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A gift for PC gamers everywhere

While we’re on the topic of PC gaming, there’s much more to be said. As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post, there is a product from Valve Software called Steam, which is a sort of digital store where you can buy video games. But instead of a CD or DVD with the game, for your money, you just download the game. Now, this is all handled inside of the Steam software, so piracy is a non-issue.

See, what you get when you buy the game is the ability to download and and use a big huge file — think multiple gigs, here — with all the game information in it. Without Steam, the file is useless, and without your user account being authorized to use the file, Steam won’t even look at it twice. As one of the guys on the Gamers With Jobs podcast stated in a recent show, it’s DRM that works.

And he’s right. Now, Steam has had a long and tumultuous history that began with it being a pile of utter crap. But Valve released it anyways, and it began annoying people to no end. But somewhere in the following years, it has become very, very good. Steam has a window that lists all the games that you have bought or downloaded through Steam, and you can add shortcuts to other games to this window, creating a sort of gaming command center. And once you start up a game, you can talk to your friends in the Steam instant messenger, called “Friends”, even in the middle of a game.

So recently Valve has come out with a series of developer tools that they’re giving away for free, as in beer, for any developer to use, and calling it Steamworks. This has caused a lot of stir in the gaming community, mostly because it seems that everything Valve Software touches turns to gold. So people are taking it on blind faith that, whatever Steamworks is, is must be good. Or even worse, in light of the scant information on the product, people are beginning to jump to conclusions. For example, the guys over at Gamers with Jobs recently predicted that it was, in fact, a toolkit to allow developers to put their games on Steam easier.

But that’s already a pretty easy process, as evidenced by some of the sub-par games that made it on to the Steam download page.

And I’m sure Valve thinks that they’ve given lots of information, with their nice bulleted feature lists on the Steamworks website and even a shiny press release. However, just listing a bunch of features without much context is a little mystifying. Some of the features listed do sound awful familiar, like “game stats collection and display“. However, in that particular case, the game having its stats gathered as a Valve game, so it was closely integrated with Steam so that the transmission of data to the mothership was utterly seamless. I didn’t even know the game was gathering these stats until I saw their aggregation on Valve’s website, not that I would have objected if I had known.

So will this technology be something that require the game developed with the “game stats collection and display” package be required to run inside Steam? Or will it be its own entity that just asks to phone home every once in a while. If it’s a stand-alone product, obviously it wouldn’t need Steam, but it would also be asking you to get through your software firewall, which would probably alarm some people. On the other hand, if it were integrated into Steam, it would be, as mentioned above, utterly seamless.

There are a lot of details that are missing here, but what we already know is the potential of these tools. Take, for example, the game stats page linked above, which has overhead views of every level of the game, showing where most people died, and where people got stuck for the longest, and what part of the games made people just quit the game and turn it off.

With data like that, it would be possible for any developer to playtest the bugs out of their game and easily pin down the worst parts of it. The potential for improving how games play for ever game to come is enormous.

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