Thursday, July 29, 2010


I've been singing the virtues of Steam for a while now. Lots of people find it very intimidating as a service but I've just been doing some quick mathematics and have confirmed to myself *why* I use it, even with it's known "disadvantages" (Most people's complaint is the "DRM" - Steam is the only DRM that I actually tolerate, it's so reasonable, and why people get out of their pram over other people knowingly and willingly buying into Steam, I have no idea).

My Steam account started in 2003 from a Half Life "Generations" pack (actually 2, one each for myself and my brother) that we'd been playing for years before Steam even existed. When WON died, we were forced to move onto Steam, and it generated a lot of bad feeling back then.  Over time I slowly added games until my current situation where I have 141 games on my Steam account.

I went through the history of the account recently and worked out that I'd spent almost exactly £400 (not including the initial cost of the Generations Pack). Doing some quick mathematics on the exact figures, I worked out that my Steam account had cost me approximately £1.11 a week since I'd started it. That's £1.11 of my money, when I choose, spent how I like, when it's convenient to me.  There is no game-rental service that can even come CLOSE to that, and I "own" these games forever (as much as anyone "owns" a copyrighted work).

For that price, I got nearly 150 games, of which, say, half a dozen were completely free and another half a dozen were freebie crap thrown in with other purchases that I wouldn't have bought but ended up with because they were free. That's £2.83 per game, and I apparently bought a game every 2-3 weeks on average over those years.

There were several times when I just did not have the money to buy the game I really wanted, or the one that I'd been waiting to be on a "weekend special" for years, so I actually paid more than I needed to in order to own what's on my Steam account now. I also ended up buying some games a couple of times over - sadly they weren't ones that would credit my Steam Gifts, so I couldn't give them to other people and they were "lost" purchases. I can remember one game that I bought and the next week bought again because it was in a ridiculously cheap bundle with lots of other good games that wasn't available the previous week.

So, how many hours entertainment have I got out of this Steam account? I have no idea. I can only go by recorded statistics which were added to Steam quite recently. That shows that I got 519 hours of recorded gameplay since they started recording. This, of course, is not spread evenly over all the year but also doesn't contain several thousand hours from the half-a-dozen years that Steam did not record such statistics. If I had to estimate *actual* game time on Steam alone, it would be at least 4-5 times that figure. Hell, my Counterstrike:Condition Zero stat alone would probably show more than 519 hours of gameplay.

So, what's that in terms of value - Well, I can easily say that with that huge choice of games available at the click of a button, I waste no time with crap games and only play those that I find entertaining.  Some games have literally never been installed on my computer, others have never left it even when I was trying to find a few hundred extra MB's of space. Altitude has already knocked up over 100 hours of gameplay and that's only been released relatively recently. According to Steam, I've played 16 hours of games in the last two weeks - an hour per day, or thereabouts. Assume that's the same since I had the account (and that sounds a very reasonable estimate) - that's 2500 hours at least since I started - which is marvellously in line with my 4-5 times estimate.  So let's say I got about 2500 hours of playtime out of 141 games for £400 since I started my account in 2003.

So how much did this entertainment cost me per hour? £0.16p. Let's compare that to some other leisure activities:

World of Warcraft: £8.99 for a month's subscription.  Assuming you only ever wanted to play that game, with my same usage (about 7 hours a week) that would be £0.32p per hour.  Close, but that's still double the price of my Steam account, and only on a single game (albeit an MMORPG).

A cinema ticket: £9.80 for a basic seat in my local cinema, during their quietest time to see a just-released, non-3D, 140 minute movie - £4.20 per hour. One-off and can't watch again without paying.

A DVD: £9.99 for a just-released DVD of a 102 minute movie from Amazon - £5.87 per hour (but arguably the same price as the cinema on average). I can keep watching that over and over as much as I want, though.

A Blu-ray: £15.93 for the same movie - £9.37 per hour (assuming I had the equipment to play it).  Again, I can keep watching that over and over as much as I want.

Paintballing: £9.99 per person for a full day (7 hours) - £1.42 per hour assuming I could find enough people also willing to pay that.  A one-off event.

Abseiling or caving: £18 per person for a three-hour session - £6 per hour.  A one-off event.

Pottery course: £143 for a 15-week course (two hours per week) - £4.76 per hour.  A one-off event.

