Valve panics as Windows 8 prepares to drink Steam's milkshake

Platform owners gear up to leverage their power.

Gabe Newell, the auteur head of Valve, has threatened to move his company's digital distribution platform, Steam, to Linux in response to the locked-down nature of Windows 8. Newell called the new release "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space", which would lead to several hardware manufacturers leaving the market.

Ars Technica's Peter Bright reports:

He attributed Valve's success to the PC's open nature, saying that the company "wouldn't exist" without either the PC or "the openness of the platform." That openness is under threat, though. Newell argues that there is a "strong temptation" to close the platform, because the platform's developers "look at what they can accomplish when they limit the competitors’ access to the platform, and they say 'That's really exciting.'"

But it's not just the "locked down" nature of the platform that scares Newell. His real concern is what Microsoft is doing with Xbox Live integration. If you download a game from the Windows 8 app store – and only from the Windows 8 app store – you get achievements, access to your friend list, and other perks that come with Microsoft's online gaming service. Steam, Valve's own app store and a tidy little earner, may find it difficult to compete. A similar squeeze is happening on the Mac, where Apple's App Store has, from yesterday, integration with their Game Centre service.

The threat to move to Linux also has a side-benefit for Valve. Their Linux client, like much on the platform, is community-developed. Dangling the carrot of more games being made available is likely to motivate that community to put extra effort into the project, and that effort will both improve the Linux client and, far more importantly, improve the Mac OS X client, which runs on the same architecture.

The problem facing Valve is similar to that facing Netflix: they are a middleman in a world which is fast doing away with them. Matt Yglesias details the problems faced by the movie streaming service:

My wife are streaming-only Netflix customers and we love it and use it all the time. But the reason we use it is that it has a lot of content that we like. But it's really not clear why this should be the case. Apple makes the box we use to facilitate streaming video, Comcast owns the pipes along which the video streams, and various production companies own the copyrights to the content we stream. Netflix has basically no leverage point in this battle. Right now it has the rights to a fair amount of content that I want to watch, but I see no reason for confidence that they'll be able to continue securing those rights in the long term.

Valve isn't in quite such a pickle. They are still an extremely popular developer, and while Steam is required for Team Fortress 2 and CounterStrike: Source, it will remain installed on a large number of gaming PCs. But the idea that, in the long term, it will carry on selling games from competing publishers seems unlikely. The two end games seem to be publisher-level fragmentation, or platform-level monopolisation.

The front page of Steam.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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