Yesterday, Valve announced a new way to share games with friends and family via Steam, breaking some of the taboo surrounding the current methods, but actually doing very little to change the current state of DRM in digital games.
Steam Family Sharing instead makes sharing more convenient, and it’s a policy which actually sounds rather similar to the one which Microsoft outlined – despite the rumours that these were merely 45 minute trials.
While this has yet to see public release, and will go through a 1000 person beta later on this month, the rough plan is to allow each person to designate and share their entire library with up to 10 of their Steam friends – although this is handled on a computer-by-computer basis.
However, there is a serious downside to this system, in that only one person can gain access to a given account’s library at any one time. If Geoff shares his account with Steve, and Steve plays Geoff’s copy of CoD: Ghosts, then Geoff cannot play any of the other games in his library without then forcing Steve out. This would give Steve a few minutes to finish playing, or buying the game to continue, although it would seem like Geoff could go and play one of Steve’s games, if they are both sharing libraries with one another.
This key point reduces this to little more than a convenient time-saver for end users. You are already able to access your Steam account from other computers and devices, by inputting and sharing your account log in details. Two-factor authentication will help to keep your account fairly secure if you do this, but it would still potentially open you up to damaging abuse.
Family Sharing is a more secure system in that regard, and should be more convenient to deal with on a regular basis, but it still effectively locks you out from all of your other games, when there is a much better way of going about things.
Microsoft seems to have actually been very close to the ideal system, by allowing you to designate “family members”, and share your game collection with practically whoever you wanted. This would have let just one person use an individual game license at any one time, but still leave all the other games free for people to play.
Meanwhile, Apple’s policies for the iTunes App Store are even more liberal, letting you download and install any app you want to any device you want. It doesn’t matter who that device belongs to, just that you’re there to type in your password and grab the app for them.
Steam’s system is too lumbered by this nasty inconvenience, in my opinion, but it does two very important things for the industry: it will legitimise the practice of game sharing online, and while jumping in with both feet would have been nice, the practical reality is that publishers and developers are also heavily involved in the terms of this system. Had Valve tried this three to four years ago, they might have been able to brute force the issue through sheer market dominance.
However, it also opens the door to more prevalent use of combined spending power on Steam. In much the same way that you could pool your cash together with friends to buy a game you’re not willing to pay £40 on your own, letting people share their games could potentially drive greater sales on the first day for many kinds of game, and at nearer to full price pull in more cash over the lifetime, as people aren’t waiting around for the major Steam sales each year.
The current plans for Steam Family Sharing are hopefully not the end to this story, and I seriously hope that Valve continue to push their content partners and themselves to lessen and remove these limitations to what is still a restrictive DRM system.