How Steam Succeeds: Thoughts on DRM, Piracy and the PC Gaming Industry

16 Feb

Panic! by Phillie CasablancaLast week I attended a series of talks on web 2.0 technology in libraries. The final speaker brought up a number of interesting topics, including the impact of digital rights management (DRM) on consumers. The gist was basically that DRM needlessly complicates media access for library patrons in a number of ways. I won’t reiterate the talk, however, it (and a photo of Steam) led me to ponder the gaming industry, specifically PC Gaming sales via Steam, which account for near 70% of the online digital PC game sales market. Forbes reported that last year, PC game sales via digital purchase outsold brick and mortar store sales: a historic first.

Why is Steam Successful?

If piracy is killing the PC gaming market, and “traditional media” in general, how can an online gaming platform succeed, which has inherent DRM built-in? Steam requires that users authenticate through a program log-in, in order to access purchased games, even if they’re already installed via Steam on your PC.

This of course comes during a time where certain stores are reducing the number of available titles (I noticed my local EB Games has one rack for PC titles). Curious that PC game sales on Steam are doing well, yet seemingly not so well, when it comes to brick and mortar sales.

Thoughts on Success Factors

So why is Steam so popular? Here’s what I think:

1) Steam provides a rich user experience, prior to purchase: users are not limited to reading the textual promo material, but can watch product trailers, see meta-critic reviews, and see which of their friends actually owns the title. Lesson? Provide a rich user experience, beyond just having racks (digital aisles if you will) of titles.

Spackletoe - that was easy!2) Steam makes it easy: Buying a game requires under five clicks, after you set-up payment details with your account (this of course could be dangerous, if you have kids). This idea of making the experience simple translates further, where steam will update installed games you’ve purchased, in the background.

3) Buy it once, take it everywhere:  Regardless of which computer you’re using, you’ll have access to the titles you’ve paid for. As long as you can gain access to the internet, you’ll have the titles you’ve purchased. No longer are you limited by the location of your home PC, or that DVD that you rolled over on your computer chair.

4) Steam adds incentive for customers to buy through its platform:

  • Steam runs weekly sales, drawing customers to purchase games they may not have bought at full price. As opposed to the “perpetual full price” model used in many stores, this seems like an easy way to snag sales from price sensitive customers. I may not be willing to spent $60 on a title, but for a title that I’m on the fence on purchasing, a discount down to $15 is enough to make me pull the trigger.
  • The Steam Cloud: Games which support this feature allow you to have your save file, regardless of which computer you’re on.
  • Achievements: Steam creates further incentive to replay games, given the addition of Steam specific achievements. Given the motivation of working towards and a feeling of having completed something, this is a customer added value.

5) Steam facilitates community: Steam allows gamers to connect with other gamers, creating a social experience. Beyond chat and shared online matches, users have profiles, which track the aforementioned achievements. Gaming is not done in a silo, where even single player games share your progress with other gamers in your network.

6) Steam has vision: Valve didn’t merely do what every other game publisher was already doing, they catered to a need that gamer’s hadn’t articulated directly or even knew they had. This takes vision – be it Amazon, Apple, or Netflix, a common factor seems to be, provide a high quality product or service and it may reshape the market. A “but the industry always worked like X” mindset will only get you so far.

Ultimately, while Steam uses DRM, the service provides more to customers than it takes away. This seems to me to be the only type of DRM that actually makes sense. I understand the idea of protecting one’s investment – build in DRM if you must, but reward your paying customers. Restricting freedoms does not make sense, if the goal is to facilitate a lifelong customer relationship, with repeat purchases.

The Changing Market as an Opportunity

busy.pochi - changeIn the end, I think Steam provides a good case for the argument that, while digital distribution and the ease of piracy have certainly changed the traditional media market (be it through books, music or computer games), by adapting to customer needs and providing increased customer value, profitability is quite possible. Things like DRM may dissuade the common user from piracy (which is the common argument), however, if media organizations provide richer experiences, draconian DRM may not be quite as necessary. Cater, do not alienate.

