When I installed Half-Life 2 last weekend, I was intrigued by how the whole experience in installing the game was so integrated with connecting to Steam's servers online as part of the installation process to authenticate that I had a legitimate copy.
This authentication seems to be ongoing and extends to playing the game. I've not had much time to do that - unlike, for instance, Paul Thurrott who's been posting ongoing commentaries about his gameplay fun - but each time I do start up Half-Life 2, it connects to Steam's servers and logs me in with quite a bit of back-and-forth going on between the servers and my PC. Then, I can play the game from the installation on my PC.
So it was interesting read a BBC News report just now that said developer Valve has banned 20,000 people from playing Half-Life 2 because it had evidence that their copy of the game had been obtained illegally. When you install Half-Life 2, authentication involves setting up an account with Steam, Valve's gaming community system, and letting that check which copy of the game was being run, as was my experience.
In a statement detailing the banning of the accounts, Valve said this system helped identify who had got hold of pirated copies. "The method used was extremely easy for Valve to trace and confirm, and so there is no question that the accounts disabled were used to try and illegally obtain Half-Life 2," it said.
From the BBC report:
Rob Fahey, editor of online news site gamesindustry.biz, said the mass banning showed off the power of the Steam system. Before now, he said, it has been hard for game makers to do anything about piracy once the game was being played. "But with this, Valve is taking really effective steps against people using illegitimate copies of Half-Life 2," he said.
If Steam proves effective at cutting the piracy of games to a minimum, said Mr Fahey, other game makers may be tempted to set up copycat systems. "It's not hard to see a point in the near future when every publisher wants you to run an application on your system purely to allow you to play their games," he said.
I'd say you can count on it - this will be how you get to play PC games in the future.