Steam accounts now over 65 million

The popular digital distribution platform has seen 30 percent growth in the last 12 months.

Valve has just announced that its Steam platform has grown another 30 percent in the trailing 12-month period, bringing its user-base to more than 65 million accounts. Now in its tenth year, the digital distribution service offers more than 3,000 games, and Valve continues to expand the feature set for the service as it takes Steam to the living room.

Valve plans to introduce the recently announced Steam Machines with a variety of hardware partners later in the year. Combined with SteamOS and the unique Steam Controller, which features touch pads and no analog sticks, Valve is hoping to further disrupt the marketplace.

“The main goal of Steam has always been to increase the quality of the user’s experience by reducing the distance between content creators and their audience,” said Gabe Newell, co-founder and president of Valve. “As the platform grows, our job is to adapt to the changing needs of both the development and user communities. In the coming year, we plan to make perhaps our most significant collaborations with both communities through the Steam Dev Days and the Steam Machines beta.”



Steam Box, Oculus Rift will define next-gen, says Cliffy B

Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski doesn’t see much disruption or innovation coming from consoles and AAA titles.

The new consoles from Sony and Microsoft are now only a little over a month away. While much of the industry is gearing up for the arrival of these next-gen systems, there are plenty who are less enthusiastic about what the platforms mean for next-gen gaming. You can count former Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski in that camp.

When asked by the [a]list daily what he thinks will define the next-gen era of games, Bleszinski gave an answer that was decidedly in a direction away from consoles. “Things like the Steam Box and the Oculus Rift, honestly. I’m friends with a lot of folks in Microsoft. Microsoft has been very good to me throughout my career. I’m friends with the folks at Sony. But when I think about my gamer instincts and where I’m going to see a lot of the most disruptive and innovative gaming I don’t see it in the $250 million budgeted game that cost $100 million to market. Because when you have that high of a budget the amount of risk being taken decreases exponentially,” he said.

“I was more excited about playing games like Gone Home than any console release. I am thoroughly excited to dive into Grand Theft Auto V, but it’s sitting on my desk looking like War and Peace to me right now. I’m going to have to clear out a good two weeks of doing nothing in order to just deep dive into it. In the meantime I’m on my Nintendo DS and I’m on my laptop playing Steam games. I got to fire up Two Brothers and I finished Thomas Was Alone and Gone Home. I don’t know if it’s because I’m rubber banding and rebelling against my AAA background, but I will buy a Playstation 4 and an Xbox One. Am I more excited for that than the Rift and Steam? I think Sony and Microsoft are going to do just fine and it’s a known entity. A known entity is not that exciting to me. It’s the disruptive things that are exciting to me.”

Bleszinski is confident that Oculus Rift can become a solid platform, but it needs games designed specifically for its VR interface and not just some console ports. “They know what they’re doing over there (at Oculus) and I think Rift could eventually be its own platform. Putting Team Fortress 2 and Half Life on it is a mistake. The experiences that are going to be the best ones are the ones that are custom made for the pacing of that kind of experience. I got more excited by the trailer for EVE Valkyrie on the Rift than anything I saw at E3 this year,” he commented.



Postmortem: choose a victim, change a nation in this free PC game about politics and power

In free JRPG-looking politic-em-up Postmortem you play Death, and you are on your way to a dinner party to kill someone. Your orders are to kill only one person, it doesn’t matter who; The Secretary has told you so. Perhaps the world has been encased in some sort of Malthusian Deadlock. But as you begin to develop an uncharacteristic curiosity about the guests, engage them in discussion, and investigate the documents and trinkets of the venue, you enact an oddly human bias. You realise that who you kill might have a greater impact than just having a waiter drop his hors d’oeuvres. But is your curiosity shifting history down another track? Is your very interest sending a cosmic ripple down the trouserleg of time? Right from the menu screen’s orchestral, foreboding, almost overbearing adaptation of Pop Goes The Weasel from Kevin MacLeod, you feel like whatever you do in this game, something awful is going to happen.

It’s October 18th, 1897, and local businessowner Bill Seldon is holding a Gala for a vandalised school. You enter the fundraiser to find various attendees with vocal political views: those with very firm ‘OldAger’ views of tradition and socialism, and ‘NewAger’ opinions of progress and capitalist ravagement. There have already been factories and small businesses blown up in protest by a militant arm of OldAgers who want fair wages and workers’ rights, and this Gala is not without tensions between patrons. They say never talk politics, religion or money at a party, but two of those three dominate affairs as you move from room to room, talking with guests and quietly judging them.

Postmortem is the brainchild of lead developer Jakub Kasztalski, whose interest in politics has strongly shaped Postmortem’s narrative and outcomes. Very text-heavy, Jakub’s background in Comparative Ethnic Conflict, which he studied in Northern Ireland, really shows through in the scraps of paper, leaflets and books you will read and the dialogue you will take part in throughout. “I’ve always loved videogame development. I used to work at a games studio for two years. And so a lot of what I learned [in my Masters in Ethnic Conflict] was inspirational to me personally,” Kasztalski says.

The transplanting of pronouns for fictional places and people like “Antrim”, “Thatcher”, and others might seem a tad hamfisted as signposts initially, but by the end of the game it becomes apparent that the narrative structure has been much more nuanced than you might have initially assumed, and point towards a deep awareness of real-world conflict and the paths nations can take. “It’s not so much whom you choose,” Kasztalski explains. “but how you choose, in the sense that… is it fair for me to decide? Who gives me the right? How much of an educated guess without education?” Interesting too, that in Kasztalski’s experience, games have done very little in the way of exploring how to resolve conflict without violence, or placed too much importance on a win/lose state. “A lot of my testers were looking at – how do we win? How do we fix the conflict, you know? That doesn’t surprise me,” Kasztalski muses. He goes on to cite The Walking Dead as a big inspiration, and talks of his ideas on implementing statistics at the end of the game so you can compare your choices with fellow players.

