credit card.  This made my wife roll her eyes, but I wanted to be very solid on the fact that she was paying for this… plus I am bad at debt collection, so I want cash on the barrel head.

So the cash was forked over and the expansion purchased.

She immediately went to town on that for another day or so.  At one point I came over and found her designing the most efficient eight person sweatshop possible, a veritable North Korean work camp without the political indoctrination, and wondering how long the workers would survive.  A true child of Silicon Valley, where we are all big on fair trade coffee and work/life balance until we’re put in charge and every expense comes out of the bottom line.

The next day I came home from work and she said she had to reboot the iMac for an update and needed me to log back into Origin for her.  I said I would be over in a bit, but she didn’t seem in a hurry.  When I put my stuff down and wandered over to see what she was up to, she was playing Minecraft on some PvP server and didn’t really want to pause.  I came by a couple more times that evening, but something else was always going on, Minecraft or drawing or looking at cat .gifs on Imgur.

Days passed and I kept offering to log her in.  Eventually I checked while she was away and saw that Origin had actually been logged in the whole time. (Don’t remember telling it to do that, but you know, EA.)  So I asked her why she stopped playing.

She said the Get to Work expansion had been a disappointment and did not really open up the game the way she thought it would from the description.  The base game was still okay and she liked some of the creative aspects of it, but the lack of an open world limited the game’s appeal over time.  Having read some follow-up items on the web, she felt that she might have been better off with The Sims 3.

There was clearly some buyer’s remorse, enough that she wasn’t ready to spend her own money to jump into The Sims 3 despite it being only $20 on Origin. (At that point it was even cheaper on Steam, but only the Windows version was available.)  Still, she got quite a few hours out of the game.  If it hadn’t been for the expansion, the cost/hours ratio would have probably put it ahead of what we get out of a lot of gaming purchases.  And I am sure she will revisit it at some point.

But that was sort of how we ended up playing Minecraft on Father’s DayThe Sims were off the menu for a bit, but Minecraft was still there for her and for us.

Was Anything Learned from SimCity? Should Anything Be Learned from SimCity?

…and remains one of the top 10 highest Metacritic-rated MMOs.

Mark Jacobs, in reference to Warhammer Online

I could list any number of reasons why I did not buy the latest SimCity.  I could go on about EA itself, or the Origin store, or the price, or always online issues, or the estimated lifetime of server support.

SimCity in 2013

SimCity in 2013

But in reality, when the game was announced, I realized that I have never quite gotten around to purchasing its predecessor, SimCity 4.  Despite having spent many hours with the first three versions of the game, I think it was clear that I was no longer as big a fan of the idea as I once was.  So I was probably not going to buy the new version in any case.

However, a lot of people did buy it.  It is (or was, or might be again) a huge and popular franchise.  And the pre-release reviews were overwhelmingly positive.  This was a game to have.

For example, there is the review over at Polygon.

I am going use their review, because they are pretty up front with how things played out.

Great Game – Score 9.5

Their initial, day before launch review, based on pre-release play time review gave SimCity a 9.5 out of 10.  The review praises the game mightily.  Addiction is mentioned in the opening sentence.  And the only real caveat about online play was a side bar that had to do more with the reviewers home router configuration than the game.  There was a caution that you needed to have a reliable connection to the internet to play the game.

Good Game – Score 8.0

Then came launch day.  Polygon, to its credit has a review policy that allows them to update review scores.  The old score remains, but an update gets added with a new score if something changes.  And the change was that a lot of people who bought the game couldn’t log on to play, even those with reliable connections to the internet.  And since there is no offline play option, lots of people were unhappy.

Due to these first day problems, Polygon changed their review to 8.0 out of 10.  The issues were likely temporary, but they felt that they could not keep the 9.5 score.

Bad Game – Score 4.0

Two days later, things had gone from bad to worse.  EA was behaving like a real city government and turning off what it deemed as non-essential services.  Leaderboards and cheetah mode were gone.  Yet there was no change to how the game was behaving.  So Polygon again updated their review.  SimCity was now rated as 4.0 out of 10, which I am pretty sure we all recognize as a “do not buy” recommendation.

