Steam’s Secret Weapon
How Remote Couch Play could change the digital store wars
There have been raging arguments for years about digital distribution platforms for games. Steam has been the undisputed digital storefront king (at least for the PC) for years now. But with the emergence of direct competitors (like the Epic Games Store) and new platforms that occupy adjacent-but-overlapping spaces (Apple Arcade and Google Stadia), the competition is heating up rapidly. So much of the conversation is focused on things like pricing, platform exclusivity, and the effectiveness of streaming content. In the fact of mounting competition, there’s one feature on Steam that deserves more attention — in my view, it has the potential to radically change the indie development landscape.
Enter Remote Couch Play, a new feature that recently made its debut on Steam. What does it do? Well, put simply, it allows a Steam user to share their screen with anyone on their friend list to play a game together. There’s nothing new about that particular concept per se; what’s important here is that this also works for games that have no in-built online multiplayer feature.
The system essentially tricks any Steam game into thinking that the other person — and their peripheral of choice — are in the same room. This effectively turns any local cooperative game into an online multiplayer experience. The game is streamed from the owner’s PC to their friend (or friends). This only works for games that have single-screen or split-screen local multiplayer.
Why does this matter? Well, it relates to one of the oldest lessons developers have learned over the years.
Multiplayer is difficult.
That is, designing gameplay to operate in a multiplayer context can be very challenging to implement correctly (let alone adding the online element). For many smaller developers with less resources at their disposal, the work (and cost) that goes into building and optimizing the experience for online play can be well beyond their scope/budget. Not only that, but online multiplayer isn’t a concept that can simply be tacked onto an existing design — it has to be factored into a game’s design very early on. This arguably makes it even more difficult to get right.
The difficulty, from a developer’s point of view, also scales based on the genre you’re working on. A party-based game where all players occupy the same screen is much simpler than, say, building the gameplay and infrastructure around a reflex-intensive action game (like, say, a battle-royale shooter).
Sadly, there are many titles released in the last decade that developers would have enhanced with online multiplayer — either it was never implemented, or done far too late to have an impact on sales; Full Metal Furies by Cellar Door Games had a disastrous launch because the online mode wasn’t fully implemented and the developers had to spend several months post-release to add and enhance that capability.
Many innovative games within the indie space have attempted to do interesting things with multiplayer — often, they’ve established unique gameplay but haven’t been able to create a suitable online multiplayer framework around it.
As I said earlier, the cost of developing such a mode might be too high to justify spending the attentional time and money adding it after release. If you invest those extra resources on a mode that most of your fans won’t use, or if it isn’t considered “good enough”, then you’re essentially throwing money away. It can be a huge gamble.
Given this context, the value of Remote Couch Play becomes far more evident — it offers value for players, of course, but it also offers important value for developers.
The digital storefront war between Valve and Epic is still going on and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Epic is trying to improve its offering by way of making it more comparable to Steam, while Valve is continuously looking for ways to further cement and entrench Steam’s market leadership.
As mentioned at the very outset, a feature like Remote Couch Play should be more widely discussed; Valve has essentially provided every single developer producing local cooperative modes with free online multiplayer. Suddenly, a great many games released over the last decade can now be enjoyed with friends from anywhere around the world — this arguably improves their value greatly.
Developers thinking about releasing their game on either Steam or the Epic Games Store now have another factor to aid their decision — one of these platforms gives them free online multiplayer. Of course, the feature is only accessible through the Steam platform itself — it operates via the Steam UI and not the game itself, which therefore means that all players must be using Steam. It’s a feather in the cap for Valve, and it’s another way of offering a crucial service to developers, which may provide a competitive advantage.
Of course, as great as all this sounds, there are some downsides.
For one thing, Remote Couch Play only works for games designed with a local cooperative experience to begin with. There’s no sense in which multiplayer is “created” as a result of the Steam feature — if your game can’t be played comfortably via a single screen or split-screen, it’s not going to be of value to you.
The ever-present bandwidth question will also be a major factor for many players, in terms of whether or not Remote Couch Play makes sense and offers value. Remember that the “host” is essentially streaming the game to all the other players; for this reason, latency issues might make or break the experience depending on your internet connection. I experienced one session where a single player had connectivity issues, which impacted the experience for everyone else. What this also means is that the more people you are trying to connect, the more demanding the experience will be on everyone’s internet. It’s very much like a client/server model, which is far more temperamental than if everyone were connecting to an ultra-powerful server cluster run by Valve themselves.
It’s worth mentioning that alongside these tests, I was also streaming video on the internet — it’s likely that impacted the experience as well, and it’s something to consider if you intend to stream gameplay.
Regardless, this new feature is a major net positive for Steam and a huge advantage for indie developers. Time will tell what this might mean for the overall market, but I definitely think more developers (and consumers) need to hear about this.