The complexity of Postmortem’s characters is especially noteworthy. Games have a real tendency to portray characters as being either palpably virtuous or sinister, but in Postmortem it is difficult to be put off by even the most extreme political views – not only are the characters written polite and conversational, but also they have a realistic mix of conservative and liberal thought processes, making concessions to some ideas, ruling others out, and sometimes even being particularly hypocritical. Of note is Ophelia Thatcher, whose views on women having better representation in politics and broadcast media is certainly laudable, and I felt myself nodding along, the first stirrings of Feminism and Votes For Women brewing in her and all that – and then later she makes remarks about how awful immigrants are. And I was suddenly reminded: people can be hypocritical and exist in power hierarchies – why is it so strange that this videogame character might hold hypocritical views, when they would in reality? The greatest triumph here is that the conversations you have are not leading in any manner and flow naturally, which happens little elsewhere in videogameland.

The structure of the game is interesting: when you eventually pick your murder, a series of newspaper stories then inform you of the fallout from the Gala event. When at last you are aware of how your presence as Death was interpreted by the guests (even the dead one), you come to understand how nuanced the conversation branches were, and how they were not exactly what you expected. There is a huge emphasis on freedom of choice. “A lot of people were like ‘Well what’s stopping people from picking a person and ending the game in two minutes?’” Kasztalski says. “And I was looking at them thinking, ‘Why should they be stopped’?” And it is a very replayable game, in terms of looking at the subtle outcomes that are interpreted by your choices.

Though the JRPG art and classical music is fairly rudimentary – Kasztalski tells me is constantly evolving as it is developed – the writing (though there is a lot of it, and it is quite dry) is good, laid on thick like political jam. It was refreshing to not be completely patronised by a game, to be treated like a critical reader. The only disappointment for me was that there weren’t more interesting artifacts to examine, more shocking mysteries to uncover, and that there weren’t more characters in the world to explore. It’s very short game, and though it must have taken a long time to construct, it only takes about an hour and a bit to play. I’m looking forward to this being polished up, and being held up as an example of how to write nuanced characters with a reach into complex late-game branching narratives. An excellent little slice of intrigue that is worth a look. It’s coming out later this month, entirely for free, perhaps with small bonus extras for a little donation.

Postmortem is looking for upvotes on Steam Greenlight. Find out more about the game on Postmortem site.

Former Steam boss Jason Holtman lands at Microsoft

Valve veteran will be focused on “making Windows a great platform for gaming”

Jason Holtman lands at Microsoft

Jason Holtman, who spearheaded Valve’s Steam business for eight years before leaving the company in February, has a new job.

The former lawyer has taken a job with Microsoft, with a focus on PC gaming and entertainment strategy. Because he has just started at the position, Holtman declined an interview request, but confirmed the move.

“Yes, I have joined Microsoft where I will be focusing on making Windows a great platform for gaming and interactive entertainment,” he said. “I think there is a lot of opportunity for Microsoft to deliver the games and entertainment customers want and to work with developers to make that happen, so I’m excited to be here.”

Holtman’s departure from Valve after an eight-year tenure came cloaked in mystery. He left the company at the same time as several high-profile employees were reportedly laid off. Valve did not address the reasons behind the staff reductions, with founder Gabe Newell telling Engadget “We’re not going to discuss why anyone in particular is or isn’t working here.”

At Valve, Holtman was the primary point of contact for developers that distributed games on Steam – and, to many in the gaming world, was the service’s driving force. While he certainly wasn’t the sole reason for its success, he was its biggest cheerleader and an even bigger proponent of digital distribution.

As a result, his move to Microsoft has raised many questions about the Redmond-based company’s plans in the PC gaming space.

With the Xbox One launch looming, Microsoft has greatly de-emphasized PC gaming of late. Some developer sources tell GamesIndustry International they were under the impression the company had largely given up on the Games for Windows initiative.

Holtman’s hiring could signal a renewed emphasis on the computer, though.

“It seems like a guy who comes from Valve who has no peer, in my mind, in the gaming space relative to really strong B-to-C [business to consumer] relations could indicate a ramp up in the importance of that space,” says John Taylor, managing director at Arcadia Investment Corp.

A skilled dealmaker, Holtman is largely credited with convincing third party publishers such as EA, Activision and more to sell their games directly on Steam – as well as recruiting many smaller companies who might otherwise have vanished by now.

He’s also credited with steering Steam through the DRM controversies it encountered and calming publisher fears that the annual Steam Summer and holiday sales would devalue their intellectual properties.

The respect he has earned in leading digital distribution could be invaluable to Microsoft, which has not had a lot of success in that world. Though available in 41 countries, the Games for Windows Live service is currently not viewed as a strong player in the PC gaming world.

It’s not just his relationship with publishers and developers that’s valuable, though. Holtman also knows how to connect with customers – something Microsoft has been lacking so far in its digital distribution efforts.

Of course, Holtman’s duties could expand beyond just PC gaming as well. Digital distribution is expected to be a major component of the eighth generation of consoles. And while his experience so far has been on the PC side, Microsoft may be looking for Holtman to drive adoption and consumer loyalty of online purchases on the Xbox One in the years to come.

“[Business to consumer] is not just having someone’s credit card number,” says Taylor. “It’s how you use that handshake to maximize satisfaction for the vendor and maximize satisfaction for the customers. This kind of direct relationship is the next stage in the evolution of the games business. Valve is already there on the PC side and I think Microsoft would be very happy to have some sort of Valve template to lay on top of the Xbox.”