Steam: Savior or Slayer of PC Gaming?

Dan Scharff

Is Valve's dominant digital platform the future? Or does it herald the end of PC gaming as we know it?

Steam. Publishers and rival digital distributors want to be it. Gamers and developers want to be with it. And animals lacking opposable thumbs want to learn how to use computers just to use it... or so Valve would have you believe. But all isn't as rosy in the land of PC gaming as all that, and as Valve's digital gaming platform has picked up more and more, well, steam, it's garnered its fair share of backlash as well. With Valve's recent tiffs with EA over their upstart Origin distribution platform, never before has the community been so polarized by Steam. Will Steam continue to dominate the PC gaming landscape? And if so, what does this mean for gamers?

First off, let's dispel the myth that Origin is a rival to Steam. Perhaps it will be in time, but as it stands now, EA's digital marketplace is just that - a digital store front for EA published titles. For the moment EA is content in simply bypassing Steam, in order to sell their products directly without losing revenue to a rival distributor.

So, no, Origin is NOT in direct competition with Steam, but neither are any of the other PC digital distributors. And I don't mean 'no competition' in the 'we're kicking your ass in marketshare' kind of way. No, I mean they're literally not selling competing products—they simply lack the depth and breadth of what Steam has to offer. Whereas Origin, Impulse, Direct2Drive, GoG, GamersGate and others are all perfectly valid online stores and distributors, they aren't what Steam is: a unified, managed gaming platform for the PC.  And therein lies the true heart of the Steam debate: is the establishment of this type of system beneficial to the PC market?

The Birth of Steam

And on the 12th day of September, in the year of 2003, the Steam client was released. And it was good. And, lo, on that day Steam reached out its pipey appendage to the huddled masses of PC gamers and delivered them from suffering and into salvation. So goeth the gospel of Steam.

But Steam's origins are more humble than that. While Valve may or may not have had more grandiose plans in mind for Steam from the beginning, the original client (beta clients were available as early as mid-2002) was intended merely as a patch delivery system and anti-cheating measure for its popular online shooters like Counter-Strike. Valve quickly recognized the platform's value as a content delivery system and started pushing mods such as Day of Defeat down the Steam pipeline.

It wasn't until late 2004, and the release of Half-Life 2 that Steam started seeing widespread adoption. Half-Life 2 was the first game that required online authentication, and hence Steam, to play. While backlash was initially strong against a required client and online connection for authentication, the auto-patching and ability to download levels, mods, and mod tools quickly endeared the fans toward Steam.

Fastforward seven years and Steam now dominates the PC gaming landscape, with over 30 million users, over 3.5 million concurrent users online at peak times, and a whopping 50-70% (or more) of marketshare in the digital distribution realm. Valve is obviously doing something right.

Steam the Savior

Doomsayers have been decrying the death of PC gaming for practically as long as PC gaming has been around. But it's really been the last decade where the PC has been fighting for its life in the gaming sphere. Despite the proliferance of personal computers of all shapes and sizes, rising piracy issues and increased developer focus on the consoles has pushed the PC from the dominant platform to an almost forgotten afterthought. In the malaise of the mid aughts, with the PS2 and X-Box dominating the scene and the 360 and PS3 looming large on the horizon, PC gaming looked to be headed toward extinction. Enter Steam.

While correlation should not be confused with causation, the rise of Steam and the coinciding resucitation of the PC gaming scene can't be overlooked. Since the beginning, the PC has been seen as an enthusiast's platform, with a high barrier to entry, in both time and money. But Steam has gone a long way to addressing many of the issues that have plagued PC gaming from time immemorial.

Click Play to Play

Let's not forget the original purpose of Steam: to quickly and easily deliver and install content. In the past, searching for patches was the bane of many PC gamers. Patches were often missing from the developers' website, could have slow download times, or long download queues. Applying them could be equally arduous. They wouldn't properly detect installed games, they'd be incompatible with previous saves, they'd have driver conflicts, and many other equally irksome issues.

While Steam doesn't entirely mitigate all of these issues, it has vastly simplified and improved the patching process. Valve verifies the stability of patches, serves them up themselves, and delivers and installs the patch content automatically. Also, Steam's initial install process is typically way simpler than the myriad of bloated and annoying Windows installers - plus the lion's share of game data is stored within the Steam folder instead of separated in various folders across your hard drive. Sure the constant DirectX and C++ Redistributable Library installs for each new Steam install are annoying, but you'll get that installing games off Steam as well (blame Microsoft).

Cheapskate Paradise

Perhaps the greatest draw of Steam is its huge library of ridiculously cheap games. Despite Valve being in a position to control and inflate prices, they've done the exact opposite; they've made gaming more affordable than ever.

Log on during one of Steam's much anticipated summer or Holiday sales and prepare to be amazed by the availabilty of games discounted as much as 75-90%. Steam also tends to be - at worst - on par with retail and online shops for new releases and pre-orders, and at best far cheaper—often featuring game specific sales and significant price drops well before the usual six month "clearance" model that drives retail pricing. Of course this is from my perspective as an American gamer. Unfortunately pricing isn't quite as competitive in Europe and other territories.

