It’s amazing how times change and how what was once something I scoffed at, and even slightly feared, has become the very norm that I now enjoy. I am of course talking about Steam, which believe it or not came online September 12th 2003, after nearly a year in beta.
I hit my 14 years of service on Steam on the 24th of October, so not at all long now. I’m staggered to think how much it’s grown. As I gaze over to my shelf, I can see that I’ve not bought a physical game for many moons, and even those newer games were just a delivery mechanism for me to put the key into Steam. Any gamer will probably know what Steam is, but for the uninitiated, nowadays it’s an entire digital distribution platform that incorporates buying games and software, streaming and integrated social networking, claiming well over three quarters of the PC gaming market. It’s beginning however was very different…
Valve, who used to make video games (shots fired), initially intended Steam as a way to keep their games up to date automatically, while also providing better anti piracy. DRM is a dirty word in some circles, but Steam is DRM at the end of the day. I remember having quite poor internet back then and eagerly snapping up the latest PC Gamer to grab the latest Counter-Strike patch, without hours of downloading, so Steam initially seemed like an horrific idea to me. Since I joined, on October 24th 2003, I must have given in quite quickly.
Early Steam was somewhat temperamental, at least for me anyway. It was still, at that point, just a way to keep your Valve games up to date. Speaking of which, Half-Life 2 appeared late 2004 to rave reviews, but to many peoples chagrin had Steam as a requirement. We take it for granted now that games have this requirement attached, but for many people, having to install an additional program which required them to create an account and tie their game to that account, before they could even play, was almost unheard of. Throw into this mix the fact not all installations went smoothly, the requirement of Steam did not go down well initially.
At this point, Steam was very much still Valve games and their mods but as we all know, third party support couldn’t be far behind. Valve initially partnered with smaller developers, enticing them with the larger profit margins versus retail outlets, to eventually enticing larger companies. At the time of writing, I just checked how many games are on Steam – just games not other software – a staggering 18,614.
In my opinion, Steam has been part of a gaming renaissance, providing the platform to bring gamers together and to provide developers with the tools to bring us their art. The Steam community functionality gives you a friends list while sharing reviews, photos and videos. From a development point of view, Valve provide what they call “SteamWorks”. It’s a framework which allows developers to concentrate more on their games and to use Steam for matchmaking, anti-cheat, cloud storage and the Steam Workshop, which hosts user generated content. We take these things for granted now, but back in 2014, I was amazingly happy that a Borderlands patch bought SteamWorks functionality in and resurrected a game that we enjoyed. SteamWorks looks after the multiplayer without the need to host new servers.
I also believe Steam has helped give us more “Indie” titles by providing a front, I’ve played titles I’d never thought I’d see or enjoy because Indie developers are less risk averse and generally have more free reign when it comes creative input on what they want to do. Steam gives them a platform and by extension opens up our horizons for more interesting games that might not fit the AAA mold. I’d recommend this series of articles from Kim at Later Levels if you want to look at some Indie gems.
Steam continues to diversify and has bought a couple of interesting technical achievements. I own a Steam Link, which streams games via my network from my PC down to the living room. PC gaming, over my network to my TV without noticeable delay. I was sceptical of this at first, but Dan convinced me I needed this in my life, he was not wrong. On a not so successful note, Valve tried to launch Steam Machines, essentially they’re custom Linux PC’s which run SteamOS, which haven’t really taken off, but it’s my understanding the Steam Link came out of this, so I’m not going to complain.
It’s not to say Steam is perfect, their support generally gets a bit of a kicking for poor response times but *luckily* for me I’ve not really experienced any problems I couldn’t fix myself. Very occasionally Steam can decide to take a sabbatical and you cannot log in. There is an offline mode, but it’s hit and miss, depending on the game you want to play. After 14 years it seems I’ve ended up with my account showing 353 games, which considering my finger buffer approach to gaming isn’t too horrific, I’m sure some of you will happily trounce that figure!
I do sometimes wonder will happen to all those games that I have a “licence” to play but don’t actually own, should Valve go belly up. Hopefully someone has a plan for it or I’m hopefully in my nursing home by then organising LAN parties.
So Steam, keep up the good work, we’ll still be watching you though, just in case you turn evil…