Yesterday Dear Esther was released. To no surprise, it has been released as a Steam exclusive.
It happens very often actually, I am interested in an indie title and, when I want to buy it, I discover that it can only be purchased through distributors that use online activations to install any of the games in their catalog. This happens with distributors using the Steam model, which, as of today, seem to be the great majority of them (I have not tried them all though). This model consists of using a client to manage all the things that the customer does with the games purchased. In particular, every time a game is installed, the customer has to be connected to the servers of the platform. That is, most digital distributors use DRM in the form of online authentication on installation. And there is also at least one digital platform that uses no client, but still requires an online activation for every installation of any of their games. The funniest part comes when a game is labeled as “DRM-Free” in the store. If you contact them explaining that online activations are practically how the term “DRM” arrived at the gaming dictionary, they will respond you that their system is not DRM, that it is just a method to make everything easier. Thanks for the lesson in Logics Mr/s. support person!
When I find myself in one of these situations I usually send an email to the developers of the game. If I cannot buy a game DRM-free (actually DRM-free), I explain the developers the situation and warn them that I will not buy their game from any of the sites they offer it in. This way, I have learned that many of you just do not have the money or the time to check for alternatives. In particular, if you want to build a multiplayer experience, Steam is just too convenient. Yes, sometimes reality tells us what can and cannot be made and, no matter how stubborn we are, we have to accept things as they are. However, there are a couple of questions that I think require serious meditation on your part. Of course, the indie community is very heterogeneous, each of you may see DRM (and piracy and creativity and second hand and copyright and what not) in a very different way, but it is reasonable to expect that independence is a concept that matters to you the moment you start using the label “indie”. Let us talk about independence then, shall we?
The first point to discuss is Steam. Not Steam per se, I am very critical with that platform, but I could not care less about it if alternatives would exist. The problem is the relationship that the indie community seem to have with Steam. Seriously people, you may get very good distribution deals with them or maybe the difference that it makes in terms of sales to be touched by the hand of Valve's marketing department is huge, but you need to consider whether it may not be in exchange of something else. A few days ago we all got very excited at the news related to Double Fine (for the shake of discussion, let us consider DF indie) and the potential financial methods of their future games. Me too, until I read some of the faqs of their Kickstarter project. It may be too early to assume that the game will be Steam exclusive, but reading a respectable and very important indie developer saying “Isn't Steam the best!?” really freaks me out. And there are countless of indie games that have announced their release date as “available Month Day on Steam”. Sometimes games release in different places, but everybody (press included) speaks as if they were Steam exclusives. And I could point to some other examples of indies treating Steam basically as the only option that matters. Do you realize how powerful you are making Valve? Yes, you are independent from any publisher, from any big company messing up with your creative and financial means, but, answer me this: could you release a game “independently” of Steam right now? It seems to me that if you go down this road you are going to fight for your dependency once more in the future, but this time from a distributor instead of publishers. And this is not any guessing, Microsoft can reject an application for XBLIG if the game has been released somewhere else first, that is the kind of stuff you can expect Valve doing (in case they are not doing it already) if you do not diversify a little bit.
The second point deals not with your independence, but with MY independence. And here is where I am afraid I have to be harsh. As I said before, I understand that the average indie developer is typically in a complicated situation. There is little money for anything and creating a game consumes the little free time the developers may have in a small studio. Sometimes you just have to accept what is given. However, you have to understand that I value my independence too. You cannot tell me with a straight face that you do not want to depend on any company, but that I have to depend on one when I want to play your games. That is either hypocritical or disrespectful of you. And when the only option you give me is Steam, that is outright insulting.
As I said, I assume you are an heterogeneous bunch, some of you may not even care about DRM at all and some of you may not be able to do anything about it in the short term. However, I do not think I am asking too much, there are plenty of precedents by now. Plenty of developers are releasing games through their own stores and there are still a few (sadly decreasing) DD platforms out there that will allow you to release DRM-free. Or maybe you, indie community, could create your own DD platform (there is a sort of precedent for this too), a system in which developers participate through a small fee, enough to cover the costs (non-profit), and give an infrastructure to the people who need it. And a system that brings a multiplayer infrastructure too. I did not want to talk about the current state of multiplayer because it falls rather outside of my general experience, but you really have to open your multiplayer tools. I do not care if centralized servers make everything super easy, I want to be able setup matches without needing the permission of a central server to do so. Maybe the most reliable method would still be Steam, so what?, give alternatives anyway.
You are supposed to be a creative collective, please, for the good of your audience and your own, use that creativity to answer these issues. Until then, know that I just cannot give you economic support if you do not release DRM-Free alternatives.
All that said, thanks for your time and thanks for making the medium a better place than the industry would ever do.
Signed: A Gamer that Values its Independence too.
UPDATE: Dear Esther is going to be released through the developers site, :D