Steam also provides one of the first legitimate methods of buying older games. Due to the nigh non-existence of used PC game sales, snagging old games in the past meant either trusting in shady eBay auctions, or worse, turning to piracy. Since Steam is digital, it makes it possible to buy new old games, and as a bonus, the developers still get to see some of that money. Though still far from perfect, Steam's patching system and focus on compatibility also means there's a better chance  the game will run on a modern system than a copy ran "out of the box."

Manage my Management

And now for the elephant in the room: DRM. While gamers are almost universally united in their hatred of DRM, it's more about the implementation than its mere existence. Handled poorly DRM is a pair of digital handcuffs, a set of rules imposed by the powers that be that tell you how, when, why, and where you can enjoy the content that you paid for and supposedly own. The more obnoxious DRMs on the market restrict the number of installs, require a constant internet connection, and may just destroy your computer.

In a perfect world DRM wouldn't exist at all, but let's face it, some amount of online security is inevitable, and given the current strategies of many publishers, DRM isn't going anywhere any time soon. Perhaps it's the lesser of many evils, but Steam DRM is DRM done right.

For games that use Steam as their DRM method, a one-time validation is required after purchase, keys are automatically applied to the game and its DLC, and the game can be installed and uninstalled as many times as you want, and on any computing device that runs your Steam account. After that validation, games are available to play in offline mode. It's all pretty painless, really, and is no more restrictive than the requirement of needing a physical disc to play a physical copy.

Of course many Steam games require Steam validation in addition to other forms of proprietary DRM used by the publisher, which may impose more limitations, but you can hardly blame Valve for that. In fact, the stark contrast between Steam's lightweight DRM and that of its competitors simply bolsters the case for Steam as the DRMM, or digital rights manager manager, of choice.

You Got Server'd

Of course, to play a game online, a connection to a server is required. Well, games that choose to use Steam as their prime distribution method connect and authenticate through Steam servers, which pose a significant advantage over many other hosts: stringent anti-cheating measures (in games that support it), a proven track record of stability, and an as-yet-unbroken promise from Valve that the servers will stay online and supported and never be shut down.

Steam: Not Just a State of Matter, but a State of Mind

Of course many, if not all, of the advantages listed so far aren't exclusive to Steam. Many other digitial distributors can claim similar boons to PC gaming. Steam, however, is the only platform to have it all, and, for the low, low price of zero dollars. "But wait, there's more!" Steam's most important, and possibly most divisive, feature is the client itself, which takes Steam out of the realm of distribution outlet and patch delivery system, and into the realm of unified gaming hub and bona fide social network.

What many enjoy about Steam is its one-stop-shop approach to PC gaming. A way to conglomerate and streamline their game collection, manage online cloud saves between multiple machines, stay connected to their friends and fellow players, and stay apprised of the latest news and updates. The Steam client allows for all that and more.

When first logging on to Steam you'll be greeted by the entry portal of your choice, be it the storefront, your games library, the community page, or your list of friends. The client comes equipped with a simple but effective buddy list, an IM interface with voice chat capability, and community features that offer achievements, stat tracking, screenshot libraries, and user created blogs, minisites, and fangroups. The client allows you to view what games your friends are playing, invite them to play the game you're playing, and use the Steam IM window to chat without having to fully taskswitch out of a fullscreen game. The game's built-in browser also lets you view the latest news or patch information on a game by game basis as well as the option to buy DLC.

Steam's exuberant fanbase embraces all these features, and once getting used to such a robust feature set, many find themselves immersed in the Steam community, with little need to run a separate IM client, voice server, or even internet browser while gaming. Some might even say the more enthusiastic fan(boys) are more like full-blown initiates in the cult of Steam, who wish for all their friends to join the flock and for all games launched now and in perpetuity to include Steam support (cue the angry mob of Steam gamers lustily shouting for Battlefield 3 support and threatening boycott).

Steam the Slayer

And therein lies the dilemma, many of Steam's perceived features and benefits may be beloved by many, but they also represent a fundamental shift in PC gaming as we know it. See, I mentioned earlier that there is no direct competition to Steam in the digital marketplace, but that only pertained to the PC. Steam does have direct competition: X-Box Live and the PlayStation Network.
Does this mean that Steam is attempting to make the PC become, gasp, consolized? Are words like 'streamlining,' 'management' and 'community' code for' dumbing down,' 'controlling,' and 'data mining'? Steam detractors would say yes.

Freedom Ain't Free

For better or worse the main advantage of PC gaming has always been freedom. Freedom to run or not run any program or mod you want on whatever hardware you want (and can get working). Steam's controlled approach to game management could easily be construed as a constraint to freedom in how you run your games.

