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Steam-powered libraries, anyone?

Valve has a major opportunity to make money, grow the gaming market and help games get more of the respect they deserve – by partnering with public libraries and making it easier for gamers to play. Win-win-win!

Who else wants to Steam-power their local library?

Libraries around the world have been gamer-friendly for longer than you might think, and are becoming more so all the time. But DRM and licensing issues are getting in the way of them being able to share electronic games (especially PC games, whose DRM is increasingly geared around locking software to users non-transferably).

This is a major loss to the games industry. Libraries have a long history of supporting a more diverse book market – and, in the big picture and the long term, fostering a bigger book market and a more discerning readership as well. (See especially the fourth para of that link. Library users are more likely to buy books as gifts for others, very likely to read widely and think intelligently about books, and quite likely to want to own the books they love – even if they’ve read them. Trust me: I’ve worked in libraries and bookselling, and heavy library users are also often heavy book buyers.) Why wouldn’t we want that for our artform?

Think about it: as a developer, how much more exposure could your game be given to people who might never plonk down the $60 (or considerably more, here in Australia) needed to buy a premium title – or who might be hesitant about buying something other than a AAA title from one of the big names, because they don’t feel knowledgeable enough to experiment? How much more opportunity will there be for word-of-mouth if games are available at the library as well as for sale? How much better will the industry fare – both financially and qualitatively – if libraries are to games what they are to books?

As a lover of games: how awesome would it be if your local public library enabled you to try out that indie game you’ve been curious about? How amazing would it be to run book-club-style games clubs, where games are not only played but discussed intelligently with other game-lovers, with the library easily able to ensure that everyone could access a copy? And how much weaker will any claims that games are not a legitimate and credible artform be if that artform is stocked in libraries?

And finally: how much more opportunity will there be for genuinely creative, intelligent, affecting games to succeed in an environment where community institutions like libraries are fostering discussion and play?

So, assuming I've made the point about how great the idea of lending PC games from libraries is, how realistic is it?

Actually, libraries are increasingly offering their users access to electronic resources along models very similar to Steam. Users download a client from, and create an account on, a third-party service which confers access to an e-book, or e-audio book, or MP3-format music. The subscription for the service is paid by the library.

The models vary hugely. Some mimic hard copy loans, and allow only one user to have a time-limited DRMed copy of a book at a time, with the software client actually deleting the borrowed item when the loan expires. Some more recent music services actually see users getting the content free and clear permanently, but in much more limited quantities compared to what they can “borrow”. Some services offer access to their entire catalogue, others require the library to select and pay for a subset of the service's content. The one thing they all have in common is that they authenticate a user's account on their proprietary service against a library account, and the user is then granted some sort of limited (usually time-limited) access to electronic resources.

So you can see my thinking. Steam can successfully manage multiple users’ access to games across multiple PCs, and can time-limit access to games as well. They already offer a “tournament license” service (multiple licenses for a fixed period) which could easily be expanded to support the games club idea above. About the only required functionality that Steam doesn’t have right now is the ability to match up a user’s Steam account against a library account and give them access to content accordingly – and libraries obviously already have protocols that can do this.

I’ve already floated the idea informally to Leslie Redd, who’s an Education Officer at Valve and is doing some amazing work with games in schools, but I’m now floating it to all of you to gauge how much interest there is. If you were to publish a game, and it were your decision, would you be willing to license it for library use? And under what terms? Please leave a comment below to tell me what you think – and/or, if you prefer, email me at euchronic (that's at I’ll collate everyone’s responses and pass them onto Valve and to relevant library groups.

And, just to be clear – while I think Steam is a natural fit for this idea I am absolutely not ruling out interest from anyone else! So if you're a distributor who's interested, by all means be in touch. (GOG?)

Thanks everyone! And all the best for your holidays!

This piece has been published in tandem with a companion piece aimed at the game development community in the Library Journal gaming blog. (They may not be published at exactly the same time.) Thanks to Liz Danforth for the support!

[Edited for correction: I originally described the Library Journal as a publication of the American Library Association. This is incorrect - I apologise, but hope that two such august institutions will forgive the Antipodean confusion.] 

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