Saturday, 28 June 2014

A Cold Wind In Summer or What Did Steam's Summer Sale Ever Do For Us?

It's that time of year again or, rather, it's one of those times. How many sales does Steam run, anyway? I should know - I do have a Steam account. I opened it a long while ago for some specific reason that I no longer recall. I'm not sure I have ever actually used it for anything.

Once in a very blue moon I log into Steam, look around, wonder what the heck I'm doing and log out. Usually I've been prompted to remember Steam exists by a flurry, a blizzard even, of fervid, manic, gleeful blog posts, in which excited bargain-hunters list all the games they've bought together with the prices they paid and how much money they saved.

It reminds me of the aftermath of a World Boss event in GW2, when people link any Rares and Exotics they've looted from the Big Chest. That used to be a thing, back when you could easily go a week or two between Rares and a month between Exotics, even if you ran the circuit every day. Then Anet added the guaranteed daily Rare and tweaked the loot tables so that, now, the chance of a yellow item feels somewhere close to 50-50 and mostly people don't make a song and dance about it every time they get one.

[Pro-tip - The Maw always gives a Rare, often two or three. I do it at least once every day, more often two or three times, and  I've been keeping a close watch on it since about last November. I have never, not once, failed to get at least one yellow item from Fred the Shaman. No other World Boss is as generous or as consistent].

Poor Fred. He gets no respect.

This year a sense of ennui, or maybe it's disenchantment, seems to be dogging the Steam Sale. Some bloggers are so sated they're skipping it altogether or, more realistically, planning to skip then caving in. Some, naturally, remain gleefully willing to throw money at Valve as fast as they can get their wallets open, but the general feeling appears to be one of caution, wariness, even concern.

Ayren is challenging Steam users to, y'know, play the games they buy. There's an idea ahead of its time if ever I saw one. Sales, after all, aren't about getting things you need, or even things you want. They're about getting things for less than they ought to cost. The value of the transaction comes at the moment the money leaves your hand, not when you finally get around to using the thing you bought, if indeed that should ever come to pass.

One of the primary reasons Mrs Bhagpuss and I ended up with MMORPGs as a full-time hobby was almost certainly the superb job Everquest did of replacing our previous pastime, which was spending weekends traveling to every town, village and field in a fifty-mile radius to visit car boot sales, jumble sales, book and record fairs, charity/thrift/junk shops, markets... any place at all where A Bargain might be found.

Life is too short to photograph Gonk Glasses. Even that I thought about doing it is problematic.

The upshot of several years of such behavior was a house filled to bursting with unconsumed entertainment and ironic kitsch. There's a yellow melamine-handled 1950s egg whisk hanging on the wall and a set of 1960s Gonk glasses on a shelf in our kitchen to this very day, while in the seldom-used front room slumber stacks of vinyl albums by bands who turned out to be a lot less interesting than their names might lead you to believe, piles of books that are never going to be opened let alone read (complete set of Starsky and Hutch paperbacks, anyone?) and a lot, no, really, a LOT more.

All of it was "a bargain" or at least it felt like one at the time. If any of it had been for sale at collector's prices in an antique shop we'd never have gone within a mile of it. Then, like a digital intervention, enter Everquest with its seemingly endless array of desirable items that take up no space whatsoever, distributed wide and far across a whole imagined world to travel, alive with towns, villages, castles and keeps, each with its own scatterings, clusters, whole streets and marketplaces filled with vendors willing to trade you the cast-offs of tens of thousands of adventurers. Oh, and I think there might have been some monsters.

I won't re-hash the ineffable joys of vendor diving in EQ. We've been there all too often. I will say that it had its own issues, though. By the time we moved to EQ2 we were about in need of a 12-step program, not for Evercrack itself but for those whole sessions spent trying to cover every vendor in Plane of Knowledge just in case someone might have sold a Foul Smelling Liquid or a Razorfiend Talon by mistake.

Fire a little to the right, Jeeves.

I've been a collector and a pack-rat all my life but Everquest and the MMOs that followed successfully moved my obsession into the virtual. Our house is still as full of stuff as it was fifteen years ago but at least we haven't added that much since. I hardly buy anything any more. There's no need.

As my habits and hobbies have changed, so has the world. The whole Steam Sale phenomenon and the rumblings of discontent it's starting to induce exemplify how. For certain classes of entertainment the physical carrier is becoming obsolete. In the transitional phase movies, games and music continued in a dual format - digital information bought on a hard copy at a store and carried home to be installed, or you could order online and wait a few days for it to land with a clunk on the doormat.

Now all of them, joined by books and comics, newspapers and magazines, exist, flourish, and thrive as purely digital artifacts, downloadable, streamable, permanently available in an instant anywhere on Earth on any device capable of hosting them. Steam capitalized on this change but now even the change is changing.

When I was growing up scarcity ruled. Even information was sparse.There was no WorldWideWeb, no Wikipedia to turn to for the full bibliography of the author whose tattered paperback novel you'd come across in the cut-out bin in Woolworths, where I discovered William Burroughs Jr's Speed. No YouTube to flick to to get your Tallulah Gosh fix.

No, it was grab it if you saw it and bloody well hang on to it. Lend a book to a friend and you were running a major risk. Take your treasured seven-inch of Love Goes To A Building On Fire to a party and it was odds-on you'd never see it again. Not that I'm bitter.

This place is heaving!

So that's what I learned to do. See it, sieze it, stash it. Have I moved on now the digital future's here? Not much. I stack digital files and double-stack them separately just in case. Just in case what, though? In case my house burns down? In case Google goes out of business? In case they close YouTube down? In case someone switches the internet off?

It's not rational, is it? The bag is open and the cat jumped out. If Google vanished overnight taking YouTube with it, would it even matter? All this stuff has been digitized. It's done. None of it is going away, ever. And if the Internet ever falls down and can't get up then I think we'll all have something more pressing to deal with than lack of immediate access to The Monks on German TV in 1966.

So it is that I find myself wondering, more than ever, what is the point of a Steam Sale? Why does anyone even bother? All these games will be there, always. If anyone really wants to play them they can play them, any time. If Steam or GOG go away, won't they just be replaced, one way or another? And most importantly, will generations growing up in a world of surfeit not scarcity, at least when it comes to digitized entertainment, even consider ownership an issue? Or understand what it means?

In just over four weeks Sony Online Entertainment will switch off the machines that keep Vanguard alive. As I alluded a few posts back there's a possible afterlife and as Argo and others have demonstrated MMOs can respawn. Still, of all the digital distractions on offer persistent, online virtual worlds may be the most evanescent. Ironically they're also about the last you can't possess.

Pondering on all this brought me to take two overdue actions: I bought the full version of FRAPS so I can record some of my favorite places in Telon before they vanish, and I logged into City of Steam : Arkadia for the first time in far too long, because word association.

That's what I got out of this year's Steam Summer Sale. Bargain!



1 comment:

  1. I think A large draw for collecting games in digital form is that for the most part, until now they really could have gone away so you try and hols on to some games out of that feeling. FOr the most part though it's thta compulsion to get a deal, the cheapest price you can for a product and I used to fall into this a lot harder than I do know> I still like a deal but then I really have to decide whether I'll be playing it soon

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