Building Steam

When I first wrote about Steam, the broadband distribution and gaming network of Valve Software, I described it as an alternate approach to traditional game publishing, avoiding as it did the war for retail store shelf space, and the painfully outdated approach of burning data on a CD, mummifying it in that annoying cellophane wrapper no one can take off, and cramming it into a big cardboard box.

That was in July, and at the time, most of the games available through Steam were Valve titles (with a smattering of independent games.) Without any large publishers selling their games for download via Steam, it seemed destined to remain a Valve operation and for that reason, the industry seemed tremendously short-sighted and unwilling to let go of obsolete distribution models.

Since then, however, things have been rapidly changing.

Publishers are now jumping on board the Steam train, with casual publishing giant Pop Cap launching a raft of titles there a month ago, joining smaller hardcore game publishers like Strategy First, Monte Cristo, and Majesco, all of which now have titles on the network.

And reported last Thursday, they’re being joined by Activision, one of the oldest and most renowned publishers in the industry, home to blockbuster games like Pitfall, Doom, and The Movies. Starting later this month, Activision will put titles from its enormously popular WWII-themed Call of Duty series on the Steam network, most of them at discount rates. That Activision is doing this at all represents a small milestone in the game industry’s slow, peevish entrance into the era of broadband. It’s just strange (and a little frustrating) that it took so long.

“Digital distribution has become commonplace in just about all forms of entertainment,” Valve’s Doug Lombardi tells me by e-mail, “so it’s only natural that gaming be a part of that movement– what’s surprising is that gaming wasn’t first. That aside, we’re delighted to be working with all these companies and welcome others who’d like to give Steam a try.”

What’s more, says Lombardi, “[A]t least two more large publishers will be announced by end of the calendar year.”