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The truth about GTA 4's return to Steam

When games suddenly up and vanish from a major store like Steam, that's usually not a good sign. There can be a number of issues at play, from a publisher going defunct, to music licenses expiring, to other types of legal mumbo jumbo. It can sometimes be a coin flip as to whether or not you'll see that game being sold ever again. In this case, however, we're talking about Grand Theft Auto 4. We have a feeling none of the above apply to one of Rockstar's most popular titles.

Fortunately, GTA 4 will be returning to Steam in short order (minus a pretty key feature). But you're probably wondering: what exactly caused the game to be removed in the first place?  It disappeared from Valve's storefront — despite Rockstar's enormous success as a company — not because of copyrights or contracts, but because Microsoft dropped the ball about six years ago.

Question: Do you remember Games for Windows LIVE at all? Don't sweat it if that one somehow exited your brain. It wasn't very memorable to begin with.

Games for Windows LIVE was Microsoft's first attempt at bringing Xbox Live to PC. Games that supported the service worked just as they might have on an Xbox 360 or Xbox One. They had achievements. They had friends lists. Players needed Xbox Live Gamertags to play multiplayer. That all sounded fine and dandy at the time, but Microsoft slipped up in one key way: it tried to charge money for features PC gamers typically got for free.

Not only that, Games for Windows LIVE served as a digital rights management (DRM) platform of sorts, too. Buyers needed to activate Microsoft-generated keys in order to play their games. And that leads us to what ultimately killed the previous version of Grand Theft Auto 4.

As we mentioned, Microsoft really screwed the pooch with GFWL. It was a stinker. It was such an unsuccessful endeavor that Microsoft ultimately shut it down in 2014. The bugaboo with GTA 4 was that the game was built with Games for Windows LIVE in mind, and years after Microsoft nixed its initial PC gaming service, it finally became impossible for Rockstar to generate more activation keys for those buying the title on Steam. The studio was left with no other choice but to stop selling Grand Theft Auto 4 until it could be patched to work without Games for Windows LIVE.

The good news is, Rockstar is up to the challenge. According to PC GamerGrand Theft Auto 4 will come back to Steam on March 19. And the deal will get a little sweeter for those who already own the title as well as those who don't.

Rockstar's fix for this whole fiasco is to update GTA 4 to the "Complete Edition," which means all DLC for the fourth entry in the GTA series will come baked in. The tie-ins to Games for Windows LIVE will be stripped out entirely, and instead, players will be asked to sign into their Rockstar Social Club accounts. Not every bit of Grand Theft Auto 4 can survive this transformation, however, as the game's multiplayer mode is being removed due to its reliance on Games for Windows LIVE. But if you're more concerned about the core single-player experience, everything there should work as intended.

Still — what a mess.

We could spend all day explaining the perils of digital rights management and how these systems can ultimately bork the games you've paid for. We could spend just as long outlining the issues with closed proprietary systems like Games for Windows LIVE. The truth is, though, this entire situation is just as good a teaching tool as any. A beloved title — were it not for Rockstar's willingness to go back and fix things — could have disappeared entirely from the biggest PC gaming marketplace on Earth. Millions could've been deprived of one of the best GTA games ever made.

And sadly, that could still happen. What if Rockstar goes belly-up someday, and the Rockstar Social Club vanishes with it? What if the company decides to sunset the Social Club and replace it with something else? Will we get another fix, or will GTA 4 just stop working and stop being sold again?

Modern video games, for better or worse, aren't the classic retro experiences that seem as though they'll live on forever. They have a shelf life; one imposed by the tech they use. Grand Theft Auto 4, thank the heavens, is getting a stay of execution on Steam. It'll live on for the time being. How long that'll remain true, though, is anyone's guess.