Which, of course, was too late.  Part of the problem was that too many people had already purchased the game… well, too many people relative to the EA server infrastructure at least.

And there the review stands nearly two weeks later.

Meanwhile, EA began to consistently and repeatedly piss people off.  It told players they could ask for refunds, failing to mention that their policy is not to issue refunds for products purchased via digital distribution.  No refunds for Origin customers.  EA danced around issues like how long server support for the game was likely to be around and whether always online was just a DRM ploy.  And they outright lied about why online only was a requirement and that significant engineering would be required to allow the game to be played offline. (Even mainstream media is on their case about this.)

Meanwhile, the more hardcore fans were discovering that the simulation itself was not all it seemed on the surface.  Sims seem somewhat dim, and the depth of the game doesn’t seem to be up to past standards, not to mention the simple things, like saving a city then unleashing disaster to see what happens, while still being able to restore and return to your city, are no longer an option with the online model.

And amidst this, EA’s Maxis Label General Manager Lucy Bradshaw came out to tell us that in many ways they had built an MMO.  I guess if you consider an asynchronous experience like FarmVille an MMO, then SimCity fits the bill as well.  Or if you just want to count bad day one experiences as part of the MMO experience, it certainly fit in that regard.

So it was a disaster.  The Metacritic score sits at 65%, and is only that high because they only take the first review score and not revisions.  So Polygon, as an example, still shows as a 95% score on the list.  But enough sites waited that at least it won’t be the same situation as I quoted at the top of this post.

Amazon, where the game has a 1 star review average, stopped selling the game and has not resumed as of this time.  EA issued a directive to its sales and marketing channel to stop promoting the game.  EA ended up offering people who purchased SimCity a free game from their back catalog… which really costs them very little… but it was something.  The best bit or irony in that though was SimCity 4 appearing on the list.  There is your offline experience.

Well, there was one part that wasn’t a disaster.  The money part of the equation for went well for EA.  More than a million people sunk $60 (or more) into the game to play it.  So, financially, EA probably did pretty well.  And since all they need to do is sell the box to make their first big financial gain, there seems little incentive for EA to spend much right away on fixing issues.  As Lucy said:

We’re hoping you won’t stay mad and that we’ll be friends again when SimCity is running at 100 percent.

Whenever that is.  Because at that point I am sure EA will have some DLC to sell you.  Like the definition of MMO, I am not sure that Lucy is using the same definition for the word “friend” that I do.

Of course, I am not Lucy’s friend in the first place, since I did not buy her game.

All of which leads me back to the headline.  Was anything learned?

Does anybody think that the launch of the next big single player, always online game will be anything less of a disaster?

Will anybody think twice before purchasing that game if it is the next title in a big franchise?

Will reviewers hold off on their reviews for such games until any first day issues are apparent?  Or should such issues even be considered?  And should reviews change as they did at Polygon?

What should we take away from this event?

What will people take away?

What, if anything, should change?

Addendum: Another input. You can log in and play now, but is it worthwhile?

Quote of the Day – Insulting Nordstrom

If you want to sell a whole bunch of units, that is certainly a way to do that, to sell a whole bunch of stuff at a low price. The gamemakers work incredibly hard to make this intellectual property, and we’re not trying to be Target. We’re trying to be Nordstrom.

-David DeMartini, head of EA’s Origin Digital Distribution Platform, on how Valve’s policy on sales and discounts is bad for everybody

I am not an Origin customer, nor do I plan to be one.  That is primarily because of the badly handled customer service I have read about concerning Origin and EA.

So, EA, if you are shooting to be Nordstrom, a store that is able to charge a premium based on the perception people have of their quality and customer service (has anybody here not heard the snow tires story?), you have a long way to go.

Frankly, I would rate Target’s reputation and customer service far above Origin’s as well.

Try harder, Origin.

Much harder.

Addendum: And then EA changed tits collective mind and said Costco-like discounts are a good idea after all!  They still seem to be failing on that whole customer service and reputation thing though.