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Stanislas Berton is a French Masters student who has chosen to write his thesis on Valve Software's content-delivery-platform-cum-community-hub, Steam. He was asking Source developers to fill out a survey, so he could gain a better insight into the relationship between Valve and its mod developers. I thought the answers I gave might make for interesting reading, or even spark some debate.

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Steam and Source modding: a Survey. Stanislas Berton, a French Masters student, asks the questions

The Email

My name is Stanislas Berton and I am a French student currently writing my master's thesis on the Steam platform and in one in my hypotheses, I look into the relationship between Steam/Valve and mod developers.

At the end of this mail, you will find a list of questions related to my research. It would be of great help if you could take some of your time to answer these questions as thoroughly and precisely as possible. You can answer them as a group or chose a member of your development team to speak on the behalf of all.

If you don't wish to answer a question or don't feel its relevant to your work, feel free to ignore it but, please, try to answer as many as you can.

Finally, if possible, please, reply as quickly as possible. So far I have received only two answers from other development teams and my deadline is getting closer and closer. So any help would be greatly appreciated by a student struggling to get his degree and his master's thesis done. I am sure that you all know the feeling

Thanks for helping
Stanislas Berton
Toute l'actualité culturelle est sur Du-cote-de-chez-stan.com

Now, I have a vested interest in seeing Games as an art form (or 'means of artistic/cultural expression' if it saves us from going into the whole 'games as art' debate), and one way for games to reach this level of integrity and respect is for us to better understand them.

So, although this isn't a theoretical piece on games themselves, it is a form of games education, so I felt a duty to support it by any means possible.

When I began reading the questions I could see immediately that a good deal of thought had been put into them. It also made me step back and think long and hard about how Steam has evolved from something to be reviled by gamers, to something that has the potential to herald a positive step forward in the evolution of how we approach (commercial) games development.

General Questions

Hello, could you please briefly introduce yourself and explain what is your role and your position within your development team?

I am known online as 'Crispy' and my role has spanned both the functionality and design side of the levels and art, and recruitment of new members, although primarily I was brought onto the project to act as a community lead and to generate awareness for the mod.

Could you briefly present your project as well as its basic concept?

Nuclear Dawn is a high-quality free modification for the Half-Life 2 engine that aims to marry elements of the RTS and RPG genres with core FPS gameplay.

Why did you start working on a mod ? What was your motivation, your goal?

My personal goal for joining the ND team was twofold: I wanted to learn more about the mod-making process so that I would be able to make my own concepts a reality, and I was also very interested in seeing the RTS/FPS genre (that I was a massive fan of with Natural Selection) taken to the Source engine. I had previously begun a mod of my own but I had woefully underestimated the knowledge and experience required to take a HL2 mod to release. When I joined it seemed that Nuclear Dawn was making serious headway towards that goal, and since I was already a fan of the announced gameplay concept, I was naturally drawn to it when asked to join.

Why did you choose Half Life’s SDK and then the Source Engine for your work?

Although this wasn't my decision, from what I can tell it probably had a lot to do with the free development resources and the large mod following that come with the HL2 engine. A similar RTS/FPS mod had already been successfully released on the Half-Life engine, so it was clear that a lot of the technical design decisions could be reformulated for the Source engine.

To what extent did you benefit from the support of Valve during the development process? To what degree did you collaborate with the company?

To my knowledge we have not been in direct contact with Valve regarding any development issues. I have sent two emails regarding functionality issues with Steam Groups, but neither had any reply. It seems Valve prefer to answer emails that ask more astute questions like 'What colour would Kleiner's budgie be if he had one?' and 'Does Gman have a set of identical suits for day-to-day use or is his suit an interdimensional apparition that transcends the need for stain removal?'.

We benefitted in terms of publicity when they made a small mention about ND on Steam News (which was shown to every Steam user who went online that week). We have also benefitted indirectly from their 'Coders mailing list' and their largely user-led Developer Wiki.

Conversely, the many updates made to Steam, and to the developer code and tools (without prior notice), have often crippled development progress for weeks at a time. This is probably the most frustrating part of developing using Valve's tools and Valve's engine.

Questions about Steam

Are you a Steam user?


