On September 12th, Steam will be 10 years old from the public release.
In the last 10 years Steam has become a gaming powerhouse and the poster-child of how digital distribution should work. Steam over the
years has gone from stride on to stride on delivering a quality service for many millions of users, from a bumbling client that frustrated
many users when HL2 came out - to the favourite DD client used by over 50 million people. This post will highlight the history of Steam,
what the future holds and its impact on gaming and the industry.
You may also be interested in reading: The Orange Box |RTTP| A Recap of Valve in the last 5 years
Pre 2002: The problem
Valve realised that players were often out of the loop with updates – especially in games such as Counter-Strike where the whole
community may be disconnected for days while updates were being downloaded. Valve wanted to make the process easier by creating a
client that would deal with updates, bans and joining servers. Valve originally contacted Yahoo, Microsoft and RealNetworks to help
them create a client, all parties were uninterested in the idea and Valve decided then to do it themselves.
Valve released a Steam beta in 2002 to around 75,000 testers to see how it would cope with Counter Strike 1.6 at the time it was an
optional component (unless playing CS 1.6), it was only until 2003 that the client was mandatory with its official public release. At
this time Steam was not a client for selling games.
2003-2006: Unforeseen consequences
When the client was officially released in 2003 Valve hit a major snag of not being able to keep up with the demand of the amount of
people who wanted to download the client. Valve could barely keep the Steam website online. Gabe stated “This issue scares the pants
off of us. Every time we think we understand the aggregate demand that can be created by the community, we find that we have
underestimated it catastrophically." Ironically the situation was so bad that Valve put the Steam client on download sites
such as FilePlanet which Steam was supposed to get rid of.
But Steam’s real test was when Valve released Half-Life 2 in 2004, this was the first single player game on Steam and one of the most
anticipated games in recent history. All retail copies and online copies needed to go through Steam in order to play. To help ease this
burden a pre-load option was given so the game could be downloaded before the release date.
Steam was unable to cope with the demands of new accounts and downloads and this resulted in many annoyed gamers and journalists
who complained about the online authentication process as being frustrating to deal with. It was panned by everyone and turned into a
running joke. Many users also questioned the fact why a single player game such as HL2 needed to be activated and played online.
It was during this time that Valve started asking developers to sign up for Steam, Valve started contacting indie developers and
publishers. Games such as Darwinia, AudioSurf and Kung Fu RagDoll started to appear on the service. Valve were soon able to grab
ID Software and other major publishers onto the service. During this period not much work was going on the steam infrastructure but
Steam was able to cope with the concurrent users and some faith was restored with the client when HL2: Episode 1 was released.
2007- 2009: The social explosion
Valve continued to improve the service and during this period were able to sign major publishers such as Square-Enix, EA, Activision,
Capcom and others onboard. 2007 was a good year for Steam, games such as the Orange Box, Call of Duty 4, Bioshock and
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. helped boost its user count.
In late September 2007 Valve released the Steam community upgrade for steam. This enabled players to have profiles which people could
create and visit other friends and gamers; this was set up before The Orange Box was released – mostly for TF2. The social element also
enabled achievements, player stats, groups and comments. In a way this was the start of creating a social ecosystem that faired up to
console versions of games which could use the XBLA or PSN infrastructure.
It was during 2008 when Valve offered Steamworks to developers, this API allowed developers to use the steam client features such as
achievements, networking, cloud saves and player statistics to 3rd parties. This was beneficial to publishers as it allowed PC gamers
to finally have a system that was comparable to the console counterparts.
2008 also saw the official partnership of EA on Steam, games such as Mass Effect and Spore on Steam. Other games such as
Dead Space and Mirrors Edge four their way onto the Steam platform eventually. This relationship only lasted for a few years unfortunately.
2010 – 2013: The unstoppable Steam train
It was 2010 that steam started to progress dramatically, in the last 3 years steam has seen more development than ever before in its
lifespan. One of the greatest changes was the new client that used the Webkit engine for cross platform compatibility. During this
period steam saw profits that doubled every year and it’s user base skyrocketing.
In early 2010 Valve confirmed the rumours that Steam was coming to OSX, this was met with much anticipation considering that Apple
never pushed for gaming on their own platform. To help ease OSX users into the steam eco-system Valve offered Portal for free. Valve
also started porting all their source games to run on OSX. Valve coined the phrase of ‘SteamPlay’ a method that allowed users to have
a license to a game without needing to buy a separate license for another platform.
