Improper Proprietary

Cloud Saves - oh wait, wrong joke wrong article...

So Square-Enix are the latest to demand users only use their own DRM-laden Proprietary Digital Media Downloader, but this time it’s for arguably one of the hottest games ever made – the re-release of Final Fantasy 7. But isn’t this an improper usage of proprietary media download services? Let’s look at the evidence.

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 So the re-release of Final Fantasy 7, to celebrate 25 years of Final Fantasy and tuned for modern PCs, is exclusive to the Square-Enix Store.

This is perhaps not as big a surprise as had been made out to be – as much as there were hints it would have hit Steam, it’s a game that carries so much punch and weight that of course it makes sense that Square-Enix, in their infinite wisdom, would want to only sell it through their own store with DRM. They get to charge as much as they want, and get all of the money. No middle man, no expenses – just pure, plain profit. At a time when Square-Enix haven’t been as flush with cash as they perhaps should be, there is a cold, harsh logic to this news.

Of course, it’s another Proprietary Download Service. And that’s the real kicker and what has annoyed so many people.

There’s a line of thought that suggests competition is a good thing – and it’s true, competition is a good thing. But there’s always such a thing as “Too much of a good thing…”, and it’s very clear that we’re running headlong into an era where competition may be bad for us, the consumers.

This isn’t to say that I don’t encourage Square-Enix, Blizzard or even EA to better their services and be a viable and serious alternative to Valve’s Steam service. There’s a serious point to be made here – Steam has the lions share of the digital market, and has had it for some years. Whilst Steam has done its best to better itself, it’s never really had a proper rival to take that shine off and point out its limitations – DRM, overtly long installation times, pausing downloads when trying to play another game on its service etc. Steam is not, in itself, perfect. There’s no point trying to paint it as such either.

That said, what Steam has offered for many years is simple convenience, the convenience to have all of your games in one place at any one time. Sales generate income, which swells the average users games list, along with achievements and the recent addition of the Workshop, allowing games modders to have their mods available in the service, and users can install the mods without fear of breaking their game in the process. People PAY for convenience. They like it. That is what has made Steam so successful – the pure, unadulterated convenience of it all.

EA’s Origin, and the Square Enix Store (and to a degree, the Blizzard Battle.net service) have the problem right now that in the face of such convenience, they look inconvenient.

This is a big problem for them, because users don’t like inconvenience or to be treated like fools – EA’s Origin may have a couple million registered users, but many of them either bypass it to run their games on their own or run it in a sandbox. There is no trust for a downloader system that reserves the right to rifle through your computers hard drives, and EA must already know Origin (the fourth incarnation of a digital service that has failed three times already!) is by and large already a tainted brush. There’s no way to paint it white – the brush won’t allow it.

It also means games are spread across multiple services, with multiple ideas of DRM, charging differing amounts and having entirely different user agreements. They have separate achievements, meaning that those who like to have all their e-peen enhancements in one central location will find the idea of farming achievements on a new service somewhat annoying. There is no convenience to the user in this regard – and that makes services that are not Steam look positively archaic as a result. Steam looks like a friendly face ready with a warm hug in a nice warm home compared to other services asking you to move out and into their shabby apartment for a week or two.

Of course, convenience will require all these services to perhaps come to a consensus at some stage – one day they will all have to come to an arrangement for a single unified independent system that manages things like achievements and user data. This is the only way other proprietary services can survive – they’ll have to concede that Valve have, in a sense, done something important and go along with a sort of cloud-based independent management system. Of course, in this case, many will simply ask; why not just use Steam to release your games on anyway? Do business, get money, stop being greedy.

Which leads on to my next point.

These other services are leading to a point of saturation; GOG, Origin, Gamefly, Windows Live, Steam and so forth – and with Blizzard, Square-Enix and more trying their hand, Steam may soon face the prospect that those who were once allied with it and wanted to release games on its service are going to follow the pack, and try and set up their own services.

This again comes back to convenience – and this is something users will absolutely balk at. Watching the digital media market fragment into their own separate camps is the antithesis of convenience – it will send the market arguably back into the dark ages, where our desktops were often cluttered with dozens of games icons, each service requiring its own username and password to remember, each service with its own rules and regulations and ideas of right and wrong.

There’s a reason why Windows 8 is foregoing the traditional system of desktop viewpoints – it’s because Live, Steam etc. allow for a unified point of existence. Most gamers desktops these days are pretty barren – we organise, file and sort our games properly and most of all, Steam allows us a simple list to choose from. Desktops as we know them have been usurped by convenience, to the point that they start to look very inconvenient.

But with so many services, so many icons and details to remember, this kind of push into a more slick and less desktop world will be slowed – there will simply be too many of them, and unfortunately for the PC market, the unifying point in all of this is Microsoft – which would give THEM the power to push Windows Live as a unified user/achievements service. And no-one else will be able to argue. Is that a future we want? Considering the loathing people have for Windows Live, I suspect this would likely freak more people out than anything else.

It’s this improper use of proprietary services that is a real problem right now. There’s a feeling that to make money, they all need to sell direct. But in doing so, they’re deliberately destroying their own arguments and likely, their own future independence for the sake of a couple of extra dollars/pounds/euros here and there. The cost of making more money is simply they’ll re-position the power in the market to someone else, someone who can and is at the very center of it all. As I said, this to me will inevitably be Microsoft. Who will simply require services be made into “apps” for their new look operating systems and use their own achievements service. That’s of course if they themselves want it. It would be easy in this for Microsoft to make the demands, and simply turn down rivals for not adhering to their code of conduct.

Question is – who do you trust more in all of this?

And that is the underlying point of it all. There’s a real issue of trust at the very base of this. People use Windows mostly because they don’t have a choice – it’s kind of the standard, and there’s no competition there. Steam is, by and large, trusted by most gamers in the world and is a veritable giant, but chipping away at the giant may simply end up with a big ugly mess of innards and gore at the end of it, as companies vie for a market position they can’t possibly have. Destroying Steam won’t mean that EA or Square-Enix or Blizzard will take their place. Again, that is likely to be the player with all the centrally located power – Microsoft.

Steam works because people trust it. It will be hard – if not impossible – to damage that relationship.

So instead, it’s likely we may see publishers release their games on their own services and not Steam. Because the only way to kill Steam will be largely to stop the latest big games being released on it.

I just hope the future they envision is better than the one I see coming, because otherwise we’re in for many years of stupdity, heartache and consumer anger. And that won’t make PC gaming better – it will make it worse. Which defeats the whole purpose of trying.

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