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The sickening side of the Steam summer sale

Hey, check out that gift horse's mouth...

It's Christmas Day, about half past four in the morning, and I feel betrayed by chocolate. It's my own fault, obviously - a stocking full of Smarties and cheap coins in now-scattered golden foil, some biscuits Santa had turned down, a bit of cake to help pass the time between pretending to go to sleep and everyone else getting up, all stirred and churned and now not tasting anything like as good. It's an explosion; a floor-splattering chunderpocalypse, the kind that leaves but one happy thought in the mind - that one day, all things die. And for some reason, this is not treated as a reason for sympathy. Not even a little bit. Just a pointed, bleary-eyed reminder that when people say you can have too much of a good thing, this... exactly this... is what they're thinking of.

Don't know why I suddenly thought of that. Anyhoo, what was I due to talk about today? Ah, yes, Steam sales. By Grabthar's hammer, what a savings! At the time of writing, Dishonored for £2.50, Dark Souls for a fiver, Batman: Arkham Origins for only a little more! I'm sure this weekend's will be even better, if only because it wouldn't be a Steam sale if everything you bought didn't ultimately end up in a 99.9999999% off flash sale so that Gabe can drink of the delicious tears of frustration. Those Half-Life 3 cocktails have been so watered down lately.

Ignoring that though, there's no arguing that these sales are a great thing - if not more game per pound than ever before, then certainly more good games than those old Spectrum cassettes in WH Smith or their successors, the cheaply produced compilation discs with names like 1001 Games We Pulled Out Of Our Arses. Really, to start picking holes in it all, you'd have to be the most whining, cynical, ungrateful jerk on the planet. Luckily, that's what it says on my business card, so lets! Starting with that whole 'too much of a good thing' part, because while having too many new games at once may not make you sick, it can certainly lead to a deep sense of queasy emptiness when you realise you've just bombed through a whole year's greatest hits, worlds of beauty and imagination and depth and secrets carefully designed by the finest pixel artisans in the world, and barely remember any of them. Assassin's Creed is the one with the chick who picks locks, right?

In case you don't know what Valve is, it's a company that used to make games.

It almost feels like the ideal Steam sale would be one that lets you queue up a few games rather than simply activating them immediately - the chance to create your own bespoke release schedule where you pay now, while the games are cheap, but still get a bit of distance. This week you get BioShock Infinite, next week you know you're getting Saints Row 4, then cleanse your palette with Goat Simulator and then next month you will have quit your job/have a whole summer holiday ahead for Civilisation 5.

There are, I'm sure, people who are able to play just one at a time, but for most of us this is the easiest way to sap each individual game of much of its flavour. Like eating a whole box of Quality Street at once, they all mulch together into one gooey mess. The slightest moment of irritation is a reason to jump ship to another game, finishing becomes about feeling able to move on instead of soaking in all of the goodness each has to offer, and even in the best times, the games not being played still cast their tantalising shadow over proceedings. "Play me insteaaaaaadd," they whisper. "We will give you trading caaaaaaaards and for some completely inexplicable reason you're statistically likely to caaaaaaare."

While morally not even remotely on the same level, it's hard not to think of ROMs and piracy here; that when most people have access to the entire world's supply of anything, the natural instinct tends to be hoarding rather than enjoying, filling up hard drives and FTP servers and whatever else, and with the thing itself more a way of keeping score.

14p doesn't sound a lot, until you remember that it's a picture of some clip-art and Valve's had a cut of the sales of over 40,000 of them.

Coincidentally or not, it's notable that this year Valve has made great strides in making the actual sales feel like just background radiation to the growing Steam meta-game - not least the "Summer Adventure", in which the world is invited to give Valve a big sack of cash through both acquiring games to trade and finally selling all those worthless cards that have built up in exchange for maybe, possibly winning some free games. You don't have to pay to play, of course, but on a global level, and even including Reddit-related interference, you just know that Valve is raking it in - pushing, "Craft badges to earn in-game items, community and team rewards," and then only just remembering to add the "win games" bit. Heck, simply voting for games has been openly turned into a faction war that's spilled out onto services like Twitter, setting up battles between the AAA and indie communities, the sci-fi players vs the story players and more, where actual savings get shoved into the corner as a trivial detail.

