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Ironside

Valve's new Broadband Distribution Platform

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Gabe Newell gave his GDC keynote address to Seattle’s local IGDA chapter this week. In it he discussed Valves new online distribution tecnology called Steam. You can find the beta at www.steampowered.com (incidentally you can play all of valves games for free if you’re using it). To briefly summarize what steam is: Steam is a distributed file system designed to run as a broadband platform for distributing games. For any given game the working set of resources is about 10% and the other 90% sits on the disk waiting to be used. Unfortunately to play the game (via the CD distribution model) you must install 100% of the resources before playing the game, then if it''s an online game like Counter Strike or something like Acherons Call you must download all the updates. It can take you 90min before your even playing the game from a clean install! What Steam enables is for just-in-time delivery of game resources, it profiles a game and delivers only the content that is expected to be used in the near future. Using steam I was able to fire up counterstrike and be playing a game in about 3 min. It''s an amazing thing to see in action. What steam enables is for content to continuously be updated from the steam servers, applying code fixes and patches without the player even noticing. Both ATI and Nvidia have announced that they will be releasing steam versions of their drivers so that all their customers will always have the latest drivers. From what I took away from the talk, Steam arose out of the fact that valve has made localized Chinese and Korean versions of half-life and never sold a single copy. Yet it is one of the most played games in the internet cafes / game rooms in Korea. Part of this is due to the fact that IP rights and Piracy are not well enforced in these countries and thus the retail system is very weak. However these countries are far ahead of the US in terms of broadband penetration, 60% of households have broadband in South Korea. What Steam enables is some nice Digital Rights Management so that developers can sell their content directly to their players, via any method they choose. Subscription, one time cost etc. and that content will be constantly updated and kept current on their customers machines. As a gamer and as someone who''s tried the Steam beta, I absolutely love it. It makes so much sense. It also includes some nice IM features that work in game and out of game seamlessly. As an independent developer I’m not so sure how this distribution mechanism will help me. For valve it makes alot of sense, 75-80% of their customers are broadband users, they also have the resources to set up hosting agreements with providers like ATT to host their steam servers and provide the bandwidth needed to support a broadband platform. As an independent developer just starting out, I don’t have any revenue streams to support the up front cost of hosting content servers. While it would be very cool to be able to cut retail and publishers out of the mix and go directly to my customers, I don’t think it''s financially viable for an upstart indie studio. The other issue I is that typically games are funded by publishers, how are these development houses going to make games if they don’t have publishers to fund them? All in all, I would love to see this technology take off because as a gamer it makes my life so easy. I love it. I just wish I was at a point in my game development carrier to take advantage of it Is this the wave of the future? or just another pipe dream?

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Ultimately I think it's the way of the future - the question viz Steam pertains to whether they have timed things right to catch the incoming wave. If they catch it right, they could be in for a long ride - but if they've jumped in too soon they'll catch the first wave in the set leave the choice waves for those who follow after them.

From what I gathered after reading the various explanations of their system - the entry fee for developers wishing to use Steam to release games is something like $1000 - high enough to weed out the not so serious hobbyists from the serious hobbyists, but not so high as to be beyond reach. In musical terms, this reminds me of the difference between a local rock and roll band playing Les Paul copies through Peavy amps and and a local rock and roll band playing Les Pauls through Marshalls or Fender Twins.

In some ways it reminds me of the "promises" made regarding Java and Netscape back in 1996 - promises that were spoken too soon. But who knows, in Steam, Valve might have found the proverbial "killer app".

[edited by - lessbread on April 20, 2002 7:45:09 PM]

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At the talk Gabe was implying that it was a flat 5% to use the steam system. And the SDK was free to use, you just had to email one of the valve guys for it. I agree though, timing is critical. It will be interesting to see how things fall when they release "blue shift" simultaneously on steam and in retail.

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One thing I recall from his talk was that he blamed the lack of sales of Korean and Chinese versions of Half-Life on their "current distribution partners," implying that they were somehow being blocked from selling there... I meant to ask him about that, but didn''t get a chance.

The numbers for Korean players and broadband penetration were certainly intriguing.

However, when all is said and done I have to vote "pipe dream." :|

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I believe that it is the way of the future but I think it has arrived too soon. I don''t think that Broadband is quite broad enough yet but when it is I can see a major change in the entire software industry.

On the Korea/Broadband issue I was rather puzzled to find that there is town in Surrey (South of London, UK) which has a huge number of Internet cafes. Puzzled that is until my friend mentioned that there is a huge Korean community there.

Dan Marchant
Obscure Productions

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Well, I must say I was a little impressed by being able to install steam and play CS within just a few minutes last night. It was slightly annoying to have a 250ms ping while I played because Steam was constantly downloading something, but otherwise it worked pretty well. Previously when I played Counter-Strike 1.3, I had to re-install Half-Life, then update the updater (no joke), then download the 1.1.0.8 patch, and THEN download CS 1.3. All told it was almost 200mb of downloads, which even at 512Mb DSL took a long time.

I was probably up and running with CS 1.4 under Steam in under 10-15 minutes... but it will probably want to download a new map every time I play... I''ll just cross my fingers.

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Wave of the future, much better use of the net than eToys, Homestore, Jeeves, etc. In my opinion.



Glen Martin
Dynamic Adventures Inc.
Zenfar

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Steam is certainly the future. Its interesting to me that some people think its a pipe dream and others say its too early. That''s a good sign that it will work. If it was so obvious than we''d be saying that Microsoft''s version will win regardless of quality because they have so much cash.

My question is, will Steam only support mods of Valve''s games? It mentions component version control and ''other applications'' (such as ATI and Nvidia) but, will we see War Craft III done this way? (I''d guess Blizzard is a bad example, they won''t share anything of the underlying architecture because they are too concerned about their low tech game engine being copied).

I think game companies, for the most part, are way to paranoid about their ''technology'' being stolen and copied. Id, Epic and Valve (include anyone I left out) are not concerned about that - they realize that gamers don''t buy technology and its hard to protect gameplay...

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