Sunday, May 18, 2014

Steam: A Neuralgic Chokepoint



I think most gamers would agree that Gabe Newell's Steam has been a boon to PC gaming.  In just a few short years, this digital distribution service has managed to become the Walmart of PC gaming - an incredible bazaar of often discounted digital entertainment options for the gaming enthusiast.  But it is also more than just an elaborate store as Steam has also become a beloved home for gamers, a mega-community where gamers can not only chew the fat, but also a place where aspiring game designers can get their prototypes "green-lit" by the community, potentially providing an invaluable boost to a fledgling title that might otherwise languish in obscurity.  With this in mind is it any wonder that Mr. Newell has become something of a rock star in our gaming subculture?


Nonetheless, despite all the good will Steam has garnered over the years, I still come across a vocal minority that simply distrusts any service that requires the gamer to be at the mercy of a digital distributor.  "Why can't I just have a physical DVD?" some of these gamers ask.  "What if something happens to Steam?  Will I be cut off from my games?"  This is not an inconsiderate question, especially in the wake of the chaos caused by the shutdown of the GameSpy gaming service.

In fact, it is an issue I am dealing with right now, along with lots of other Steam users.


Simply, something has broken Steam these last three days when it comes to certain online games.  Didn't hear anything about this?  Yeah, unless you are affected by this issue, you probably haven't because the mainstream gaming press is proving to be as lazy these days as their mainstream news counterparts often are with general news.  But the problem is real.  People are suffering inexplicable sound loops and sudden crashes of the Steam client when playing such internationally popular games as CounterStrike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, Defense of the Ancients 2, Red Orchestra 2, Black Ops 2, Arma III, and some other titles.  I personally cannot play CSGO or Red Orchestra 2 without a crash every 20 minutes.  In effect, I am now cut off from a large swath of titles in my Steam library.

Just what is causing this problem is unknown.  The Steam boards are, naturally, full of speculation, with the main suspects being: the latest set of updates that Valve released for CSGO, TF2, and DOTA 2, the recent Windows 8.1 Update 1 patch, and even the recently updated nVidia Experience update.  A bunch of possible solutions have also been proposed, but their effectiveness varies from person to person (none have worked for me).  Unfortunately, there has yet to be any official word from Valve, so gamers are left in the dark.

Needless to say, this is not a good situation - gamers don't take kindly to being cut off from their favorite games, especially when many have invested not an inconsiderate amount of money into those games.  But there is little we can do but hope that someone, somewhere, sorts this out before too long.

This experience does vindicate the gaming Luddites who remain suspicious of virtual gaming goods.  Steam, for its remarkable track record of reliability, has now succumb to a technical glitch that may, or may not, be of their making, but certainly one that may cause more than a few gamers to think twice before forking over more cash for products that don't truly exist in a physical sense.

Interestingly, I just happened to read something about this very issue.  In John Horvat II's thought-provoking book Return to Order, he describes the inherent fragility of a modern technological society dependent upon "neuralgic chokepoints".  What is a neuralgic chokepoint?  It is something found "everywhere in our interconnected world":

"They can be physical places like the Straits of Hormuz, the Panama Canal, or international airports.  Our communications, Internet, and electrical grid networks are all neuralgic chokepoints.  The control of markets or commodities such as oil, gas, minerals, or credit are all fragile points of risk.  Even certain practices such as just-in-time inventory production or high-frequency stock trading can easily throw systems out of balance and put all society at risk."

 Mr. Horvat goes on to explain that:

"These immense networks are fragile because we have made them so necessary and complex.  Everyone is totally dependent upon them.  Things have become so intertwined, operate so tightly coupled, and move so quickly that there is little margin for error.  The slightest maladjustment, natural disaster, human error, or socialist regulation can have dire effects upon the whole."

This certainly seems to apply to the complex nature of gaming these days where the gamer is dependent upon not just one or two programmers working out of their garage (as it was in the early days of PC game design), but countless individuals spread across the OS developer, the game developer, the game publisher, the hardware driver developers, and even the game distributors.

But can't the risk be minimized?  Mr. Horvat quotes Richard Stivers:

"No mathematical mode is sufficient to get all the variables.  Many of the most important can't be quantified.  Furthermore, use of systems analysis (as with information systems) actually militates against the flexibility required to deal with that which is unexpected."  - Shades of Loneliness:  Pathologies of a Technological Society  
 
Reassured yet?  LOL!

Mr. Horvat concludes:

Thus, as the present crisis deepens, we face the prospect of our own systems turning against us.  By yielding to frenetic intemperance, we unleash what Bookstaber calls in the title of his book a 'demon of our own design.'"

This certainly seems to be the case with modern gaming.  If it isn't Microsoft releasing a bad update, it is a DDOS attack by hackers, or even an unexpected software bug that brings an entire gaming community down.  Has gaming become too complex for its own good, just like the rest of society?  Has the desire of gamers to have their games NOW!, and on the cheap, made us drive the very hobby we love into an untenable realm of vulnerability?

If my recent Steam problems are any indication, perhaps yes.  One thing is for sure: I never had to deal with these problems when I played boardgames!

2 comments:

  1. I was actually one of those who preferred the physical disc and hated the thought of only having a digital version of a game.

    The idea that I don't actually own the digital copy of a game that I purchased does bother me. Not being able to play a game I like because a service has gone down or the game is just too old to be supported I think sucks seeing as I did pay for it.

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  2. I am now of a mixed mind. :) For the most part, I liked the transition from physical media for two reasons: 1) I don't have to schlep to a store / wait for it to be me mailed to me before I can play the game, and 2) I don't have to store a bunch of useless boxes! So, when I first tried DLing a game - trivia: my first downloaded game was Sins of a Solar Empire from Impulse - I loved it right away. It was so convenient! And it still is. Not having to manually patch games is also a big plus for me.

    However, now I am starting to see the potential weaknesses in the system. As Mr. Horvat points out, these DD services are neuralgic chokepoints; if something goes wrong with the service - as just happened with Steam - you are completely at the mercy of the service provider to make things right. That is a tremendous vulnerability when you stop and think about it.

    Eh, the way this industry keeps reinventing itself, I wouldn't be surprised to see physical media make a return one day, especially seeing how there is a strong retro impulse in gaming these days.

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