Last year, I wrote a blog post envisioning a future where game purchases on different platforms could be hardware-agnostic and sync your save files, friends, and achievements across all your devices. A recent interview with Gabe Newell of Valve made me start thinking about this again, and prompted me to write the following email to Gabe. There's a short version at the end if you're lazy.

Gabe,

I was just listening to the Nerdist Podcast you recorded with Chris Hardwick, Wil Wheaton, and others and something you said caught my attention. You discussed how the separation between gaming on a computer and in the living room was a very artificial one, and how Valve is trying to break that down with Steam Big Picture and the Steam Box. This is a topic I've thought a bit about in the past, and would love to see come to fruition. But then someone asked you specifically about how you see the separation of mobile platforms, like tablets and smartphones, and while you didn't have a lot to say, it seemed clear that you had some distaste for the way that current stakeholders in the mobile industry (namely Apple) choose to lock down their platforms.

I'm a big fan of Apple, but I'm also a big fan of Valve, and more than anything I'm a big fan of the idea of a ubiquitous gaming experience across my devices. I've paid a lot of close attention to Apple's politics, especialy surrounding it's App Store policies, and I think that I have an idea that would be capable of implementing what you and I are both envisioning, while still working within the rules and regulations that a company like Apple enforces for its platform.

You mentioned using Dropbox on your iPad. It's likely that you've also used third-party iOS apps that rely on the Dropbox API. It's simple for developers to integrate into their apps, and with only a few button presses, you can give any app permission to access some or all of your Dropbox directory, giving you a seamless, cloud-synced way to access files across any app on any platform. Other people have written about the convenience of having the Dropbox API built into iOS apps, and I think Valve could provide a similar service tailored specifically for games.

If Valve were to create a Steamworks API for iOS and Android, it could provide a lot of different functionality, including:

  • Syncing game progress/save files
  • Having a ubiquitous friend network
  • Tracking achievements and unlocks

Here's a workflow I can envision. A user buys World of Goo on Steam for their PC (or Steam Box in their living room). They beat a few levels, but then have to leave the house. While they're out, they open the Steam Mobile app and see that World of Goo is also available on iOS. They click through to the iOS App Store and download the game. An option on the main screen prompts them to sign in to their Steam account. Tapping on it jumps the user out of World of Goo into the Steam Mobile app, which asks them "Would you like to connect World of Goo to your Steam account?" (or, alternatively, sees that the user already has World of Goo for PC on their account and automatically approves the request). Then the app jumps back to the game and the player's progress, achievements, and friend statuses are all available as if they were using Steam on their PC.

That functionality alone would make for a very compelling service, and something I imagine you would love to offer to your users. The idea of playing a game on my PC, and then picking up right were I left off on my iPad is huge. But the even more potentially exciting feature is monetarily driven:

  • Make a game available on all platforms without having to pay more than once
  • Unlock downloadable content without having to pay more than once

Now in the scenario above, the user had to buy World of Goo twice: once from Steam and once from the iTunes App Store. A game purchased first on iOS could be unlocked for free on Steam. Obviously this isn't ideal for Valve, but users are already able to do this through the Humble Bundle store, so maybe it would be fine. But can we unlock a game for free on iOS when it's already been purchased on Steam?

If a developer is willing to work within the "freemium" business model on iOS, we just might be able to. For instance, Telltale's The Walking Dead is free to download on iOS, but requires an in-app purchase to unlock episodes 2-5. If the Steamworks API was integrated, the iOS app could see that the player has already purchased the full game on Steam, and the game's full content would be unlocked for free.

However, this runs into a bit of a gray area with regards to Apple's App Store guidelines. Rule 11.1 states:

Apps that unlock or enable additional features or functionality with mechanisms other than the App Store will be rejected

This implies that such a system would not be allowed. But Rule 11.14 paints a slightly different picture:

Apps can read or play approved content (specifically magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video and cloud storage) that is subscribed to or purchased outside of the app, as long as there is no button or external link in the App to purchase the approved content. Apple will only receive a portion of revenues for content purchased inside the App.

Under the very literal interpretation of this rule, game content would be governed specifically by Rule 11.1, but Apple has always described their app review guidelines as fluid, and with a partner such as Valve I suspect they'd be willing to add game content to the list of specifically approved unlockable content under Rule 11.14. Even if players were still required to purchase a game multiple times on multiple platforms, the ability to seamlessly switch between those platforms and have a single, continuous gameplay experience makes for a very exciting prospect.

Here's the short version: I think Valve appreciates, more than any other company I know of, the idea of a single gaming experience not bound by hardware or platform. Providing a Steamworks API for mobile devices (similar to how the Dropbox API works) would be a great way for Valve to bring that dream closer to reality. Purchasing a game once and having it available on all platforms is the ideal goal, and although it may not be possible with Apple's restrictions, you could at least provide the option of a continuous experience for those gamers who are willing to pay for a game multiple times.

Providing this experience would be a huge boon to gamers who want to switch seamlessly between platforms without having to change their whole gaming experience. I would really appreciate your consideration, and if it's not too much to ask, your feedback on this idea.

From an idealist fan,

Connor

Posted
AuthorConnor Graham