Back to Books

This translates directly for the book publishing industry: with solid user experience, provided by buying books through services and products like Amazon and the Kindle, or the iPad and iBooks, I suspect the publishing industry has a strong digital future ahead. The death of the book is largely overrated. If anything, the digital economy provides opportunities to be seized. Adapt to customer needs, be where your customer is, and remain relevant. “All” it requires is, catering to customer needs, adding value, providing an easy, quality user experience. Profitability is monitoring and anticipating where your customers are going, beyond relying on traditional sales strategies.

Header image by Phillie Casablanca – Panic! // CC BY 2.0

Second section image by Spackletoe – THAT WAS EASY! // CC BY 2.0

Third section image by busy.pochi – change // CC BY 2.0

First World Country with Third World Internet Service: Bell and Usage Based Billing

31 Jan

UBB_MindTheCap_110131_2The CRTC recently ruled that Bell Canada be allowed to charge wholesale internet service providers on a usage basis (referred to as Usage Based Billing, or UBB). This will allow byte based billing, much like you see with mobile phones and the web. This essentially kills the ability of companies like Primus, Teksavvy and Acanac who lease lines from bell, to offer “unlimited” access. Bell will now have the right to bill them based on incremental bandwidth usage, forcing them to pass these costs along to consumers.

This ruling bothers me for a few reasons:

It’s anti-competitive

It stifles competition from media rich services such as Netflix, Hulu, Skype and others. It is clearly an anti-competitive act. How can Netflix hope to compete with services like Bell’s Express-Vu, when their service will no longer make financial sense to consumers. How can service providers like Primus, hope to compete with Bell, if Bell is allowed to set prices in such a way?

I like my balloons inflated, not my costs

It allows Bell to add a ridiculous incremental charge per additional gigabyte. Lexie prepares to pop the balloon - by AbbamouseProviders such as Primus now have to pass additional charges of over $2.50 per gigabyte in Quebec, if you go above the stated limit. Not a big deal you say? Cumulatively, how much bandwidth do you figure running those 720P YouTube videos, purchasing songs on iTunes, or downloading that latest greatest game on Steam will take? What is the actual incremental cost for an additional gigabyte of bandwidth? Who really knows – based on an interview with TekSavvy (case of the vanishing link, apologies), the estimated incremental cost for Bell is between 1 and 3 cents.

Quality of service – who really benefits besides Bell?

Over time, quality of service has been decreasing, due to Bell’s glorious throttling, yet they want to charge more and more. They essentially want to double dip, charging us twice, first for access to their glorious service, then for using it beyond what they deem “acceptable”. This is the reason I switched away from Sympatico many years ago, to get away from what I deemed unreasonable. I haven’t paid on a usage basis since my old 28.8 / 56 kbps modem days. If you argue that I’m showing a sense of entitlement, you’d be right; taxpayers directly funded the infrastructure Bell uses today, to provide service.

Canadian money - by KittyCanuckShow me the evidence, that services like Sympatico are becoming less and less profitable due to degrading service, and I might buy it. For now, I’ve seen no evidence to support this position. I’ve yet to see a mass exodus to Videotron, because Bell Sympatico subscribers are facing overloaded networks. In fact, the last time I heard about a mass exodus from Bell, was when they did away with their unlimited / uncapped services.

Further, if this is truly to maintain quality of service for those who are not “abusers” (Bell’s term for those who use more than their mysteriously concluded average of 5 – 15ish gigabytes per month), why aren’t those customers who browse below their monthly limit offered a credit?