Steam in recent years have also moved into other platforms such as PS3, Mobile and most recently Linux. The main reasons for these
new platforms is to have greater integration of steamworks on other devices as well as not being tied down to one OS, Gabe Newell
has recently mentioned his disappoint with Windows 8 and its one of the reasons why Steam has moved onto other OS’s.
The steam Workshop enabled players to help create content for games, this was heavily used in Portal 2, users could create levels
using the Hammer sdk, upload their content and have it downloaded and rated by other members. This has helped developers who
want their game to be modded to get a grasp on what the community can achieve, one of the bigger successes of Steam Workshop is
Skyrim which has amounted to thousands of user created mods.
Valve listed one of the problems with Steam is the fact that only a small handful of people actually checked what games could be on
steam, depending on their bias this could be a problem, as well as being very slow. To combat this Valve released Steam Greenlight, a
service that allowed the steam community to vote for games they deemed worthy to be on the service. Since its introduction over a year
ago it’s been meet with mixed reviews, many people considered the process slow and arduous for developers to get their games
green-lit. Valve has admitted problems and has started to work on making the process smoother, recently Steam greenlit 100 games
which shows the service is seeing some work being done.
Big Picture Mode introduced in 2012 and it was Steam’s first steps into the living room, Features such as a ten foot interface and
allowing games to have custom FOV options helped PC gamers play on the big screen. In that same year Valve hinted on making on
hardware and a ‘Steambox’. Valve was interested in working with partners, however no offical partnership has been confirmed.
In recent times, valve has been fixated with micro-transactions, (thanks to the success of TF2, DOTA2 and steam trading) Steam has
introduced badges and steam levels, rewarding players for playing games and letting them craft cards to obtain cosmetic items for their
profile. This has created a fascinating cut-throat market on which Steam users are trying to cash in as quickly as possible on cards.
The future of Steam is quite a tricky and murky one to predict. It doesn’t help that the company is clouded in secrecy and any leaks
come from the SteamDB. The current changes made over the last couple of years show that Steam is still expanding into new territories
and there is still a lot of ground that Valve want to experiment with.
In usual Valve time the Steambox was supposed to rear it’s head in 2013 but Valve has been quiet about the whole project. Valve was
supposed to show off the Steambox to developers during GamesCom, however this did not occur. It puts further rumour on how badly the
Valve hardware division was affected with the recent layoffs. As far as specification can be gathered it will run BPM and be modular
in terms of upgradability. It will most likely run Linux as the main OS (Ubunutu distro).
Steam Game Renting
It was noted in the Steam registry that there were signs that some form of game rentals from one account to another is being tested.
This could be due to the fact to comply with European laws on reselling digital goods. Valve is currently in the stages of being sued
by pro-consumer firm about not being able to sell games.
It has been noted that steam has begun to add in the recent beta feature to lock games that are not suitable for minors. This acts
in the same way Netflix utilizes parental control in their apps.
Steam’s impact is quite a phenomenal achievement; it’s a platform that is unanimously loved by gamers and developers and even
managing to create a cult internet fanbase around the client. It’s hard to pinpoint why Steam is so successful, many say Valve was
at the right time at the right moment but if anything shows it’s that Steam’s user base has exponentially increased in the last
One of the main draws of Steam is the Steam sales, there are a ton of indie devs who swear by Steam sales. It’s not uncommon to hear
developers stating they are getting 1000% sale increases of their game. Reus a 2D god game sold 120,00 copies when it was on sale –
more than what it had previously sold during the whole time it was on Steam. Adriaan Jansen has commented that sales are a good
thing for the company in the long run: “The chance to connect with more players who notice and appreciate our work is most
important. Next time we release a game, people who bought Reus at a discount might remember they liked it and buy at full price.”
However it’s not only sales that Steam has a lead over, CDPR has stated that when Wither 2 was released it sold the most on Steam with
80%of total sales during the first 6 months of the game release. Terrarria a indie game managed to sell 200,000 copies in its first
week, currently the game has sold over 2 million copies on Steam alone.