While modding has always been a do-at-your-own-risk proposition, for some, Steam's executable process has turned this into simply 'don't do.' Users run the risk of failing Steam authentication for games that are heavily modded, which could mean anything from just the game not running, to Valve suspending or even shutting down the offending Steam account.

Furthermore, the auto-patch process can lead to mods, or even entire games not working. And with no easy way to roll back patch revisions, some users find themselves with games that won't work due to save or driver incompatibilities, even with unmodified games. Gone is the art of tweaking every aspect of an .exe or .ini file. Sure, you won't run into problems a good majority of the time, but with auto-patching and authentication, free-for-all tweaking is a thing of the past.

Managed Evil is Still Evil

Again, one of the main issues with Steam is its included DRM. Proponents may say that Steam is the lesser of all evils, but detractors claim that all DRM is unjust and Steam is still a major part of the problem. The music industry went through its draconian DRM phase before the free usage wave caught on. While the games industry is still somewhere in the shifty planes of DRM limbo, free usage advocates are hoping game DRM will also go the way of the dodo.

This means no authentication, no validation, no required client to install and play a game that you rightfully bought. Sure, Steam is fairly liberal in their policies, but the fact that their client is required and that they hold the right to revoke access to content you (maybe, possibly, who-knows-according-to-the DMCA) own still brings up the nagging question of true digital content ownership. Accepting a non-invasive DRM "solution" may simply perpetuate a system where end users are merely licensees of content, and have no true rights or ownership of the content.

Where does this lead the consumer five, ten years down the road? If Steam no longer exists we may not have access to any of the content we bought (or perhaps more appropriately, "leased").

Wait, Aren't Monopolies Bad?

Another word you hear bandied about in regards to Steam is monopoly. Steam may or may not be a monopoly, but as their marketshare grows, so too does their control over not just the digital marketplace, but the PC platform at large. While Valve's practices thus far have been fairly honorable in terms of doing right by both the customers and developers, what would happen if The Republic decided to become The Empire?

The key term here is 'could,' we're talking in pure hypotheticals, but Steam could dominate to such a degree as to control pricing, availability, and distribution of all online games. Steam's power in the PC landscape is already felt, as games promoted on the Steam store or in Steam sales provide massive sales boosts. Steam could easily decide to twist this influence to promote only the games they want to promote, corner the market on genres where Valve-developed games have a strong presence, and essentially extort developers and publishers just to be distributed in the first place. Steam may be the darling of indy developers now, but if Valve demands more of a percentage and takes a harsher line on which games are "allowed," not to mention promoted, on Steam, the once free marketplace could quickly become a stifled, cutthroat environment with less titles and higher prices.

Which brings us back to Steam's ongoing feud with EA. All sources indicate that the yanking of many high profile EA games from Steam was Valve's decision, not EA's, as EA's DLC practices violate Steam's terms of service. Regardless of who's at fault, the reaction from the Steam community has largely been "f- EA, I'm boycotting that game." The fact is, whether by means of high-minded gamers boycotting on principle, or simply through lack of convenience, advertising and exposure, publishers that decide to forgo Steam WILL sell less copies, and this effect only increases the more dominant Steam is.

What will the publisher response be? Will it be for each major publisher to create their own storefront like EA has done with Origin, creating an even more fragmented PC market? And if high profile titles don't sell on the PC, will publishers capitulate to Steam, or just cut their losses and give up on PC gaming entirely? It's tough to say, but given the climate of AAA publishing on the PC, it's not inconceivable that publishers would cut their losses entirely and double-down on console markets with their own more publisher-friendly distrubution models.

Savior or Slayer

So, is Steam the savior or the slayer of PC gaming as we know it? Quite possibly both. One thing is for sure, Steam has forever changed the face of the digital marketplace, and PC gaming in general. The industry is on the verge of a massive shift, as digital distribution becomes the new dominant force, and the Steam experiment has proven two key points:

How do you fight piracy? Aggressive and reasonable pricing structures. As the music industry learned (eventually), piracy may be impossible to eradicate, but with a more sensible pricing model, with lower entry-level price points and more pricing variety, people will still gladly pay money for content. Steam's successes with their holiday sales, bundles, and many games starting in the low-to-mid ranges have reduced piracy and proven that the standard two-point pricing system of full price and budget price is a woefully antiquated model.

PC gamers want a simpler, more unified experience. The verdict is in: people like using Steam. Why? Cause it's easy, it's lightweight, and it can work on multiple platforms. PC is an incredibly broad term, with just about everyone owning and operating a personal computing device of some sort. If Steam can bring more first-time gamers to the table, it's to the benefit of everyone.

And those who bemoan the good old days when the barrier of entry involved being able to run multiple memory managers, making sure your IRQ ports didn't conflict, and having to know the port configuration of your soundcard, you're living in the past. It may not be the PC gaming you grew up with, but, for good or for ill, Steam just may be ushering in the new Golden Era of PC Gaming, the age of usability and portability.

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