Thank Goodness There's Finally A Real Threat To Steam

I use Steam all the time. You use Steam all the time. It's our warm, safe PC gaming tree fort, the place where we gather to play with new toys and roughhouse online with all our friends. It's also changing big-time, and we desperately need an alternative. Here's hoping the recently announced GOG Galaxy can finally provide it.

I want to preface this by saying that Valve's near-monopoly on PC gaming is one of the more benevolent near-monopolies I've ever witnessed. They're not perfect by any means, they've made their share of mistakes, and they're terrible communicators, but a lot of companies would've locked down an operation like this and turned it into the online equivalent of a private island volcano lair. Valve, however, has kept Steam relatively open, encouraged modding and user-created content, and upgraded the service with a slow trickle of constant improvements.

All that said, Steam is a mess right now. A hot, sticky, disorganized mess. Meanwhile, every potential competitor it's had in the past has been a joke. Yes, EA Origin and Ubisoft Uplay, I'm looking at you. Directly at you.

I have no idea where Steam is headed next or what Valve has planned. All I know for sure is that right now it's opening the floodgates to more and more games by the month—some of which are utterly wretched. In fact, there have already been more games added to Steam in the past six months than in all of 2013. As Valve has said in the past, the ultimate goal is to transform Steam into a fully open storefront where anyone can sell games or other sorts of wares.

Maybe GabeN and his merry band of PC gaming overlords have a perfect master plan to realize this grand vision, but it hasn't happened yet. Instead, we have a burbling behemoth that best resembles the thing from the end of Akira—all superfluous blubber and appendages, a frightful mess of good intentions gone horribly wrong.

That's bad for both gamers and game developers. Gamers can't sift through the endless avalanches of games both great and terrible, and game developers no longer get the tremendous sales boost Steam's once-coveted front page brought with it. Smaller indie developers, especially, could be in big trouble—all the more so because Steam's front page now defaults to displaying "top sellers" rather than new releases. That's much-needed visibility out the window, then.

I'm not saying we need a replacement for Steam—just viable alternatives. Services we can use instead or even as comfortable compliments to Valve's own. While no one's gotten to take GOG Galaxy for a test drive yet, it sure sounds like it's going to offer exactly that.

Thank goodness.

Curation Station

Once upon a time, GOG was an itsy bitsy store page dedicated to two things: DRM-free gaming and re-releases of old-school classics (thus the non-acronymed name "Good Old Games"). Oh how times have changed. The little storefront that could is all grown-up: GOG's evolving into a fully featured platform.

GOG Galaxy's biggest selling points are a lack of online activation (No Internet? No problem. Your game will just work) or any sort of DRM, not even something like Steam's light and technically optional client-based DRM. That's huge, especially in this era of frequent server shutdowns for games very few people actively play anymore. We need some sort of solution that ensures our games (single-player ones, especially) work forever—not just until a publisher decides to pull the plug—and this is easily the most direct way of doing it. The fact that features like convenient game updating and friend functionality are both available and optional is just icing atop a very sturdily built cake.

But GOG Galaxy is also doing a couple more subtly brilliant things, and that's what I want to really focus on here. Foremost, GOG has been a storefront (not a full-blown platform) for a long time, and it's always hung its hat on curation. GOG handpicks the games it decides to sell, so while its selection is markedly smaller than Steam's, it also generally has far better quality control. Not only that, it's more manageable for gamers to drag their virtual shopping cart through and find what they want. If Steam is a teeming, tree-sized African ant hill, GOG is more of an ant farm. You can have a look around without being overwhelmed or, er, devoured by a million tiny mouths.

Valve used to curate Steam very closely. If you didn't have an impossibly spectacular game or a good connection with Valve, you didn't get on Steam. Period. Times have changed, however, and Valve wants all games on its store in some form or fashion. It's hoping users will take care of curation, that they'll find what's good and push it to the top by way of features like Steam reviews, tags, and pages.

For the time being, that's not GOG's plan. It's very picky about what it sells, and it has the final say—not users. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just different, and that's what we need right now: something that is not just a lesser, more closed off version of Steam. An alternative.

That leads into point of brilliance number two: GOG Galaxy will play nice with other services. "Regardless of which digital store you buy from," said GOG in Galaxy's announcement video, "we don't believe you should be locked into it. You should be free to play together with all your friends, without any third-party client apps or accounts required."

Thank Goodness There's Finally A Real Threat To Steam

That's fantastic because, frankly, Steam is as entrenched as platforms come. Many gamers have been using it for ages. Speaking personally, my Steam library contains hundreds of games. If GOG roped itself off at all—tried to take its toys and play elsewhere, discourage people from accessing their game libraries or playing with their Steam friends—the result would be disastrous. It'd simply be too inconvenient of a proposition for most gamers. No one would use it alongside Steam, let alone instead of it. Thankfully, GOG seems to understand this, so it's taken necessary (not to mention gamer-friendly) precautions to avoid it.

The last big upshot of all this is maybe also the most obvious: if another major player starts pushing on Steam, the behemoth might finally have to stir from its mountain-sized throne and put up its dukes. Good competition—real competition, not the sort where both parties are trying to screw each other over or manipulate customers—forces all parties involved to improve. Steam might lose a few pennies here and there, but it'd be much better for it in the long run.

There are still big questions, though. How big does GOG want to grow Galaxy? I mean, everyone wants success, but in the past GOG has been content to stay small and grow by inches, not miles. That's why everybody flocks to get their games on Steam's frontpage and not GOG's mom 'n' pop porch. It's not big enough to have that kind of impact yet. On top of that, GOG's DRM-free requirement means some major players just aren't willing to sell their games through the service. They're afraid the risk of piracy is too high, which limits GOG's possible selection even further.

Assuming Galaxy takes off, PC gamers will have a more manageable, user-friendly store and service to work with, and developers will have a new powerful source of exposure—all of which is fantastic. Problem is, ubiquity is a hard thing to achieve, and GOG may not be able to pull it off if it continues to be hyper-selective about what it sells and how it sells it. Those things, however, are what make GOG as a storefront, service, and company special. That's the calling card and trump card all in one. So it's kind of a catch-22.

Moreover, as GOG Galaxy grows and expands, it too could run up against the problem of simply having too much—so many games that game libraries are tenuously teetering mile-high piles and the storefront becomes an indistinguishable mass—such that current menus and interfaces just can't handle it. That would put us back at square one: how should companies organize stores and services in this day and age? How can they give people a full range of options without overwhelming them?

It's tough. Incredibly tough. If nothing else, GOG Galaxy seems to be off to a promising start, and that's more than can be said of any of Valve's other "competitors." Growing slowly has its benefits. You get to watch other attempts succeed and fail, see what went right and what failed miserably. Right when everyone thought he race was decided, a slow and steady competitor enters the field. Hopefully things are about to get interesting.

TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.