Stardock Estimates 70% Market Share for Steam, Talks Digital Distribution Rivalry, Impulse Plans

Developer, publisher and digital distributor Stardock has released its annual customer report by CEO Brad Wardell, giving insight into its platform Impulse's competition with Valve's Steam as well as interesting figures and estimates concerning the past year.

Stardock estimates "based on discussions with publishers along with the numbers we are aware of" that Steam owns 70% of the digital distribution market, while Impulse sits in second with a 10% share and the remaining 20% is shared between all others.

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The successes of Steam and Impulse are due in part, Wardell believes, to their digital exclusives. Impulse's include Sins of a Solar Empire and Demigod--which it publishes--while Steam has the Left 4 Dead and Half-Life developer's own games as well as third-party releases using Steamworks for DRM, among other functions.

Wardell describes Steamworks as a "challenge" for Impulse as it effectively creates Steam exclusives of games which are not technically such.

"Once a game requires Steamworks, it is effectively cut off from us, which limits our content," he explains. "The problem is that it is not practical for us to install a game that in turn requires the installation of a competitor's store and platform in order to play it."

Stardock was one of several digital distributors who recently spoke out against Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's use of Steam for DRM and other functions--described by a representative of competitor Direct2Drive as a "Trojan Horse" for the Steam store.

Stardock's "alternative" to Steamworks is Impulse Reactor, a suite which currently offers only basic functions but is intended to become a full-fledged competitor. Impulse Reactor already features players accounts with achievements and rankings, as well as a DRM solution 'Goo' which allows players to transfer ownership of games.

The report explains the next 'phase' of Impulse Reactor will add a player messaging system as well as multiplayer services including anti-cheat, NAT negotiation and persistent servers, making for a platform far more comparable to Valve's Steam.

Wardell admits that community features in its Steam client equivalent--the separate but confusingly similarly-named Impulse--"still lag significantly behind... in some areas."

He explains it needs a "good" in-game overlay system, voice communication option and "way to get people together for discussions, groups, modding, etc"--as found in Steam.

One feature currently in beta not found in Steam is 'Ready to Play,' a tool which allows players to be matched with like-minded players for any game by creating a profile detailing themselves and their idea of "fun" in games.

Wardell estimates that for this year "digital distribution will represent approximately 25% of the revenue for a typical PC game publisher on a new title," with the reasonable disclaimer that "this varies significantly based on demographics."

The question "How do you purchase software?" in Stardock's annual customer survey, while hazy, suggests a sizeable shift. Respondents buying "digitally" is up by roughly half over last year from 42% to 61%, while "in a box" consumers fell from 58% to 34%.