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Things are getting steamy

Written by Alex Kidman Thursday, 18 March 2010 00:30

It's been a little quiet on the Mac news front of late, largely due to all the regular news sources anxiously awaiting the first batch of iPads hitting the market. One of the bigger recent news stories was the announcement by previously-PC-and-console-only games publisher Valve that it would be bringing its Steam gaming service to the Mac platform.

The news is everywhere. Here's Macworld's take. Here's MacRumors'. Here, for the sake of shameless self-promotion, is even one I wrote for

Is it good news? As a lifelong gamer, I'd be tempted to say yes, given that anything that expands the range of Mac games on offer is a good thing for Mac users generally. Even if you're not a gamer, anything that gets more developers on board, more sales at the cash register and more interest generally is a good thing. At a more distinct level, Valve makes some excellent games, and the official release namedrops a whole bunch of them, including Left 4 Dead 2, Portal and Half-Life.

There's even some nifty technology being brought into the Steam client to enable both cross-platform play and even cross-platform purchases and continued play through Steam Play and Steam Cloud.

At the same time, it's worth bearing in mind that Steam as a service isn't perfect, and it does bring some challenges for Mac users with it. I've used Steam on and off in its PC incarnation for a number of years now, mainly when I've had my games journalist hat on.

The very first time I ever used Steam was to install a game I had to review very quickly indeed to meet a print magazine deadline. The client itself downloaded and installed quickly, and then ... nothing. I could get a lovely little splash screen to come up, and nothing else.

A lot of frantic online searching suggested my Windows Anti-Virus package at the time may have been the problem, and replacing it did afford me a speedy resolution to the problem. You may well think that this isn't an issue for Macs (if you're a head-in-the-sand-Macs-will-never-get-viruses variety Mac user), but my problem here was that the solution wasn't forthcoming from Valve at all.

The AV vendor's support forums had people in them that had the same problem I did, and I kludged it together from there. It's not outside the realms of possibility that some esoteric bit of Mac software (or an update to, say, Mac OS 10.7 "Icy Otter") could have the same effect. Is Valve ready for Mac-based support issues?

The next issue is bandwidth. Steam patches itself, and itt patches the games you buy through the service. This is handy to an extent, but it can happen at times when it's not perhaps the most convenient. Even getting past that, the bandwidth usage ramps up rather quickly. I've had Steam games download a full 2GB of data and fail on the last percent, taking my 2GB with them. For users in parts of the world where downloads are unmetered, that may not be a major issue. Here in Australia, at least for the time being, it most definitely is.

It's also very unclear what the status of non-Valve games is.

"Our Steam partners, who are delivering over a thousand games to 25 million Steam clients, are very excited about adding support for the Mac," said Jason Holtman, Director of Business Development at Valve in the official release.

That's a fairly bland statement that does allow Valve to release exactly zero games outside its own catalogue if agreements can't be reached. Just because unnamed "Steam partners" are "excited" doesn't mean anything will definitively happen. Some dogs I know get excited when they see me and start frantically (ahem) "attacking" my leg, but my knee is yet to give birth to a litter of puppies.

The statement also leaves very open the question of older games titles. I could see developers dipping toes into the Mac waters with new releases, but what about older titles, many of which sell on Steam at very low prices? I doubt we'll see many (if any) of the older PC titles currently available on Steam backwards-ported. In fact, some of them already have Mac equivalents through development houses such as Feral Software, and agreements in place might just prohibit it outright.

I'm guessing here, but I'd say that if you're still using a PowerPC-based Mac, Steam won't be for you. I could always be wrong. Likewise, Macs without discrete graphics might be out of the equation, although that's a bet I'd be less likely to put big money on.

All that having been said, I'll be lining up to download the Steam client when it becomes available in April. If only for the lure of Portal 2, and the ability to buy a game once across PC/Mac and play it wherever I wish. Now, if only they'd bring steam to consoles ...

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