If you’re primarily a PC gamer, you probably visit Steam for all your game needs. Steam is nearly ten years old, which has given the distribution platform a decent chunk of time to worm its way into the hearts and muscle memory of its users. Though Steam won’t release its numbers, its rival distributor, Impulse, estimated back in 2009 that Steam owns 70% of the digital distribution market.
It’s hard to conceive of switching to another distributor and shedding a decade of familiarity and habit. Until recently, there hasn’t been a contender in the digital distribution market with the muscle of Steam, so fantasies of a change-over were empty, anyway. But now EA is looking to move into Steam’s neighborhood with its own platform, Origin, and EA is not a company that’s lacking in muscle. It’s not clear at this point whether Origin has a chance of overtaking Steam, but one thing is for sure: Origin is going to be divisive and disruptive.
True, Origin is not EA’s first foray into digital distribution. The service launched as “EA Downloader” in 2005, which was then replaced by “EA Link” in 2006, which was then replaced by Origin in June 2011. But EA’s recent obsession with the social game market–which has seemingly climaxed with the purchase of PopCap Games for $650 million— plus the impending release of its massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG), Star Wars: The Old Republic means that he company has no choice but to take digital distribution very seriously. And that means going toe-to-toe with Steam, which currently distributes most of PopCap’s fare.
For now, though, EA is talking peace, love, and coexistence.
Early in July, EA’s Senior VP of Global E-Commerce, David DeMartini, posted on EA’s forums to assure visitors that the company has no reason to compete with Steam, as any online distributor should be free to sell EA’s digital products same as any retailer should be free to sell EA’s physical games.
This is always the way with game companies. Despite being part of a furious effort to pluck precious leisure dollars away from consumers, everyone tries to give off the cool, carefree aura of cows napping in the summer grass. Nintendo is not competing with Apple for first place in the handheld market. Origin is not looking to woo PC gamers away from Steam. Puppies are not struggling against kittens for first place in humanity’s heart. Nope, everyone is OK.
Thing is, DeMartini posted his statement after EA’s shooter, Crysis 2, disappeared from Steam because of issues over downloadable content distribution. More importantly, Star Wars: The Old Republic will only be downloadable on Origin. There’s not much indiciation that EA is going to sit back and tell Steam, “Keep it up, we’re just hanging out.”
In principle, there’s no issue with EA trying to compete with Steam. As usual, it’s up to the consumer to decide what service they want to do business with, and not every PC gamer is happy with Steam. But it won’t be long before the digital distribution market divides like an amoeba. Want Star Wars? You’ll need to download Origin. What’s going to happen to PopCap’s games? Are they really going to stay put on Steam? And, visiting Imagination Land for a second, what about Half-Life 2: Episode 3? What are the chances you’re going to see that on Origin?
Physical game retailers compete for people’s business, but outside of pre-order bonuses, it’s very rare for a video game to be distributed by a single chain. It’s certainly unheard of for console gaming’s biggest stars: Imagine being told by Nintendo, “Want the latest Zelda game? You can only get it at Wal-Mart!”
Granted, puttering from store-to-store in the physical world is more draining than downloading another digital distribution platform. It’s still time, effort, and a whole lot of personal information being fed into a program that you don’t plan to use very much, however.
On the other hand, EA is probably very aware that it has to win over Steam users–and more than a few dedicated consumers are born out of intentions to “just try this out for a second,” or, “I’ll just use this once, maybe twice.”