Welcome to the Steam age

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PC gaming is starting to undergo somewhat of a renaissance, with some long anticipated titles finally seeing the light of day.

COMMENTARY: PC gaming is starting to undergo somewhat of a renaissance, with some long anticipated titles finally seeing the light of day.

Only a month ago developers id Software released the third instalment of one the most iconic gaming franchises, Doom, and in the lead up to Christmas there are so many AAA titles due that some publishers are delaying the launch of new properties until early next year.

Now that Doom 3 has landed and scared the pants off gamers worldwide, focus has shifted to the next big title, the sequel to what is regarded by most as the finest first person shooter ever made, Half-Life.

But Half-Life 2 is more than just a sequel, it is the first big step in a move designed to change the way game distribution works.

With a rise in broadband uptake it is inevitable that purely digital delivery of games will be tried. It exists in some spheres already, especially in the independent development scene, where companies like garage games (www.garagegames.com) push low cost delivery of home made titles. But Half-Life 2 is a very, very different proposition.

Not only is it such a revered single player title, its multiplayer component is a prettied up version of the most popular multiplayer title ever made. Called Counter-Strike, this started life as a 'mod' -- a user made modification to the Half-Life multiplayer game.

It was developed by 'Gooseman', an amateur developer who literally pieced the game together in his bedroom, and over five years after its first beta release it still captures the hearts and minds of the gaming community.

Counter-Strike was eventually purchased by Half-Life developers Valve-Software, and a test project updating the mod to its new graphics engine went so well that it replaces the traditional 'deathmatch' style multiplayer in Half-Life 2.

With Counter-Strike comes a fiercely loyal, technology savvy group of broadband users, the perfect guinea pigs for an experiment in online games distribution.

Over the past years Valve Software has introduced a program called Steam, which started as a central set of tools for Counter-Strike players, allowing Instant Messaging, searching for game servers and the ability to download software updates the second they are released. It was buggy and hogged bandwidth, but the first release of Steam opened people's eyes to the possibilities.

But this was only phase one. A few months ago Valve Software released a single player version of Counter-Strike, called Condition Zero. In the vernacular of the loyal Counter-Strike players it sucked, a poorly implemented game that had been bounced between development teams for years. But it did end up being the first game to be sold via the Steam network, a testbed for the launch of Half-Life 2.

Steam's evolution hit a significant point a month ago when it became the only way to play Valve software's games online. Valve turned off the long running WON user authentication network, which existed to check that players were using a legal version of the software. All of these authentication tasks are now part of Steam, as well as secure billing and content delivery.

But the first major test for Steam began last week, when Valve software released a beta version of the new Counter-Strike: Source for testing. The beta was initially available to internet cafes that subscribe to Steam, but was then opened to owners of Condition Zero and people who purchased certain ATI graphics cards last year.

Steam certainly struggled under the load of hundreds of thousands of people downloading the 400MB of data needed, but only for a few hours. The game has been automatically patched several times, and everything appears to be running smoothly.

Today marks the beginning of the real crash test for Steam, and a significant day in the history of game publishing. While Half-Life 2's publishers Vivendi Universal Games are still to announce a release date, or even make the announcement that the game has gone gold (an industry term denoting the gold masters of the final disks have been sent for mass production), Valve will begin 'preloading' some of the games content via Steam.

This will happen for those people who own a copy of Half-Life 2 through ATI's bundling deal last year (a whole other disaster story involving missed release dates and pre-emptive marketeering), and for those who wish to purchase the game via Steam rather than through the traditional retail channels.

Initially Steam will cache parts of the game like audio and textures that will not be altered during the final bug testing, and slowly but surely the entire 2GB of game data will be trickled onto users machines.

What this means is that Steam users will be able to play Half-Life 2 the very second the game is 'released'. While this may not mean much to casual gamers, this is the sort of thing hardcore gamers dream of, and a much bigger hook than shooting off to a midnight game launch at their local games retailer.

It will be the first true simultaneous global game release, allowing people to play at the same second no matter which part of the world they reside in (as long as they have broadband).

On the Half-Life 2 preload webpage (www.steampowered.com/marketing/hl2_preload/english.html) Valve is even running a 'download it now, pay for it when it is ready' scheme to entice more people into the Steam way of doing things.

It is becoming more and more obvious that Valve Software wants to become a huge player in the game distribution stakes, and what's more it looks like it will actually succeed, much to the chagrin of publishers Vivendi, who should be seeing Half-Life 2 as a gigantic cash cow.

The next step in the Valve takeover of distribution will be to ensure that other developers want to promote their titles through the Steam network, which will most likely happen with licensees of Valve's Source game engine.

In the years to come we doubt that gamers will fondly remember where they were the day Half-Life 2 started preloading, but in the short history of gaming this could well be one of those events that endures, and whose impact echoes through an industry based around a traditional distribution network.

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