'Surprised' is probably the term I'd use to describe my reaction upon hearing that EA's Battlefield 3 would not be making its way to Steam. In hindsight, I really shouldn't have been, given that it's an almost identical strategy to the one Valve adopted when pushing their own digital distribution service, with the release of Half Life 2 back in 2004. Battlefield 3 will now be available direct from EA themselves, thanks to their new online service 'Origin'.
EA then, seem to be making an aggressive step into dangerous territory, replacing the EA Store with a shiny new downloadable gaming application in an effort to topple Valve's online monopoly. But what does this mean for consumers? And can Origin really give Steam a run for its massive piles of money?
It should be noted that Origin is not currently pushing third-party games in the same way that Steam does. Origin is, first and foremost, a distribution tool for EA, so to label their tactics as 'aggressive' seems a mite unfair. Steam will continue to be the dominant digital provider for indie gaming, and EA don't seem to be interested in challenging that role.
It has also been reported that the main reason Battlefield 3 will remain notably absent from Valve's online catalogue is that Steam's terms and conditions 'prevent' EA from updating the title in a way that suits them. Exactly what that means is anyone's guess, but Gabe Newell has remained typically diplomatic about the situation, explaining that Steam will continue to do everything in its power to accommodate the wishes of publishers that use their service.
Taken on face value then, it seems as though Battlefield 3 has inadvertently triggered the rise of Origin as a true contender in the digital distribution market. But lets not pretend that anything in the world of Electronic Arts happens by 'accident'. They may not be offering a multitude of dirt-cheap indie games directly to your computer, but like Valve, they are one of the few companies in the industry that are in the fortunate position of having a huge library of AAA titles (and franchises) with which to (consistently) prize your money from your wallet.
Is the appearance of a second service a good thing for us consumers though? I would argue that in fact it is. For around half a decade now Steam has dominated the online game distribution market, and in doing so has provided us with a slick service that offers some fantastic deals on a daily basis. There are however, a few titles that are much more expensive to buy on Steam than through an online retailer, who will also give you the game disc and a pretty little box to put it in.
I rather enjoy physical copies of games. Call me a man of simple pleasures if you will, but that particular simple pleasure comes at a price. Namely, that of printing and packaging costs. Then there's shipping and the cut the retailer themselves take, and you're looking at a product that should surely cost over twice as much as a digital copy that simply transfers data from one end of the line to the other? Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and if you've failed to notice a fantastic site like this one that points out that £20-odd copy of Human Revolution on the PC, you're left with pretty much one option: Steam, and their £30 price tag.
Introduce a true competitor that's willing to undercut that price however, and all of a sudden the consumer is finding themselves with a fantastic game and a few extra pounds rattling around their bank account, which they can use to buy an indie game of their choice.
This kind of competition also brings about rapid increases in quality. What does Facebook have that Google+ and Myspace are missing for example? What does Chrome have that Explorer and Firefox don't? Companies require your loyalty in order to survive, and the only way they can earn that loyalty is by providing you with a streamlined, hassle-free experience. Lord knows Steam had its problems when it started out. I personally couldn't log on for over a month thanks to a bug that denied the service updating itself, but refused to allow me access until it had been updated. These days though, we can store all of our games in one place, browse available titles, chat with our friends, swap... er... hats etc etc.
If Origin can provide gamers with community options to rival those currently available on Steam, then it will begin to see audiences turn to their product for convenience. Initially speaking at least, this will dictate whether Origin is happy to sit in the background as Steam continues to rake in the profits, or whether it sees itself as a true contender for the title of 'definitive digital distribution service'. Without the ease of having everything available in one place, Origin is - at least in this humble writer's opinion - doomed to die.
Once these basic needs have been addressed, EA can start expanding their catalogue and with it, their audience. Provide indie developers with a better service and more support than Valve's (admittedly excellent) developer tools offer, and you continue to win over your competitor's audience.
I hope, for our sake, that Origin is more than just a flash in the pan, because EA really are the only company currently in a position to challenge Steam's dominance. Ultimately, it is the consumers that will benefit. And if EA can prove themselves successful enough to bring other publishers on board, we might not have to wait quite as long for that quick, easy, and cheap copy of Deus Ex...