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Interviews

Valve lets off Steam

We question Freeman curator and Valve marketing man Doug Lombardi on the digital distribution service's past, present and future

Upon the release of Half-Life in 1998, Valve Software became one of the most important developers in the world pretty much overnight. Then, ushered in with the goliath that was Half-Life 2 in 2004, came an unexpected face - a digital download service, without which Gordon Freeman's continuing adventures could not be appreciated. There was confusion in some parts, welcome in others and a smattering of vociferous disappointment from those without internet connections. But change was here, and so was Steam - both here to stay.

Now the dust has settled, independent developers are beginning to thrive on the service and a new era of episodic gaming is in the offing. We're intrigued by the prospect and about what it means for the future of PC gaming. Should grumpy gamers let off Steam? Let's find out as we chat with Valve Software's Doug Lombardi...

At what point and why did Valve decide to make the leap into digital distribution?

Doug Lombardi: After shipping a number of multiplayer games, like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, we wanted to solve a number of issues to improve customer experience. We'd done simple advancements such as including a server browser within the game itself that, at the time, was a nice step forward in putting players together. But, as online gaming grew, it was obvious that features like auto-updating and more sophisticated anti-cheat measures were going to be requirements. We couldn't find an existing solution for these issues, so we started development internally.

To an outside observer it seems that Valve saw which way the wind was blowing in terms of digital distribution, and got in before the competition. How important was it to become the first developer/publisher to fully embrace internet game delivery?

Doug Lombardi: For us it was really just a set of things that were necessary, things that would make the overall experience of playing (and developing) our games better. Before we began development on Steam, we contacted many other companies to see if anyone had something similar to Steam already in development. We were surprised to find that, while folks were pursuing some of the individual features such as delivering bits via secure, online commercial means, no-one was pursuing the collection of the pieces we had in mind. What's odd is that statement might still be true today.

As a developer and now self-publisher, what are the main benefits of having a service like Steam?

Doug Lombardi: In the 16 months or so since Half-Life 2 was made available, we've delivered a litany of new Counter-Strike: Source content, Half-Life 2 Deathmatch, new Half-Life 2 Deathmatch content, Lost Coast (which added HDR and Commentary to the Source engine), Day Of Defeat: Source, and new Day Of Defeat: Source content. The majority of this was free of charge to any owner (retail or Steam) of Half-Life 2.

Right now you may be saying, "Well, Valve released a bunch of free stuff for Half- Life owners - what's the big difference?" Simple. For the Steam customers, the existence of these new games was made readily apparent via their Steam Games menu, and they could be accessed and launched by simply double-clicking on their respective icon. That's light years from, 'Issue press release, place file on FTP, pray everyone hears about it and gives it a try'.

Is it feasible anymore to be an established gamer without an internet connection?

Doug Lombardi: In certain genres and on certain platforms, I'm sure it is. But in an age of integrated wireless on the majority of new devices, and service charges becoming more and more affordable, I think the idea of gamers not being connected is pretty quickly becoming about as common as gamers without 3D acceleration.

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