Gearbox Wants PC Games to Play Nice With Each Other

At the London Games Festival last week, Steve Gibson, Marketing Head at Gearbox, spoke with the festival’s blog about the upcoming release of the long-awaited, near vaporware title Duke Nukem Forever.

When asked if the title would appear on Steam, Gibson didn’t give a direct answer. Instead, he said,

We wanted to have as many ways that people could get to it as possible. What we think is also going on is, we want people to be able to play together and right now if a guy buys a game on Games for Windows and a guy buys a game on Steam – they can’t play together. If another guy bought it in a retail store, he can’t play with the first two guys.

Making heads or tails of an argument like this is a confusing proposition, so let’s break it down.

Any game that exclusively uses Steamworks, Valve’s back-end API that requires a Steam ID, will only allow those folks who own the game and have a Steam account to play together. That sounds bad, but the truth is that requiring a Steam account only forces folks to spend about 3 minutes registering, and they’re in. This doesn’t even apply to every game on Steam, just those that use the Steamworks API.

It’s rare to see a major title exclusive to either service, unless it’s published by Valve or Microsoft. Even then, some of those games are operating across multiple services. For example, Relic’s Dawn of War II integrated both Steam and GFWL support. Of course, it also required users to have accounts on both services, which was a bit of an annoyance.

Sure, there are a few titles out there that are exclusive to one service or another, but the vast majority of games will allow you to play with anyone, regardless of where they purchased their copy of the game. This has been the situation for years in PC gaming, with larger titles offering their own servers (in many cases hosted by third-party companies and paid for by players, as was the case with the Battlefield series), and smaller titles opting into agreements that would allow them to lease the middleware for matchmaking from services like GameSpy Arcade, Steam, or others.

Gearbox itself has used this option, with Borderlands using the GameSpy service for matchmaking in Borderlands, meaning that if you bought the game on Steam you need a second set of login credentials just to play with your buddy online.

All of these services have one thing in common: they make life easier for smaller developers. After all, if you don’t have to provide servers and support for multiplayer, it cuts a nice chunk out of the budget you need for your game. Sure, you have to give a little bit of your sales percentage to Steam (or whoever’s servers you use), but the overall headache for you is greatly reduced.

The problem with criticizing these systems is that they are simultaneously good and bad for PC gaming. On one hand, Steam and similar services allow smaller developers a place to market and sell their games without sinking millions of dollars into ad campaigns. On the other, they can be limiting in terms of who is able to play together.

Still, it’s at least a little disingenuous to imply that there are vast segments of the gamer population that aren’t able to play their PC games together. The vast majority of games have no such restrictions. If they do, many gamers will resort to options such as LAN play through a VPN such as Tunngle or Hamachi to get their game on with friends.

It’s a major issue that likely won’t be resolved unless one distribution service wins the battle and devours all the others. With the success of Steam, and Microsoft’s “renewed commitment” to PC gaming, that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

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