Steaming pile of ...

From time to time I get overwhelmed by my passion for computer games and I buy a game which promises to be fun. So it happened a few weeks ago when I saw a special offer of Valve's "The Orange Box" in the local electronics store. This box contains all kind of Half-Life 2 stuff including the new Episode Two and the very promising looking game "Portal". But boy was I wrong. This was one of the worst buys I ever made.

The box comes with two DVDs, but to be able to play you need to connect to "Steam", an online restrictions management server, which then downloads tons of data to "update" and "activate" your game. It took almost an hour before I was even able to start the game. Needless to say that of course Steam gets autostarted on each login and annoys you with advertisements. What a "steaming" pile of crap.

After this unpleasant experience I thought I would be ready to play the game, but no, I was caught in the nightmare of graphics card drivers for Windows. Trying to be helpful Steam told me that I would have to upgrade the graphics card drivers to the latest version, so I did that. But then when starting the game I only got a cryptic error message. Fortunately problems like that are so common, that it was relatively easy to find an entry in a forum which offered an solution: Downgrading the graphics card drivers to a specific version. So I went again to the ATI site, downloaded some more Megabytes and finally it worked, but another hour was gone. If you think that graphics drivers on Linux are a problem go back to Windows and you will see that it can be worse.

The game itself is brilliant, by the way. What a pity that Valve ruined it with their crappy restriction management concept. But it also had a good side for me: I was reminded again how precious the freedoms of free software are. It feels so good to know that we are doing the right thing by writing great free software instead of inventing strange concepts to annoy users through restricting what they can do with the software they bought.


I don't completely agree with you; the main features of steam is not restriction. Sure, they have some restrictions on the game content with encryption etc, but they are also selling commercial games online. Free software is a great thing, but I believe games are a bit different; they are just pure content and the creators spend tons of money for the artists and coders to do deliver a few hours of fun on the computer. I don't mind paying for that.

Have you tried installing any other major games lately? They come in dvds, sometimes even two of them, they take ages to install with cd keys having to be entered on top of that. With steam you just download the game and play it; the installation and configuration is appearantly done transparently which I don't see why you view as a negative thing ("which then downloads tons of data to "update" and "activate" your game")

In summary I just think it seems you were looking for things to complain about when you tried out steam this time. There are plenty of evil software to complain about out there on the windows platform, and steam is not one of the worst ones.

By metellius at Sat, 11/17/2007 - 02:09

I do see it as negative that a game I buy on DVD and which I don't intend to play online spends an hour downloading stuff before I can play it. It's not that I saved any time by not installing it from DVD. I did that and then I still had to go through this forced download procedure. If you are happy with that and don't see that as a reason for complaining I accept that. For me it still looks like Steam is meant to optimize profit for the game vendor, not user experience for the player.

By Cornelius Schumacher at Mon, 11/19/2007 - 11:10

I understand you're frustrated, but your review is blatantly unfair, to both Steam and Windows. Those horrible updates Steam is downloading for you would still have to be downloaded manually otherwise (unless for some reason you like running unpatched versions of games). It's actually saving you headache, TF2, Portal, and Episode 2 have all been patched since their release. To be clear: It is not just downloading stuff because of the game's need for activation.

That Steam told you you needed a different video driver version is a step above and beyond most games, which will simply crash or render incorrectly without giving any indication as to why. Newer games use newer video card features and driver extensions, which exposes bugs. People that play PC games regularly are always running the latest video card drivers for this reason.

What was most ridiculous is your claim that somehow that is a problem with Windows drivers, and that Linux fares better. Linux video drivers are getting better everyday, and with Intel and ATI's openness, and nouvea's hard work, things are looking up -- for the future. Right now, things still totally suck. Out of the box, 3D is not likely to work at all (the exception is Intel -- the company the gaming industry hates for making very underpowered cards, completely unsuitable for anything beyond accelerating Vista's Aeroglass). Assuming it does, it will very likely not be the latest version of the driver (the only reason this isn't a frequent issue now is because Linux doesn't have much of a game market). On Windows, you were able to go to the vendor's website and get a newer version of the driver. On Linux, if you have a driver problem, the least painful route is to wait 6+ months for an update for your distribution. If you want to upgrade by hand, you are probably going to need to install a bunch of obscure developer packages and retrieve git source of your driver, which will probably only build against newer Xorg and Mesa, which necessitates more git pulls, ad nauseum. Even for Nvidia's closed source driver, the installer is still going to want a bunch of things not installed by default on many distros (e.g. kernel headers and gcc if you're using ubuntu), and once you get things up and running you'll need to install again everytime there's a kernel update.

As an aside, you might be interested to know that Crossover Office runs all of the Orange Box games brilliantly, provided you're using the Nvidia closed source driver.

By dataangel at Sat, 11/17/2007 - 07:49

I know I was unfair. This wasn't a review but a rant. It still is ridiculous that a game I buy days after its release on DVD has to download stuff for more than an hour before I can play it. And that Steam told me to upgrade the video driver before it simply crashed with an ununderstandable error message I also can't see as a feature. I haven't tried with the old driver by ignoring the message. Maybe this would have caused less problems.

That the 3D driver situation on Linux is painful, I know only too well. I just wanted to set a counterpoint to the impression that it all works perfectly under Windows, because that's simply not true.

By Cornelius Schumacher at Mon, 11/19/2007 - 11:07