Now, you can argue that similar activities are probably more exciting or more worthwhile, that I gain knowledge / skills, that I interact with people more, etc. And, great, that's good and I obviously do some or most of the above anyway.  But if you're a gamer, it's undeniable that you're getting lots of good value for money there compared to some other similar "time-wasting" activities that you could do to fill up a slow Sunday afternoon.  16p / hour is a fabulous price for myself to pay - I can't find anything else that I really get that much entertainment out of for such a cheap price, and I *have* had to be dragged away from the computer by partners in the past.

The reasons for the value gained, of course, are many.

1) Steam give some good bundles and discounts. Even if you don't include their regular "Free Weekends" of various games, they often have astounding weekend deals like a bundle of modern, big-name games for £10 that were selling for £50 in the shops.

2) You can choose what you buy and when - which obviously biases it to your exact tastes. Don't have a game to fit that hour of spare time, or for your little brat of a cousin to play when he comes round? You can probably find something in Steam's Under £4 or Under £7 categories. Strangely, they're the only pricing categories available at a single click and yet £7 wouldn't even get you a budget game in most video game stores.  The range of games is huge, too, and virtually every genre is covered.

3) The pricing is immediate, sometimes short-lived, the purchase goes through instantly, the download starts immediately after, you don't have to configure or install things - 99.9% of stuff will "just work" after you click download and double-click the game - and so impulse-buying is a big factor. Steam is probably the only program that I allow to "keep me informed" of new releases. I abhor advertising and have learned to ignore but, actually, the Steam deals are worth looking at quite a large amount of the time.  Hell, some of the games I already owned, I bought the steam version so that I could install them conveniently.

4) Freebies. If you have an ATI graphics card, you get a freebie. If you have an NVidia graphics card, you get a freebie. If you just hunt down some forum posts you can get free games entirely legitimately ( - Alien Swarm is the latest one, and Valve made a big fuss of advertising that *everyone* can get it for free, but there are lots of other good games there. And that's before you even look at the demo's of existing games that are available, or the numerous free Steam Mods if you have the Orange Box.  Let's not forget - Steam is free to own and there's a dozen or so free games on those lists.  They may not be brilliant (but Peggle Extreme made me buy Peggle, the HL-based mods available are out of this world, and TrackMania Nations will make you lose time like there's no tomorrow - and made me buy TrackMania United) but they are good enough, and they are free.

5) The extras - you can move your Steam account to any PC you own (or don't!) and download the games and play them.  Most games will even carry over your settings and savegames too.  You can even shift quite a lot of stuff onto a Mac.  So long as you don't try to run your account on two computers at the same time, you can install it and play it wherever you like and get all the games you've purchased (or been given as freebies, or as gifts from Steam friends).  Most games have achievements, rankings, stats so you can find a reason for even that brief five-minute game just before dinner ("Hold on, darling, I just need to kill two more people with a grenade and I've got all my achievements for this game").

Steam is undeniably good value.  Maybe not for every single individual gamer on the planet but I can't deny that I've more than had my money's worth out of the games on it.  The only other thing that comes close was (Good Old Games) which sell DOSBox-wrapped and other older games for about $4.99 each.  So do Steam sell those sorts of games, though.  And they also sell top-of-the-line, pre-release, etc. games that need a huge stonking PC to run them.

To me, Steam is one of the best game-purchasing methods out there.  It makes me want to add games to my account, it makes me want to play the vast majority of the games that I've put on there, it makes it easy and simple to play them and it costs me less than 16p for every hour that I choose to play.  If I had more time, had no life, were interested in more games, I could easily spend a lifetime on there and, even with every Steam game added to my account, still get the value down to about 10-15p per hour.  There are other costs, of course, but they are incidental to my usage of Steam anyway - Internet bandwidth, PC cost, hard disk space, etc.

It's truly ridiculous to then look at such "new" competitors as OnLive who are demanding the same game prices (and it looks like they just photocopied a portion of the list of Steam games), plus a monthly rental, plus you supplying roughly the same hardware but 10 times the Internet bandwidth.  Or a video game rental store.  Or purchases from a video game store.  Or most of the download-software stores.

Steam truly is remarkable value.  I gain nothing by saying so, but hell - the best £400 I've ever spent.  I know some people who could burn through that amount in a month's, let alone seven year's, worth of gaming.

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