Steam Family Sharing is a business strategy, not a gamer’s godsend

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Valve’s announcement of Steam Family Sharing, a system through which friends and family could access each other’s games libraries, was initially met with praise. Since then, a key feature of the system has come under heavy criticism, reminding gamers that Valve is not our friend.

A few weeks ago, it looked like Steam had taken another large step towards revolutionising the games industry. Steam Family Sharing was a seemingly altruistic move by the digital software platform which allowed one Steam user’s library to be shared on up to five devices. This would hugely increase the amount of games people had access to, and was a move that would surely benefit gaming as a whole.

How often do we find ourselves ranting about an under-appreciated indie game to our best friends who’ve no idea what we’re talking about, and can only reply with disinterested ‘yeahs’ and ‘uh-huhs’? With Family Sharing, our favourite games would suddenly be accessible to those closest to us, fuelling excited discussions, and encouraging dialogue among like-minded gamers about the games they love most. From the point-of-view of the gaming sociologist, this would have been a major step forward in getting gaming treated as a serious aspect of culture.

But it didn’t take long for wary gamers to find the catch in this utopian system. It turned out that two people couldn’t access the same library at the same time. If the guest to the library is playing a game in it, and the owner comes along and starts playing any game in his library (presumably a frequent occurrance), then the guest’s game gets halted, with an offer to either leave the library or buy the game.

steam family sharing board
The Steam community is not happy that Family Sharing doesn’t live up to lofty expectations

From a business perspective, his makes perfect sense. Give gamers the illusion of a whole new world of games, get them engaged in those games, then make it such a nuisance to play them that gamers just put out and pay up for them. There is a naive tendency among gamers to think that Steam is some selfless deity of gaming, redeeming the industry by looking out for the little developer and the little gamer. In fact, this hagiographic image of Valve is a large part of what makes it such a successful business.

Steam is a revolutionary platform in many ways. It has brought with it widespread acceptance of digital downloads, plays a huge role in the promotion of Indie games, and has a great community atmosphere. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s one of the most brutally effective business models in the games industry that has destroyed its competition (or rather not allowed any to rise up). When it comes to PC game downloads, Steam has the system essentially monopolised. It is like the Central Bank of digital downloads, which means that it sets its own rules, and we shall accept them whether we like it or not.

The controversy over the Family Sharing fallacy has led to gamers voicing their disdain in the Steam Community Forums. Daniel McCarthy (Steam ID: Alexander DeLarge) even started a petition to “allow Steam Family Sharing users to access DIFFERENT games at the same time.” Since posting the petition on the Steam Community Hub, Daniel has received a one-week ban from Steam. The alleged reasons were “Spamming, Arguing moderation, Re-posting previously closed/deleted topics.”

Daniel is the only person to have received a ban in topics surrounding Family Sharing so far, so it’s perhaps too soon to call this the start of the Steam Fascist State, but the outcry has certainly tainted the reverence in which the games community holds the digital platform. Is it a case of gamers asking too much?

Essentially, what the community is asking for is access to all the games that their closest friends aren’t currently playing for free. Until Family Sharing-gate arose, we didn’t see gamers demanding to have such a generous feature, and now that something vaguely similar has come along, the community has audaciously begun clamouring for more. Looked at this way, maybe it’s a testament to Valve’s magnanimity that gamers even dare expect such a thing, as well as a testament to how spoiled and brattish us gamers have become.

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