Recently, Valve took a page from stores that release free e-books, such as Baen or Amazon: it released a complete game, and all necessary development materials for the game, entirely free through its Steam digital distribution system.
Alien Swarm, from the development team hired to work on Left 4 Dead and Portal 2, does for the Ridley Scott/James Cameron bug-hunt genre what Left 4 Dead did for George Romero and zombies. Players take on the role of one of four space marines investigating a colony overrun with slimy alien creatures.
It is a complete, if short game—not a demo, and not a “freemium” game (like Dungeons and Dragons Online, which I mentioned in April) where you get the basic game for free but can buy cool weapons and powers for cash. It was programmed by the development team in its spare time (it’s an adaptation of an earlier Unreal mod by the same name), but the amount of polish is impressive and shows no signs of its hobbyist origins.
What does Valve get out of this? Unlike with Baen’s free e-books, there’s no “give the digital version away for free to sell a print copy” in this giveaway. There is no “print copy” of Alien Swarm, and even if they did sell it on a disc in a box it would just end up being installed through Steam anyway. And it is unlikely they will be selling later games in the series—even if they did, since they gave away the development tools, too, there is going to be enough free content generated that nobody would ever need to buy them.
But it does tend to resemble the free e-books that Amazon and Barnes & Noble give away for their Kindle and Nook readers. Just as you have to install the Kindle Reader to read a Kindle e-book, it’s necessary to install the Steam content delivery system in order to play Alien Swarm—and once Steam is installed it becomes very easy for a gamer to see something he wants, click, and buy it.
Perhaps this kind of “platform stickiness” will replace the give-it-to-sell-it model when e-books take enough marketshare away from printed books. Or perhaps there will just be fewer freebies.
Either way, Alien Swarm is fun, free, and a great excuse to install Steam. (And if any TeleRead readers should want to team up, my handle on the Steam IM network is Robotech_Master.)
I believe there are three things Valve gets out of Alien Swarm.
Because it is open source and heavily integrated into the Steam service, with Steam Cloud, it is a demonstration for third party game makers of how to integrate into the Steam platform. The more third party makers use Steam only features, the bigger a stranglehold Valve gets on the Digital Download market, which, according to NDP, is almost 50% of PC game sales.
Valve also license the Source engine to third parties, and this is an open source demo of what developing on the source engine is like.
Also, all the mod tools that were released helps attract mod makers to Valve’s platform, which helps by getting them comfortable with the tools, which may motivate them to make mods for other Source games, and if they become professional game makers themselves they are already Source evangelists. Sort of the same reason why Microsoft gives their high-priced development tools to students for free via Dreamspark.
@Johan is right, plus one more:
It exposes more customers to the platform.
In the connected world, the online platform itself is a product that can benefit from promotion, adds value to content and draws in customers to the ecosystem.
The comparison to Baen is appropriate as the Free Library was for many a PDA user an introduction to ebooks. Regular buyers of Steam-hosted games are familiar with and happy with the service; a free game can bring in others who aren’t familiar with the platform but can try it risk-free. If they like what they find, they’ll be buying *other* steam-hosted games.
Amazon achieves similar benefits via their free Kindle Reader apps and the free ebooks; if you have supported hardware you can get a real good idea of what Whispernet is all about without spending any money.
Its a good promotional practice for an emerging business.