Consumers, consumers, consumers

Ultimately, my question is this – who represents consumer interests? It clearly isn’t the CRTC. If the purpose of government is to represent the best interests of its people, what role exactly is the CRTC fulfilling, putting one organization’s demands first? I’m not calling for a Thoreau style act of Civil Disobedience for the internet, but this situation does seem unreasonable.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t mind paying slightly more for internet use, if I saw a direct improvement in service AND if the additional charges were reasonable. I suspect in this case, neither case exists. I don’t mind paying for services that provide good consumer value. However, much like Quebec’s constantly deteriorating roads and the taxation to repair them, I’ve yet to see the value derived from my direct payments.

What you can do

Sign the petition over at the “Stop the Meter” site, or directly write to your member of parliament.

Anti UBB has a list of things you can do, should you wish to do more than just sign the petition.

Want to learn more?

If you’re into the whole podcast thing, CBC’s “The Spark” has part of an episode which deals with Usage Based Billing, providing interviews with the founder of the “Stop the Meter” site, as well as a spokesperson from Bell (Mirko Bibic).

In the news, the Montreal Gazette discusses consumer reactions, and the the Globe and Mail has a piece discussing the perspective of web developers.

Michael Geist as well as Ars Technica have great write-ups, detailing the issue in more detail.

Food for thought I suppose – all I can say is, I’m not happy about it.

Syd

Images courtesy of:

Lexie prepares to pop the balloon – by Abbamouse // CC BY 2.0

Canadian Money – by KittyCanuck // CC BY 2.0

Getting Things Done and Google Tasks

12 Dec

Deborah Leigh (Migraine Chick) - Migraine Barbie has Snapped!.jpgFor the past two months I’ve been progressively reading through David Allen’s book "Getting Things Done: the art of stress free productivity". The book’s premise is fairly straightforward: the more organized you are, by using lists and organization strategies, the less cognitively overloaded you’ll feel, and the more ready you will be to effectively manage your obligations (be they work, family, or other). The idea is to dump all the things you have to do on lists you keep updated, which you periodically check (this is really one of the key points of having this system work). By having timely, reliable lists to work in reference to, you avoiding having to rely on fallible memory, spending less time trying to remember what you have to do, less time being stressed about it, and more time doing it. Further, by taking large projects or tasks and breaking them up into subtasks, you are more able to keep on top of things. This makes sense, though admittedly, I scoffed at the idea while going through the first few chapters of the book.

Long story short, I’ve been trying it, using lists to keep track of what I have to do, and where I am with various projects. This has actually helped juggle the joys of both school and work fairly effectively. The trick is really to be able to trust your lists (hence the importance of keeping them up-to-date). These lists can be kept on pieces of paper, though given my general technology interest, I figured there was a better way – a cloud based solution, providing access to my lists wherever I am (I realize dragging around a notebook achieves a similar purpose, but I don’t have to worry about potentially losing it).

I began messing around with a few applications, including Google Tasks integrated in Gmail, but found them all limiting for one reason or another (and of course, I wanted the solution to be free). The Google Tasks interface felt too cramped and not really all that helpful in managing a wide variety of lists. That was of course until I found the Canvas view, for the Google Tasks interface.

The interface looks like this:

Google ChromeScreenSnapz004.jpg

The interface is extremely straightforward – you can access it anywhere, regardless of which computer your using, and regardless of whether you somehow managed to misplace your notebook. I find the system works pretty well for me – it has thus far helped me keep on top of a lot of the random things fluttering about, that I need to keep on top of.

If you’d like more information on the idea of getting things done, Wikipedia has a decent overview.

There’s also a ton of great information on 43Folders, by Merlin Mann.

The general ideas discussed by this book may not be revolutionary, however they do provide an interesting perspective on personal organization, facilitating reduced stress by keeping on top of things. The book is worth a look, though there’s tons of great information about getting things done online.

Syd

Header image courtesy of Deborah Leigh (Migraine Chick) – Migraine Barbie has Snapped! / CC BY 2.0.

