Let me start off by saying that this isn’t going to be a hit piece. I don’t hate Steam, or at least not like I used to; the offline mode was a mess and would stop working every other month back when I first started using it, but it’s been solid for quite a few years now and I’ve discovered fun tools like Smart Steam Emu that help with preservation to the point where Steam’s DRM—which not all games even use—is practically a non-issue. For me, at least. That’s not to say that I don’t have any complaints about it, but this isn’t really about Steam itself so much as the seeming myth about the store and its DRM. It’s a claim that you’ll sometimes see pop up out of nowhere with no attribution or proof whatsoever in the middle of Steam-is-DRM arguments: “if Steam goes out of business, they’ll patch the DRM out of all of the games!”
Taking canned responses as fact
One of the more recent (relatively speaking, at least) things people could point to as proof that Steam has gamer-friendly plans in case they go out of business would be the replies some people have received from their support staff. Here are two links providing pictures of support answers that state that “measures are in place”:
Case closed, right? Yeah. Not so much. Despite being three years apart, the responses to both are identical (save for the names, obviously). It’s a generic response, not to mention an insufferably vague one devoid of any meaningful details. This is convenient if you’re a big company looking to reassure a group of people who trust you enough to take such things at face value—lest we forget, Steam was long considered the industry good guys who could do no wrong—but it’s worth pointing out that the myth had already been well-established by this point. As a result, the response feeds into the myth while remaining vague enough to not actually confirm it. Basically, it reads like a “yeah yeah yeah, we don’t know so go away” support response designed to not rock the boat.
The actual origin point
I had the intention of digging through the old Steam forums to find as much evidence as possible. Turns out that they were shut down a couple months ago, which made finding things incredibly aggravating since the Wayback Machine isn’t exactly designed for searching for specific things. Nevertheless, I eventually came across a post featuring a quote that I hadn’t yet seen:
That quoted Steam boss Gabe Newell on the subject and linked to another post:
This one actually linked to the original post, but it turned out to be a dead end: the thread was deleted at some point in the past (apparently well before the post in 2010), and the Wayback Machine doesn’t have a backup from before that time. I googled the link instead and found a French gaming news site with a comment on it from 2006 referencing it and summing up the contents, though, which corroborates the quote provided in the accessible post above. That quote from Gabe Newell that’s probably legit unless there’s a decade-long worldwide conspiracy afoot:
“If you right click on a game in Steam, you’ll see that you can back up the files yourself. Unless there was some situation I don’t understand, we would presumably disable authentication before any event that would preclude the authentication servers from being available. We’ve tested disabling authentication and it works.”
This can’t be trusted
Gabe Newell circa 2006 had a lot of plans. One of those plans was to release Half Life 2’s episodic followups 6 months apart from each other. Here we are a decade later, with talk about the end of the series’ story—whether in the form of HL2: Episode 3 or simply Half Life 3—dried up. The game has become a punch line, a meme on the internet. Even putting the potential parallels here aside, disabling authentication would presumably open up things like offline backup restores (right now you need to be in online mode to restore them, which is incredibly dumb). How many people do you suppose have Steam backups, though? Typically, that kind of user is the one looking ahead enough to hunt down cracks or use something like Smart Steam Emu to preserve their games without the need to rely on a company’s generosity in the first place, so realistically speaking, there’s very little incentive for Steam to do something like this unless they also provide advance notice and allow people to download/backup their games—something that’s it’s worth pointing out isn’t a given in a tumultuous time like a company going under.
It’s always important to remind people that companies aren’t our friends. They can project that kind of thing (CD Projekt), but their goal isn’t to accommodate their base beyond what it takes to garner goodwill and inspire the kind of fanatical loyalty that makes it rain cash. If a company goes out of business and there’s no financial incentive to help out their former customers, they won’t. Period. That’s not even getting into the potential legal ramifications. I mean, do you really think every publisher who releases a game on Steam gives them permission to change/remove the DRM on their product? This is something many of them consider illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. These are the same people who refuse to release new games on GOG in part out of sheer terror of DRM-free. Namco-Bandai even took CD Projekt RED to court for removing the DRM on The Witcher 2, and this would be similar to that, only on a massive scale. It would be lawsuit city for Steam.
The most likely scenario
Here’s an archive of Steam in 2007. Their catalog at that time consisted of 111 games. In 2006 when Gabe made the comments about removing DRM, there were undoubtedly even fewer. I picture him making his comment about disabling authentication while unaware of how fanatical publishers are about protecting their games and at a time where the number of games he had to consider the futures of was much less than now (which is apparently something like 14-15 thousand). As the realities of his earlier statement began to set in, he avoided the topic and support was instructed to respond with equivocations that never contradicted his earlier statement. Compare it to statements about Half Life 2: Episode 3 over the years; there are never any denials, but as things become hazier and less definitive, the reality that it’s not a priority or concern for the company becomes apparent.
So what happens if/when Steam goes down?
Like that archived post from 2009 says, “nobody knows, not even [Steam creator] Valve.” Maybe they’ll wash their hands of the whole thing and leave everyone high and dry. Maybe they’ll give advance warning and everyone will be given a window of time to download their games, but DRM is left intact (this is the one I’m betting on). Maybe they’ll randomly crave some of that goodwill of years past and blindly charge headlong into countless legal battles by actually removing the DRM in the thousands and thousands of games sold in their store without publisher approval.
Lesson being, back up your games
Seriously. Some Steam games don’t use DRM of any kind and can be easily saved. Others can be backed up using something like Smart Steam Emu. Some you may need to download on sites of ill repute to actually have functioning backups of. It sucks, but if there’s one underlying truth about gaming everyone needs to take to heart, it’s that no one but you (well, and phishers) truly cares about your games.