It cannot be denied that Valve's Steam platform is currently leading the pack with digital distribution on the PC, but Brad Wardell, the CEO of Stardock, believes it is too early to declare it the ultimate winner.
Now, it's important to note that Stardock has its own digital distribution service called Impulse which is a direct competitor with Steam. While the service is primarily used for Stardock's games, other titles are finding their way onto Impulse. Epic's Unreal Tournament series is available along with Relic's Dawn of War (although not the recently released sequel). Impulse is building a catalogue of games, but doesn't have deals with companies like EA and Ubisoft in place at the moment.
Wardell believes that "we're at the very beginning of digital distribution. Steam may indeed become the Facebook of digital distribution, but there's just as much chance it could become the next Friendster." He also alludes to the fact that MySpace was declared the social networking winner only to be overthrown by Facebook.
Personally, I think it's a bit more complicated than that. With digital distribution platforms, customers are building catalogues of games. That adds a lot more loyalty than a list of friends that can freely move between services. Unless digital copies can be freely transferred between platforms, I don't see people switching as easily as they have from MySpace to Facebook.
Apart from the availability of games, Steam has also set the bar for community features. Valve had the luxury of upgrading and adding to Steam over several years without any competition. I have Impulse for Sins of a Solar Empire and Chris Taylor's upcoming Demigod, but I don't feel that the program is ready to compete with Steam. It isn't just about offering games as downloads and auto-patching. Unfortunately, they are launching several years behind Steam with regards to features.
Wardell believes that Valve created much of its user-base through the acquisition of Counter-Strike and brings up Valve's own statistic that "half of Steam users use it for just Counter-Strike." He sees this data as a reason why Steam might not be as successful as everyone thinks. I see it as the strategy to get a nice user-base for digital distribution. Sure, Valve forced a lot of people to install Steam to continue playing CS, but it's what the company needed to do. It's not selling PC's. It's selling their platform. I can't blame Valve for bundling Steam with their hit games.
Recently, games like Dawn of War 2 and Empire: Total War require users to install and register with Steam in order to play them even if they buy the boxed retail copy. Brad thinks, "that the press would raise alarm about if this were being done by say EA or Microsoft or even Google." I certainly don't blame Google for making people sign up for an account to use their services. Microsoft makes users sign up for Xbox Live if they want to play multiplayer. They even have to pay for that.
I get annoyed at being forced to install software and sign up for a service if the service isn't something I'd want to use anyway. I've been using Steam since the release of Half-Life 2 (when it was bad) and I prefer to buy all my PC games through Steam now. If some other service comes along that is better than Steam, it better let me transfer my entire library of games or snag some heavy exclusives because otherwise, I don't see myself leaving Steam.
I think the problem that Steam's competitors are facing is the reaction a gamer has when a game is only available on a competing service. Personally, when the PC version of Braid was announced for Impulse, I told myself I wasn't going to buy the game. Now that it is also coming to Steam, Jonathan Blow has another sale. That certainly isn't how everyone thinks, but it's the attitude I share with friends that are PC gamers.
You can read Brad's entire article here.