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EA takes a page from Steam

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 24, 2006
(Issue 2447, The Golden Years)

When Valve issued Half-Life 2 a year and a half ago, it included a built-in security system called Steam.

Short version of long story: You couldn't run even the single-player version of Half-Life 2 unless you were connected to the Internet.

The beauty of Steam from Valve's point of view was that it made it nearly impossible for pirates to make illegal copies of the game. Only one player could use any Half-Life 2 serial number at a time, as confirmed in real time by Valve's servers via the Steam application.

Users and privacy activists were outraged, portraying Steam as an invasive example of Big Brother technology spying on us. Valve rather sensibly pointed out that nobody was forced to buy or use Half-Life 2 or Steam.

And in the 18 months since Half-Life 2 and Steam shipped, Valve has re-positioned Steam from an intrusive and annoying security application to a custom software delivery system.

Several games have been made available as a for-pay download via Steam before they were available in retail shops. And the new series of Half-Life 2 add-on episodes is only available via download from Steam.

With millions of installed users, Steam is suddenly an attractive distribution stream for publishers. And those millions of users no longer resent it quite so much now that there is cool software to be had via Steam.

And now the competition

Of course, you can't expect the first to market solution to fly solo forever – even when that solution invented the market!

And so, just as the first online music services eventually begat Apple's iTunes, so Steam has now begat Electronic Arts' EA Link.

Originally called EA Downloader, the software shipped with Battlefield 2. Or maybe it was one of the Battlefield 2 patches. But at some point lost to my foggy memory, you launched BF2's download-only add-on packs Armored Fury and European Forces from EA Downloader. EA Downloader was also used to keep track of which BF2 patches you had downloaded.

EA Downloader is now called EA Link. EA Downloader automatically downloaded and applied the upgrade, although at some point I had to check a box indicated I accepted a new user agreement.

EA Link is now much more than a download manager: It is a graphical environment with ads for new games from EA and links to buy them online, along with the previous functionality of EA Downloader.

Although launching the BF2 add-ons is rather non-intuitive and tough to figure out – not nearly as seamless as with EA Downloader. (You hit a VCR-style play button to launch them – it looks more like you're launching a video than a game.)

The Future

EA clearly sees its Link app as the future of its online sales efforts. Already, many EA titles are available for purchase and download: In addition to the still-new Battlefield 2142, you can buy Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, FIFA 07, Madden NFL 07 and several SIMS2 packs.

Now, this is only for Windows-based PCs – and EA undoubtedly makes most of its coin off of the various consoles. But with the next generation of consoles becoming more and more integrated with the Internet and online play, don't be surprised if you see something like EA Link on consoles down the road.

Confused on the issue

Reports that MySpace has installed software filters that prevent users from promoting or linking to MySpace competitors has one of its own co-founders suing to stop what he claims is "censorship."

But Brad Greenspan's shows such a complete and utter lack of understanding of what censorship is that it's hard to take his efforts seriously.

For starters, there's this misdefinition of censorhip on the top of the home page:

"Censorship is the editing, removing, or otherwise changing speech or other forms of human expression. It is almost always carried out by the mass media."

Where to start? I mean, it's like trying to argue with someone who believes they were abducted by aliens – when you have such a small, narrow intersection with reality, it's hard to have a serious discussion.

True censorship is when you are prevented from expressing your viewpoints, or punished afterward for doing so. It is suppression of speech.

And it is almost always carried out by governments. When a government either suppresses your speech or punishes you for it, that's censorship.

But to argue that MySpace is "censoring" its users because it doesn't allow them to advertise and promote its competitors using its resources is a bit like arguing that newspapers should let letter writers organize boycotts of said newspapers in their letters section.

No business should have lends its own resources to those who week to bring it down – that's asinine.

If MySpace only allows one side of any particular political debate to express themselves, you might have a case for censorship.

But a policy that MySpace's competitors can't promote themselves for free on MySpace?

That's just good business sense.