What was your first opinion on Steam?

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." - To begin with Valve were very vague with what they were doing with Steam. I'm sure they had to keep very quiet about their goals of online content distribution to minimalise and retard future competition, but at the time it just seemed like Steam was a frivolous paintjob of WON which didn't add any major functionality.

What do you think of Steam today?

I have mixed feelings about Steam, but mostly positive. I applaud what it represents in terms of empowering independant developers, with Steamworks being a further advancement in this area. I buy 50% of my games from Steam now, so although I miss the days of flicking through the game manual and getting all excited about a new game on the bus back from the shops, and I dread the notion that Steam may one day implode under its own behemothian mass and I will lose all my games, I do enjoy the relative ease of purchasing games on Steam, not to mention the discount on most major titles and the bundles.

I also like how Valve roll out patches all the time, but I find it annoying that they aren't more transparent about the changes they are making to their games. Often they exclude information about minor tweaks to their games that can have an effect on what you have come to expect from the gameplay experience (e.g. how much damage a weapon does, how high a class can jump, how fast a class can run).

On the minus side, I do still regard Steam as bloatware (it uses too many system resources when running in idle mode). Also, its cross-user in-game text and audio 'chat' features are still unstable and under-developed compared to the likes of Teamspeak/Ventrilo and IRC, which either outperform Steam in terms of functionality provided, or they use a lot less system resources to do what you want them to do (freeing up more power for your main concern: your games).

I also think that Steam has enabled a sense of laziness for Valve, evident in the way Team Fortress 2 was released with a mere 6 maps (of which 2 were re-makes). If TF2 weren't part of the biggest bargain of the century© this would have been seen as wholly unacceptable given the competition from Battlefield and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars.

What features of Steam do you use the most?

The SDK tools, mostly. SteamFriends is also useful when you all want to join the same server at once.

As a developer what kinds of advantages do Steam bring to you?

Free tools and free (but unavoidable) updates to these tools. Since we are unreleased, not a lot else.

Has Steam changed the way you work?

We briefly attempted to schedule group events for playtests and meetings that worked with the Steam calendar. That was very effective at contacting members who were in-game, but it failed to display the same meeting times for users across multiple timezones, resulting in absences (I had no response from Valve when I informed them of this defect). MSN Messenger, IRC and Teamspeak are largely preferred over Steam chat.

Given the possibility of selling games on Steam, have you ever contemplated this possibility for you or your company?

As a team, Nuclear Dawn has been contacted on numerous occasions by parties interested in using the mod for commercial purposes, including independant publishers and hardware manufacturers. Each time the response from the team has been unanimous: to keep Nuclear Dawn free from the restrictions and loss of control that commercial interference inevitably involves. We also have a very strong sense of commitment and accountability to our fans, which we try to cater to where possible.

Questions to independent developers

(that I didn't answer)

If given the opportunity, would you sell your game on Steam?
If given the opportunity, would you and your team consider joining Valve Software?
If given the opportunity, what would be for you the main advantages of distributing your game through Steam?
If any, what factors may deter you from distributing your game through Steam?
Does Steam make it easier for you to communicate and interact with the gaming community?

Subsidiary questions

As a developer, what kind of features would you like Steam to have in the future?

- Take major steps to streamline Steam to be less of a resources hog
- Expand the chat system to be more streamlined and offer more functionality
- Allow Group leaders to toggle their group from Private to Public (seriously, I have emailed twice about this with no reply)
- Fix Steam Events to take local user's time/date settings into account when referencing event data for users across separate timezones. (emailed, no reply)
- Allow users to view update information on the Steam menu prior to enabling a download (i.e. might this break Hammer?)
- Enable information protection for SteamID pages (allow the user the option to make them accessible only to Steam users or to specific groups - similar to what FaceBook does)

What is your opinion on the future of digital distribution?

My hope is that it will free smaller developer groups from interference and corruption by financially-motivated parties, and enable the games industry as a whole to refocus on originality and innovation.

My fear is that this 'golden age' will either only be enjoyed for a short while before the big publishers develop their own online distribution channels and move in on the mid-price territory, or independant developers won't take advantage of this window of opportunity while it exists.


Interesting stuff right there.

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