Video Captured: Lessons Learned

2 Nov

As mentioned in my previous post, I recently conducted a bit of a video project for one of my classes, with two very kind interviewees. A number of things went slightly wrong, which I figured I’d share for posterity:

1) That slight ambient hum you get from ventilation systems may seem insignificant to the ear, but it may very well come across in a big way when recorded. If at all possible, choose a location with minimal ambient sound, or get a directional mic (shotgun mic), and try to edit out low frequencies after the fact. My group dealt with this my placing music over the hum, though it’s generally ideal to remove it from the soundtrack.

There are a few audio utilities which can help you deal with background noise, if you can split the audio track from your video file. Amadeus Pro for OSX and Audacity (open source) both have noise removal filters which can specifically deal with sound issues such as this.

If you’re working with your video directly in iMovie, if you use the "detach audio" feature, you can have iMovie directly remove background noise as seen below:

iMovie Noise Removal

2) Office fluorescent lighting is certainly not ideal for filming. Setting the white balance level of your camera may help, but in my case, my interviewees appeared to be glowing. Move to another location, if at all possible, or control the light source. You can likely improve this a bit in editing, though it’s best to try and get acceptable lighting from the start. Adjusting the iris setting can help minimize this type of issue – if the iris is set to a rather high setting, it will take in far too much light, causing video overexposure.

3) The camera may appear level on the mini LCD screen of your camcorder, but when you enlarge it, your video may not be perfectly level. Always output a sample of camera footage to a screen (say a laptop, for instance), to avoid wasted footage.

Some of this may seem obvious, but when you’re trying to direct interviewees, and get your video recorded properly, it may not seem quite so straightforward.

Syd

Header image provided under the Wikimedia Commons.

News on the go: Instapaper & Calibre

12 Sep

2891981864_b0763bf9d6_m While travelling around this summer, I was looking for a way to bring web articles with me on my e-reader. Instead of being limited to reading strictly books or PDF files, you can actually read anything you find online using your e-book reader, without needing a device supporting wifi or 3G (exactly like the Kobo, for example). The benefit of this solution is that when you find yourself with some spare time (say on that boring morning commute), you can read articles you’ve been meaning to read for months, yet haven’t gotten around to.

The solution I’ve found uses a combination of Instapaper (written about previously here) and calibre. Just as a quick recap, Instapaper allows you to create a list of “read-it-later” articles. Combined with a very useful export to ePub feature, you can take your news with you on your reading device.

Here’s how it works:

1) Login to your Instapaper account and tell it to export to ePub as shown here:

Instapaper - Export to ePub

In my case, the file downloaded is named “Instapaper-ReadLater-2010-09-12”, given I exported it on September 12.

2) Fire up Calibre (a great e-book management software which I highly recommend), add the Instapaper file to your library (through the wonders of drag-and-drop), and transfer the ePub file over to your reading device:

Calibre - Transfer your Instapaper News

3) Profit (well, enjoy having your news with you on the go, without having to specifically buy a newspaper, or have a 3G enabled device).

I’m sure some news agency is lamenting the death of their traditional print model, but regardless, this is a really great way to read your news for free, wherever you happen to be (assuming you have your reading device with you, at the time).

On an off note, sorry for the lack of posts – between travelling, work, school and volleyball, I’ve been pretty short on time.

Until next time,

Syd

Header image – courtesy of Matteo Penzo – iLiad Test Drive / CC BY 2.0

Start me up: Restoring the Windows Boot Loader

1 Aug

boot error - craig1black I recently removed Ubuntu 10.04 from my laptop for a few reasons (limited battery life, must-have apps not existing, such as Windows Live Writer that I’m using to write this post, and generally no reason to use it instead of Windows 7). In any case, my first step was to kill the Linux partition in windows from the Disk Management console, however upon restarting, Grub (a common Linux boot loader) didn’t appreciate that I had messed around with my bootable partitions, and refused to allow me to get into Windows. After a little hunting around, the solution is pretty simple (assuming you have a Windows 7 bootable DVD nearby):

1) Boot from the DVD, select your language, and get to the second screen, where you’re going to select “repair computer” (or repair my/your computer – I can’t exactly remember the wording).