At what point can we officially call this out as being more about the joy of picking up cheap games than the games themselves? I'm not sure, but I suspect Valve zoomed past it in a rocket ship quite some time ago, and if we can still see it, it's only because it's doing a victory lap.

But of course, the sale is only part of the story. When it fades, what's left? A long list of games with metaphorical bite marks that you tell yourself you'll totally go back to, but which inevitably slide down the priorities list by dint of being so last month. Dim, blurred memories. And a Steam list that, through impulse and bundled deals, is perpetually tattooed with those regrets. There's no little "because it was cheap" flag next to your copy of Duke Nukem Forever, and never again will you be able to scroll down the list without being reminded of impulse purchases.

What price disappointment? Whatever, it's probably 50% off at the moment!

Maybe that will be Valve's next trick - to not merely persuade people to hand over money for hats, but to persuade people to pay to remove games from their Steam libraries. The worst thing is that I'd probably consider paying a quid to get rid of the skunk smell of games like Tunnel Rats and Rogue Warrior, to never again have to relive the disappointment of playing APB while flicking through my virtual library, and to pretend, like its creators thankfully seem to be doing, that Hitman Absolution never happened. I also seem to have copies of Super Granny 3 and 4, which I'm never, ever going to load up. It would just feel wrong, jumping in midway through the series, so ignorant of the Super Granny lore. God, looking through my list, I've got a copy of Star Trek: D-A-C. I'd pay a fiver to kill that one dead, especially if doing so would give me a "Righteous Vengeance" hat in Team Fortress 2. And I don't even play Team Fortress 2 any more or care even a tiny bit about what any FPS character wears! Damn you, Valve! Damn your wiles and infectious ways!

I am of course saying all this with tongue firmly in cheek. Not the bit about Star Trek: D-A-C. Seriously, screw that game, and Origin, if you're listening, the same goes for that Syndicate reboot. But the rest, obviously. As easy as it is to misuse the Steam sale and end up with a bloated library that will never get its due, that's clearly not Valve's fault, whereas it is a great testament to the company's skills that it can so regularly unite the PC gaming world in the kind of excitement that usually gets people trampled underfoot when companies pull it off in reality.

As silly as the meta-gaming side of things can be, like the hat economy and the cosmetic market that allows Dota 2 to be free, it wouldn't work if millions weren't into it, and through their obsession, we all benefit. Nobody does any of this stuff better than Valve, to the point that in the last big sale, I remember reading Twitter and actually feeling a little disappointed that being an arrogant journalistic jerk person who gets most of his games for free anyway, I couldn't really share in the excitement sweeping my follower list as everyone waited with fingers poised to snag the next flash deal, hoping and praying for whatever had caught their eye to finally be cheap enough.

Turns out more people would totally vote if we called it a 'Democratic Adventure' and there was a chance of getting the new Tomb Raider out of it.

It was a genuine and bizarre emotion - a very short-lived one, obviously, in like, picoseconds - that I can't imagine any other company out there ever managing to inspire. (The closest I can think of is when did one of its limited inventory sales that suddenly got stopped dead in its tracks when it turned out that even people willing to buy absolutely anything with a money-off promise still drew the line at Jack Keane 2. Not without cause, but still, ouch.)

That said, if you do partake, please, game sensibly. Steam may or may not last forever, but I promise it will last long enough for you to take your time and finish anything you might buy, and no game purchased now is going to feel like a trip back to the Atari 5600 any time soon. If it was great last year, it will be great next year. No need to rush things, with the possible exception of getting things done before Christmas, when Valve's next sale will probably just cut out the middle man, buy lots of stuff on your behalf, and bill your credit card as simply, "You're welcome."

And we'll love them for it, because even when Valve frustrates, even when it does something silly, maybe not if your Steam account gets hacked or VAC banned, but in most other situations, including the ones that would seem more cynical than even most of this column if another company did it, it's hard not to be caught up in Valve's excitement and commitment to making the PC gaming world that little bit more interesting for us all.

Now if only it would put some of it towards making some bloody games again.

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