Steam comes to OS X: a bit bumpy, but welcome nevertheless

14 May 2010
3:35 am

As you may have heard, yesterday Valve (mostly) met one of their rare scheduled dates and released the OS X version of their popular digital distribution client, Steam. Originally released in 2003 as a DRM wrapper for their own games, it evolved over the years into an incredibly popular platform for game downloads– in most ways essentially paving the road for the predominantly disc-less world we have today.

While the move to OS X is certainly a welcome one, as it gives access to a subset of computer users often left out when it comes to games, Steam's arrival hasn't been completely graceful. Although not tagged as such it should be presumed that this is very much a beta; although the "actual" beta ended with its release yesterday, there's a lot of elementary UI issues that frankly shouldn't have escaped the front door– biggest of these at least as far as I'm concerned (I can deal with the hot area of buttons not being properly aligned or it ignoring Spaces placement) is that OS X Steam stores all its files– from app data to the actual downloaded games– inside the user's Documents folder. On Windows this stuff is properly contained within C:\Program Files, but for some maddening reason Steam on OS X chooses to incorrectly put gigs of data within the Documents directory. As someone who uses Dropbox to sync my documents across my plethora of computers, I've had to resort to shutting Dropbox off whenever I'm playing a game else it attempts to upload Portal up to the cloud. It's frustrating enough that some people have decided to trash the program entirely.

Their servers have also been under tremendous strain, with product activations for games like Galcon Fusion simply not happening. Other cross-platform developers have learned the difficulty with such proliferation: though Diablo-style indie hack-and-slash Torchlight utilises the "Steam Cloud" service that allows saved games and configuration files to be uploaded and sync'd across multiple computers belonging to the user, apparently their saved games aren't actually cross-compatible between Windows and OS X. Another big feature with the launch of OS X Steam has been "SteamPlay," a feature that for enabled games means if you purchase the title and it has both a Windows and Mac version, you won't have to buy it a second time. A number of games had this enabled retroactively, like Braid and the entire Valve catalog, but other publishers have elected to not turn it on for customers who purchased their games prior to the 12th of May. Civilization 4 is one such game that supports SteamPlay, but only if you buy the game going forward. Considering just last week the entire collection was available for only $10.00 on Steam through a special sale, this is pretty frustrating; moreso due to the fact that because of a system bug, you can't purchase the game a second time even if you want to. (Behold the power of internet bitching! Civ4's publisher blessedly elected to make the game available retroactively to customers who purchased it previously.)

SteamPlay struck me as one of those things awesome for customers in theory which I doubted a lot of publishers would adopt– especially if they didn't already have a Mac port of their game available before yesterday, there's a lot of work involved in porting a title to another operating system and there's not much incentive to do so if the developer won't be getting paid for it. Still, I had hoped that whatever games launched as SteamPlay-compatible yesterday would enable it retroactively, and it was annoying to see a number of my Windows games will require me making a second purchase if I want them also on OS X. This isn't anything up to Valve to control, as it's a publisher/developer decision, but it's one of those things that would have really been nice to have.

In the end a lot of these blips are down to the service only being available for a day. I expect over the coming months that the UI issues will be ironed out (and hopefully the whole ~/Documents thing will be fixed expediently), but the biggest question will be whether or not this experiment pans out into legitimacy or falls off into obscurity. There's already been a few digital distribution sites dedicated to Mac games, though predominantly their catalogs tend towards the casual, hidden object and time-waster varieties. If enough developers take Valve seriously on this and treat OS X as a platform worth developing games for, things can improve pretty significantly. It's clear that Apple themselves don't consider OS X worth devoting energy towards in terms of gaming, but Valve certainly has the clout and industry connections to elevate it if they want to.

3 Responses to \'Steam comes to OS X: a bit bumpy, but welcome nevertheless\'

    Regarding Dropbox, you can tell it to sniff for a different folder, or to create another folder within your Home registry to monitor. I personally prefer this latter method, as the contents of my documents folder are highly unorganized and span projects even older than this computer. I use my Dropbox folder to save information I will likely need to access from anywhere in the short term (eg, projects for the present semester, files I like to share) and then move those things elsewhere as my imminent need for them decreases.

    Yeah, you can use symlinks. However as far as my setup goes this doesn't help anything, because I sync the entire Documents folder with Dropbox, and any symlinks I put inside it pointing someplace else would still be sync'd, since Dropbox follows them.

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