Game Enough at Last: What Happens When Digital Distribution Gets Too Convenient?

It finally happened. I found a way to buy games faster than they can make them.

If PC gaming has an Apple, it would be Valve Software, developer of the Half-Life and Team Fortress series and creator of the Steam digital distribution platform. In an industry in which various forms of villainy are the norm, Valve is an anomaly: well-liked by consumers, developers, and publishers smart enough to avail themselves of Valve's services instead of letting their jealousy drive them to compete (never successfully) against Valve's products.

Though nominally a development house, Valve is perhaps best known for the aforementioned Steam platform, which since its 2003 release has become by far the digital distributor of choice in the PC gaming world.

Once upon a time, Steam was used primarily as a distribution tool for Valve titles. This quickly became unfeasible, as Valve, being a typical PC developer, maintains a release schedule that can charitably be described as glacial. Steam didn't really come into its own until Valve began recruiting other publishers into the Steam family. Where Steam with one developer was barren, Steam with 50-plus publishers is bustling.

It would be easy to just call Steam PC gaming's answer to iTunes, a one-stop shop where consumers too lazy to look elsewhere get whatever products their benevolent industry monolith of choice deems worthy to sell. It's almost apt, but at the same time, it's something of an unfair comparison. Valve's status as a longtime industry giant gives it key insights into what developers want out of digital distribution, a first-party pedigree that Apple couldn't touch without starting a band. Valve the developer knows what developers want, and so Valve the distributor makes those things happen.

But what about what the audience wants? Without exclusivity (which developers don't like, so Valve doesn't demand), Steam is just one of many distribution options. Consumer inertia can't be counted on when you're selling expensive products and your competitor is three clicks away. How does Steam keep the attention of a player base as fanatical as they are flippant?

The answer is simple: money. The Steam empire may have been founded on Valve's desire to create a better distribution model, but its lifesblood flows from the fact that Valve somehow manages to continually convince its distribution partners that it's in their best interests to sell their hottest properties at deep discounts.

Take the biannual vacation megasales, one of which just wrapped up. Imagine what would happen if, twice a year, Apple said to its customers, "Hey, guess what? Just about everything we sell is going to be 75 percent off at some time in next two weeks. Your move."

People would go nuts, and Valve users do. Steam sales are orgies of good old-fashioned consumerism, two week-long Black Fridays devoted to getting as much bang for the gaming buck as possible without mortgaging the house.

This has spawned a subculture that has an almost paradoxical aversion to actually playing games. For many PC gamers, Steam itself has become the game, an economics simulator that uses real money, real products, and a real lust for acquisition. The having and the using become secondary—it's the getting that's the thing now.

I am, unfortunately, on the terminal side of this subculture. After all the daily sales, the holiday events, the game-release specials, and those ubiquitous twice-yearly megasales, the Steam fount is finally starting to dry up. There just isn't anything left to buy.

This is the inevitable response from a finite universe when one's gluttony is functionally infinite. Back when the megasales were just beginning, Steam's catalog had a comfortable lead over my personal collection. Hundreds of unowned AAA titles populated its library, all of which saw discounts at absurd levels: Just Cause 2 for $3.75, Darksiders for $5, The Dawn of War series for $30, Rockstar's entire library—all 750 Grand Theft Autos included—for $40. Glorious, heady days, those.

But as time wore on, that lead diminished. The sales continued, with ever more games being added at ever more ludicrous prices, but the supply side of the equation—the developers themselves—simply couldn't churn out games fast enough over a long enough period of time. For longtime Steamers like myself, Steam's cascade of loot, once an unimaginable torrent of riches, has slowed to a trickle.

It's a cold, alien thing, utterly weird once you're on the other side of it. The spoils of a hundred sales lie glittering before me, but I have no urge to play any of them. The journey itself—the metagame, the riddle of Steam—is over. No more challenges lie beyond the horizon. The backlog is complete. I am alone.