Lately a lot of my favorite computer game developers have outsourced their distribution to Valve, through its Steam portal. This has upset me so much that I've stopped buying the latest releases. Why? Because Steam is evil. Let me explain:
The primary purpose of Steam is game registration - to verify that you have bought a legitimate copy.
It also has secondary services, like automatic updates, forums, etc.
"Traditionally", i.e. a few years ago, this would have been handled through the developer's website,
under the customer's own control - you decide when to install which patch.
Distribution through Steam however requires you to install the Steam client software, which must always be running in order to be able to run the game, even after registration is complete. Apart from the unnecessary load it lays on my PC, there is a bigger problem: it makes running the game to rely completely on Steam. You'd think that by paying for the game you should legally own it, but that is not so. Steam changes "buying" into "renting". In their own words:
"Valve hereby grants, and you accept, a limited, terminable, non-exclusive license and right to use the Software for your personal use in accordance with this Agreement and the Subscription Terms. The Software is licensed, not sold. Your license confers no title or ownership in the Software."
This could pose serious problems in the future, like disabling your precious expensive game. What if Valve decides to terminate support for a game or underlying operating system, starts charging fees, or the company goes out of business? What if you or Valve have connection problems, there is a bug in Steam or the software is hacked? In all these cases you may be in trouble, because you have no rights:
"Valve and its affiliates and service providers expressly disclaim (i) any warranty for Steam, the Software, and the subscriptions, and (ii) any common law duties with regard to Steam, the Software, and the subscriptions, including duties of lack of negligence and lack of workmanlike effort. (...)
Valve may cancel your Account or any particular Subscription(s) at any time. In the event that your Account or a particular Subscription is terminated or cancelled by Valve for a violation of this Agreement or improper or illegal activity, no refund, including of any Subscription fees, will be granted."
To make matters worse, Valve reserves the right to curb your rights even further, your only defense consisting or bailing out and thus lose the right to play your game. Again:
"Valve may amend this Agreement (including any Subscription Terms or Rules of Use) at any time in its sole discretion. If Valve amends the Agreement, such amendment shall be effective thirty (30) days after your receiving notice of the amended Agreement, either via e-mail or as a notification within the Software. You can view the Agreement at any time at http://www.steampowered.com/. Your failure to cancel your Account, or cease use of the Subscription(s) affected by the amendment, within thirty (30) days after receiving notification of the amendment, will constitute your acceptance of the amended terms. If you don't agree to the amendments or to any of the terms in this Agreement, your only remedy is to cancel your Account or to cease use of the affected Subscription(s). (...)"
The Steam software on your PC not only hosts your games, but also regularly scans your machine's hardware and software.
The data gathered is sold by Valve to third parties.
In their own words:
"By using Valve's online sites, products, and services, users agree that Valve may collect personally identifiable information (as defined below). Valve will not share personally identifiable information with other parties except as described in this policy. Valve may also collect aggregate information and individual information. "Aggregate information" is information that describes the habits, usage patterns, and demographics of users as a group but does not describe or reveal the identity of any particular user. "Individual information" is information about a user or user’s machine that is presented in a form distinguishable from information relating to other users but not in a form that personally identifies any user or enables the recipient to communicate directly with any user. Valve may share aggregate and individual information with other parties without restriction."
They claim it is anonymized, but what if their systems are hacked or, again, they change their policy? What gives Valve the right to sell this data, which apparently has market value, without paying you for it? The biggest problem of all is that though the data they gather will probably mostly harmless, they fail to detail exactly what data is being gathered, so it could well extend to things you don't want to end up on their servers.
Appropriation of creativity
Modern games are supported by hordes of fans, several of whom contribute to the game
by creating mods, new plots and settings, strategy guides, etc.
This makes the games much richer and more fun.
They usually distribute these additions under free licenses, allowing everybody to enjoy them.
However, if they make the mistake to publish these on Valve's forums, cloud-service or in-game communication platforms,
they they lose all their rights, which become property of Valve.
In their own words:
Software distribution through Steam gives you a lot less worth for you money than through an oldfashioned cd-rom. You get extra unnecessary software that spies on you and if anything goes wrong, you have zero rights. That's enough for me to wield my ultimate consumer weapon to evoke changes: I cease to be a customer. Maybe you should too.
If you doubt the claims stated above, read the Steam subscriber agreement
This article was originally based on the versions of 24 September 2010 and has been updated to the versions of 18 September 2012.
Note that above I picked on Valve, because it has gobbled up a few of my favorite game lines. But the criticism may or may not apply to other online game distributors too - I have not checked them.