Indie’s in general do seem to fare better on Steam compared to PSN and XBLA with trailing sales and a larger percentage share of the
game they can see their games do amazingly well on the PC platform, Dungeon Defenders at launch sold over 250,000 copies on
PSN/XBLA/Steam – Steam took the lion’s share with 200,000 copies sold.
Steam as a platform has always been pro-developer right from the get go. The developers behind Dustforce were encouraged by Valve to
put the game on Steam which encouraged them to work on the game full time. The creators behind Super Meat Boy were frustrated by
the experience with XBLA due to the lack of exposure on the platform and were ecstatic when SMB hit Steam which managed to sell
more copies in two weeks than the full month it was on XBLA.
Jonathan Blow, the developer behind Braid commented on the flexibility of steam in terms of pricing; “If I go to Steam I can sell a game
for $25, but if I go to Xbox Live Arcade I can’t, in fact, the contract says I can’t control the price at all. That artificial channeling
is sort of making their platform inhospitable for certain kinds of games.”
Steam has also taken an interest in upcoming developers such as offering all Independent Games Finalists from the IGF a place on
Steam. Valve has also set their eye’s out for steam and have invited Japanese developers to fly over to Valve HQ to see what
steam has to offer. Yohei Kataoka of Tokyo Jungle mentioned “I’m considering Steam for my next game, I was delighted Steam came to
present at BitSummit. I felt like I was at E3 or Gamescom.”
Steam over the years has been offering features that many clients are still lacking to this day. Innovations such as Steamworks and
SteamPlay have let steam to penetrate different markets as well as retail. It’s come to a point where Microsoft has given up on the PC
platform and have declared GFWL to be discontinued in 2014.
Other clients such as UPLAY and Origin have been created trying to create their own storefronts for each respective publisher to some
degree of success, however Steam stills seems to the most popular way of obtaining games even compared to DRM-Free counterparts
such as GOG. It is estimated that Steam still holds 50-70% of digital sales on the PC platform.
Steam’s success can be attributed to gamers who trust Valve and the good will that they deliver. When GTA4 came out on PC, Steam
offered refunds on the game due to GTA4 running poorly on most systems. Steam have rewarded players for playing games and have
encouraged the community to contribute to Steam Workshop and some gamers have even made a profit from selling items.
In recent years Steam has managed to crack into the mainstream gaming market, so much that retail stores felt threatened. In the UK
one retailer forced publishers such as THQ and Bethesda not to enable pre-orders on Steam, it was rumoured that GAME had a part
in this which they denied – the games then suddenly available to pre-order on Steam. GAME in recent times has accepted Steam and
now offers Steam Giftcards.
With all the success Valve has had with Steam there are still come criticisms of the service. From their poor customer support to their
handling of DRM, VAC-Bans and their market dominance. GOG have criticized steam for its deep sales as devaluing games as well as
indie developers who complain that not having their game on steam makes them redundant on the PC platform.
However it is important to note that the vast majority of users are happy with the service and would rather opt for a game to have
Steamworks than any other type of DRM. One famous example was the outrage of Dark Souls when it was discovered it was running on
GFWL which resulted in the game being Steamworks (In a bizarre move by FROM Software the game still used GFWL but the game
registered on Steam.)
On a final note…
I’ve been using Steam since Half Life 2 came out and at that time I hated it - considering I was still on dial up and didn’t understand
why I needed my retail game to be unlocked on Steam. But over the last 5 years Steam has more or less became the perfect playground
for buying games. As each year progressed I stopped buying less and less retail games and more on Steam. Steam’s managed to get me
into niche indie games such as Defense Grid, Hotline Miami, Magicka, Recettear, VVVVVV and many other games which would never
have a retail presence let alone be picked up on my radar without Steam and the community it brings along.
Talking of community I would like to thank the NeoGaf Steam Community, who makes the steam experience a lot more fun than it
should be. Were a odd bunch at best. But SteamGAF is probably one the best communities on GAF being super informative, generous
and to some extent creating a super creepy fandom for a 18 year old Irish girl.
In conclusion the progress of Steam has been one of the most interesting developments in recent gaming history, it’s hard to imagine in
2003 that Steam would accumulate to the user base of 50 million gamers and dominate the PC gaming landscape. Steam has yet to
miss a beat and always seems to be one step ahead of the curve. Here’s hoping another 10 years of Steam and what it has to offer.
In Gaben we trust.