The Dark Side of XCOM’s Steam Release

Last week, the Mac version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was made available as a SteamPlay title, meaning that anyone with the Windows version of the game automatically received the Mac version too. What was particularly significant about this was that (the Mac version of) this title was published and developed by Feral Interactive, who are known for producing high-quality ports of games, but never having making them available on Steam. It was significant enough to warrant them to issue a press release on the matter, and even create a dedicated page for the Steam edition.

That of course has now changed, and has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception from Mac gamers, with a Reddit poster going as far as to say

I’ll just go ahead and say it first, because we’re all thinking. Fuckin awesome!

Indeed, when we first broke the news of the possibility of a Steam version, I even expressed similar sentiment:

this could be the beginning of great things for Mac gamers

That’s still true, but since the release of the game last week, I’ve been feeling less comfortable about the whole situation.

Let me make one thing clear first though. I’ve contacted Feral for clarification on some points and in order to ask some questions, who’ve said that they can’t provide “any further comment” on the subject. As I’ll explain below, I believe that in itself is bad news for everyone, but on the other hand, it does also mean that what I’m about to say is mere speculation.

When I first read that XCOM was coming to Steam, my first thought was:

What about all the other games?

Feral have developed and published rather a lot of Mac games. With few exceptions, the Windows versions of games are available on Steam. Even games that Feral have announced but not yet released are available on Steam. Tropico 4? Released on Steam in September 2011. The Mac version of Napoleon: Total War was released by Feral today. The Windows version has been available on Steam for over three years.

Will any other games published by Feral appear on Steam at some point in the future? We simply don’t know. Which leads on to the next question:

What about people who own the Steam version and went and bought the Mac version?

What a kick in the teeth for those people. The Windows version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released in October 2012, and the reviews were extremely favourable, meaning people went out in  droves to get their hands on it. The Mac version was released in April 2013. Many, many Mac gamers (myself included) bought the Windows version of the game to play in Boot Camp rather than wait for the Mac version (which actually wasn’t even announced until early this year, so I suspect that some must have bought it in the apparent absence of a Mac version). Some of those people went and bought the Mac version again, for the sake of convenience, or in order to play it on a secondary Mac. I can imagine those people are not particularly pleased to now have paid twice, for two separate copies of the same game for the same platform. Again, what about Feral’s other games? What if Deus Ex is to become a SteamPlay title?

But the reverse is also true. What of people who bought the App Store version of the game and now wishes they’d known about the preferable Steam version?

How can the Mac App Store version continue to exist, when it’s inferior to the Steam version in almost every way?

According to Feral’s own page, the Steam version differs from the Mac App Store version in a number of ways:

  • PC-Mac cross-platform online multiplayer
  • Steam achievements and leader-boards
  • Save game synchronization
  • SteamPlay™

Note that all of those are benefits. Want to play multiplayer with people who are on Windows? You’ll want the Steam version. Want stat-tracking that isn’t horribly broken and pointless? You’ll want the Steam version. Want save games saved to the cloud? You’ll want the Steam version. Want to have both the Mac and Windows version of the game? You’ll want the Steam version.

What advantage does the Mac App Store version have over the Steam version? It includes all the DLC, which must be purchased separately for the Steam version.

Hmm.  As of right now, the Steam version of the game is $40. The DLC isan additional $12. The Mac App Store “Elite Edition” meanwhile is  $50. You save $2 for the MAS version, but don’t get to pick which DLC you want. But that’s the retail price. Would you like to know how much those prices have varied in the past?

In May this year, the price of the Steam version of XCOM dropped to $13.60. If you went through third-party resellers, you could have picked it up for even less since its release. As of right now, it’s 66% off at GamesPlanet.

The MAS version has yet to see a price drop.

Price isn’t the be-all end-all, and I fully support the notion that people just prefer MAS to Steam. Borderlands 2, for example has been available on both platforms since day one, with similar benefits going to the Steam version, but the sales of the MAS version aren’t exactly low.

How can Aspyr do things differently?

Like Feral Interactive, Aspyr develop and publish Mac ports of popular games. With few exceptions, they tend to make all their games available as SteamPlay-enabled titles.

We simply don’t know what the difference between the business models of the two organisations is, because they don’t tell us. Maybe they don’t have to. Certainly they can run their business however they best see fit, but I’ve got to be honest, as a gamer, and a consumer, I like to be informed. I like to know what my options are when I buy a game, and not that they might change arbitrarily at some point in the future.

To be perfectly honest, I’d rather buy a game when I think I’m going to play it, even if the Mac version doesn’t exist at that time, and I have to play it in Boot Camp. But I’d very much like to be able to return to it (or complete it) in Mac OS when that’s possible, without having to buy it again.

What are the implications of this?

All of this makes your buying decisions much harder as a Mac gamer. Do you just buy the Windows Steam version to play in Boot Camp, in the hope that it might become SteamPlay-enabled at some point in the future? Or do you hold out for the Mac version, assuming it has even been announced? I have yet to play Bioshock: Infinite, mainly because I want to approach it fresh when the Mac version is available, but I suspect I’m in the minority. And even that is completely different from your average Feral game release in that I’ve known a Mac version was coming for some time, and I know that I could just get the Windows version now if I wanted to.

Let’s hope that we can have a little more transparency in the future, that we can be armed with knowledge that we need. As I’ve said before, I think this situation is a complete mess. Yes, it’s arguably better to have XCOM on Steam than not, but let’s not end up in the situation where we just don’t know if it’s in our best interests to buy a Mac version of a game.