February 5th, 2010

This is Counter-Strike before Steam.Microsoft has announced that Xbox Live for the original Xbox is being discontinued so they can continue to evolve Xbox Live on Xbox 360 and future consoles. From what I’ve surmised, they used their old tech to make their new tech, but they can’t do what they want to their new tech without breaking their old tech — so they’re throwing it out. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s lack of foresight comes at the expense of their customers. While considering what this means for players and for the industry, I’m reminded of why I don’t like closed systems, and also of Valve and Counter-Strike’s transition to Steam.

Prior to Steam, Counter-Strike (CS) players were connected by a service called WON (World Opponent Network). WON was developed and owned by Sierra (Valve’s original publisher) until Valve purchased it in 2001. Steam entered beta in January 2003; in September, Valve released CS version 1.6, the first version to connect players using Steam rather than WON. In July 2004, as Steam’s beta period was ending, WON was discontinued. But CS 1.5 still had a large player base, much of which was apprehensive of Steam. Although most players accepted the change and updated to version 1.6, many remained dissatisfied and instead supported WON2, a community-developed successor to WON which made playing CS 1.5 possible again.

I sympathize with those CS 1.5 players who refused to accept change; Steam had earned a reputation for being buggy, ugly, and for being a drain on system resources. These sentiments were so strong that their echoes can still be heard in backwater message boards today. But Valve, like Microsoft, believed in their service; they forced upon their customers a necessary change — they insisted on progress. That’s to be commended. Unlike Microsoft, however, Valve brought about change without forcing players to buy a new system or to buy a new game.

I also sympathize with those Xbox Live players who don’t get to continue playing Halo 2, a game for which anyone playing today (in addition to service fees) would have bought several map packs. They — just as the 40,000+ people playing CS 1.6 instead of CS: Source as I write — still play Halo 2 either because they love it, or because they can’t afford a new system that runs the newer games.

Closed multiplayer systems are why I and so many other PC gamers are apprehensive when we hear StarCraft 2 won’t have LAN or Direct IP support, or that Modern Warfare 2 won’t support dedicated servers. Whether we have the resolve to not buy these games is irrelevant: our apprehension is valid. These games — despite our service payments, our buying DLC, and our loyalty — can and will be taken from us, and they won’t all have a “WON2.”

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