The Perils of Being Tied to the Steam Third Party Game Distribution DRM System

Mikey
Jan 13
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Much has been written all over the internet about the anti-consumer effects of DRM (Digital Rights Management, or more accurately, Digital Restrictions Management) which infects virtually all digital content nowadays, including that on Steam and other content delivery platforms such as Origin and Uplay. Notable exceptions are www.gog.com and CD Projekt Red with their Witcher games series – big respect for these guys. Somehow they still make decent profits even without DRM…

Wccftech recently reported that Steam no longer supports Windows XP or Vista from 1st Jan 2019. On the face of it, this might seem reasonable, since these are old operating systems that hardly anyone uses.

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But, there’s a sinister side effect to this that’s not obvious at first glance: Valve are dictating what games you can actually play – for games that you have a perpetual licence for.

Steam homepage showing the storefront

Despite being on Steam, many older games are not being supported with updates by their developers, although they really should have basic patches to run on the latest OS, since they’re still on sale.

This can result in compatibility problems with modern hardware and software. For example, the Unreal Tournament arena shooter series that I still love to play, only work properly with DX7 or DX8, except for UT3 which is DX9. This means that they don’t render properly on Windows 10, or the user may be forced to run a community hack that fixes this – if they’re lucky and one exists in the first place.

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While in the mainstream support period, having all your games tied to the Steam platform is extremely convenient in the following ways:

  • Auto updates. This becomes a real boon when you have well over 200 games in your library. Every single one is effortlessly updated as soon as the patch is released
  • Cloud game backup. Lost the files due to a bad hard disc? No problem, just download it from the Steam cloud servers anytime you want, with no restrictions. Same with installing to a different computer. Local backup copies can be made, too
  • Steam cloud game saves
  • Steam integrated store is convenient and rather too easy to spend money on, especially during one of the many sales…
  • Steam community. I don’t use it very much, but it’s useful for some

So, as you can see, Steam DRM has golden handcuffs and the going is good when everything is supported. However, we’re at the mercy of Steam maintaining support for older systems and as we can see, this doesn’t last forever.

Unreal Tournament screenshot (DX7, released 1999)

In my case, I love playing these games and still have some of my classic hardware lying around from my first gaming PC, just waiting to be put together. In particular, I want to build the following classic system from circa 2004:

Cooler Master Elite 334 NVIDIA Edition case

 

  • Pentium 4 Northwood 2.8GHz (o/c 3.5GHz) 32-bit CPU (really fast in its day)
  • Zalman flower cooler with red LED lighting
  • Creative PCI sound card
  • Abit AI7 motherboard with AGP port (Abit were a top enthusiast brand back in the day)
  • ATI 9800 Pro 128MB AGP
  • 2GB DDR (max fully supported with no issues on a 32-bit x86 system)
  • 80GB Maxtor HDD
  • PSU TBD – will have to buy one as the original Antec died
  • DVD writer
  • Cooler Master Elite 334 NVIDIA Edition case. (Yes, I get the joke here of having an ATI card in it and it does fit, honest)
  • Basic keyboard and optical mouse
  • Windows XP Pro 32-bit (Windows 7 possible)

I have a perpetual licence for WinXP and also for all my games, yet I can’t play any of my games on this system due to Valve pulling Steam support for WinXP. See the problem? Yes, I could install Windows 7 on it, but the whole system and especially these old games run better with XP, as only 2GB available and faster DX8/9 performance in XP.

Note that the security holes in XP are not an issue here, since I didn’t intend to browse websites and only want to game in single player mode, plus it sits behind the edge/hardware firewall in my router, so it’s safe. I could also install an a/v program that still supports XP if I really wanted to.

This is an example of the dangers of relying on a third party platform for your games, since when they pull support, you may not be able to play your games at all, or with degraded performance, as we’ve seen here.

The fact that only a tiny percentage of Steam users have such old systems is therefore not a justification. Perpetual licences mean just that: I should be able to use the product that I paid for if I have the hardware to run it on, for as long as I want.

Windows XP Pro with SP2 32-bit

For longevity then, it can be a big advantage to have the game on disc and the latest patches manually downloaded from the support website and stored on the local hard disc – along with the all-important product key. But all the other conveniences I’ve listed above are then lost, of course. Swings and roundabouts.

For the record, I haven’t tested it to see if it’s really restricted. I’m trusting Valve’s press release to save myself wasting the time of installing WinXP (and spending hours and hours patching it) and Steam in a virtual machine to confirm it.

There are other potential issues too. Steam can pull any game you own if they don’t want you to have it for some reason – usually if it’s controversial in some way – and they may do so without a refund too, depending on how much of a PR and lawsuit hit they’re willing to risk. In practice this is rare and tends to make headlines when it happens.

Of course, the issues I’ve written about Steam here also apply to other software distribution platforms, such as Origin for EA games and Uplay for Ubisoft games. The only difference is that I don’t know if these problems have manifested themselves yet on those systems.

So, have you run into these issues? Do you know of more issues? Do you even care if you’re restricted from playing your old games that you’re still into? Let us know this and more in the comments. Please keep them clean and polite.

Check out the latest developments in Unreal Tournament, here

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