2) Navigate to the command prompt and use the following commands in sequence (pressing the enter key after each command).

a) bootrec /fixmbr           

b) bootrec /FixBoot

3) Reboot your machine

This information is paraphrased – I found the solution at the Neowin forums, originally posted by +Snowl. Useful information to be sure, if you randomly install linux every few months.

Syd

Header image courtesy of Craig1black – Boot Error / CC BY 2.0

A Consumer Grade Router to Last: Linksys WRT54GL

26 Jul

Southpark - The Internet

Routers allow you to easily connect multiple computers to the internet, using one internet connection. It sits between your network of computers and the internet, avoiding the hassle of either setting up multiple accounts with Internet Service Providers,  and bypassing the need to have a dedicated computer set-up to share its internet connection. Further, many routers have built-in firewalls, further insulating your machines from the internet. Over the years I’ve gone through *many* routers which have entirely failed the test of time. Be they D-Link, Netgear, or Trendnet, they’ve passed on to the router graveyard for one reason or another (inability to maintain reliable connections to the net, inability to power on, etc.). My experience has largely been that nearly any consumer grade router found at BestBuy, Futureshop or CircuitCity is built to fail. Being I’d rather not pay to replace my router on a near yearly basis, over the years I’ve looked into finding a router that was both highly robust provided  an extensive feature set.

About four years ago, I came across the much acclaimed Linksys WRT54GL. It looks like pretty much any other router, with one key difference: it runs a micro version of Linux. Everything I’d read about it in terms of features and reliability seemed great, so I picked one up for about fourty bucks, and have been using it since (roughly four years). Like many other routers, you can install a custom firmware on it (such as DD-WRT or Tomato which I presently use, to increase feature set, and reliability).

I recently had to set one up for someone, so figured it would be a good excuse to a) discuss the router and b) test out my camera. Without further ado – the WRT54GL.

What you get:

The box:

WRT54GL Box Web

Packaging:

WRT54GL Package Contents

The INTERNET (err – the router):

WRT54GL

Pretty standard as far as routers go – the set-up is also pretty much like any other router you’ve ever used. You connect your modem to the WAN port, with your computers plugging into ports one through four, or connecting via wifi. The real interesting stuff comes in when you install a custom firmware, which can allow you, among other things, to set-up virtual networks, splitting your network into sub domains should you choose. It has a bunch of features usually only found on far more expensive commercial grade routers, such as QOS, which can allow you to prioritize your bandwidth, based on application (want more bandwidth allocated to your chat roulette session, over bit torrent? Piece of cake). You can do other neat stuff like boosting your wireless signal, providing greater wifi coverage. Lifehacker had a nice write-up on this very subject (covering set-up and what you could do with your new fangled router right over here.)

I would strongly recommend this router to any and all looking for a home wireless routing solution. The only limitation is that, given the age of this router, it only supports A/B/G wireless (sorry, no “N” support).

Installing third party firmware:

Installing a custom firmware such as tomato is relatively trivial, and can be broken into a few steps:

1) Download the firmware (Tomato being suggested here) and extract the firmware zip / 7zip archive.

2) Connect the router to your computer, via a network cable (basically to any port minus the WAN port)

3) Login to the router (by default, the WRT54GL uses the username root with a password of admin, accessed at http://192.168.1.1)

Router Login

4) Navigate to the “administration” tab, select “firmware upgrade”, and use the “choose file” button to select the appropriate file (WRT54G_WRT54GL in our case).

Admin Tab

Select New Firmware

It should take up to about two minutes, maximum (it took about 30 seconds on my router).

That’s it! Just enter your relevant settings under the “Basic” section, and you’re good to go. Not very different than configuring any other router, though you get way more settings.

Syd

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