Steam is a digital distribution, digital rights management, and communications platform created and maintained by Valve Corporation. First revealed at GDC (Game Developers Conference) in 2002, Steam was officially released to the public on September 12, 2003. At launch, it was widely criticized due to various bugs and frequent server issues, however, over the years it has vastly improved and is now seen as a fast, stable, and reliable service.
Originally, Steam was created solely as an easy distribution and update system for Valve's own games, especially the popular Counter-Strike series and the then-upcoming Half-Life 2. However, starting in 2005, Valve began signing deals with third-parties to bring other games onto the platform, starting with Rag Doll Kung Fu. Since then, it has become a popular marketplace for publishers large and small, becoming the primary digital distribution system for PC games. In it's early stages, Steam was also instrumental in the success of certain independent games, advertising such titles as Altitude and World of Goo on its front page alongside higher profile games like Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV. Dylan Fitterer, the creator of Audiosurf, went so far as to say that Steam is "the dream place to be" for independent game developers.
Despite early grievances with the platform's performance and user-experience, Steam has become wildly popular among PC gamers, with the service reaching a reported 25 million active users by January 2010, and a reported 120 million active users by January 2021. The service also frequently sees concurrent user counts of over 20 million, setting a lifetime record of over 26 million concurrent users in February 2021. Steam is also commonly used in internet cafés, due both to the popularity of Valve's multiplayer games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, and Dota 2, as well as Steam's PC Café program, which offers a number of tools, licenses, and discounts for internet cafés wishing to use the service.
Over time, Steam has begun offering products other than video games, with non-gaming software being allowed onto the store starting in September 2012, featuring compatibility with Steamworks features such as Steam Cloud. Starting in 2015, the service began offering movies and television series, however this was discontinued in 2019, and all video content not "directly related to gaming" was removed from the store.
In 2012, Valve released mobile apps for iOS and Android, allowing users to access the Steam store, view community pages, and chat with friend via Steam chat. In 2018, Valve created the Steam Link mobile app, allowing users to stream games from their home computer to their mobile device. While the Steam Link app was released on Android, it was initially denied an iOS release, due to the app's ability to purchase games on Steam without Apple's involvement. In response, Valve removed the ability for purchases to be made through the Steam Link app, bringing it to iOS in May 2019. Also in 2019, Valve released a standalone Steam Chat app, coinciding with a restructuring of Steam's chat systems.
Steam's official site can be found at store.steampowered.com, which can be accessed through a web browser or the official client.
On March 8, 2010, after a few weeks of hinting, Valve announced that it was going to release a Mac compatible version of Steam, and that a Mac version of Portal 2 would be released simultaneously with the PC version. The Mac client went live May 12, 2010, and a number of Source Engine games were updated upon or soon after the release, with more Mac-compatible game versions being added by publishers where available.
A feature known as Steam Play was also announced, meaning that games purchased on one computer platform would be playable on all other computer platforms, assuming a compatible version of the game exists. On top of this, Steam Cloud allows for easy transfer of save files between different computer platforms. Lobbies, servers, content updates etc. are also treated similarly, allowing Mac and PC to go head-to-head in any multiplayer game.
On July 2012 Valve announced it was working on bringing Linux support to the Steam platform, as well as the Source Engine. Applications for a closed beta of 1000 Linux users opened in late October that same year, and Steam for Linux went into an open beta on December 20. As of January 2013, Ubuntu users accounted for approximately 1.12% of the total Steam userbase. In September 2013, Valve announced the Steam Machine, a short-lived line of gaming hardware using SteamOS, a custom OS based on Linux. In 2018, Valve began offering Proton, a Wine-based compatibility system aiming to allow more games to be played on Linux, even when no native support is available.
Portal 2 was released for PlayStation 3 alongside the game's PC and Mac releases. The port brought various Steam systems to the PS3, including Steam Cloud game saving, Steam chat, co-op cross-play with users on PC/Mac, and a Steam copy of Portal 2 for owners of the PS3 version. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive would later be released on the PlayStation 3 as well, taking advantage of a number of similar features to Portal 2's PS3 port.
Steam has gone through a number of user interface (UI) revisions over the years, some changing minor details about the layout of pages, while others completely reworked every aspect of the platform's presentation. Steam also has support for custom UIs, although a number of pages can not be altered through this system.
Initial designs of Steam featured a green and gray color palette, as well as a much different UI layout to later designs. This appearance would stay mostly the same until the platform's first major UI redesign in 2010.
On April 26, 2010, a major graphical update was introduced to Steam's UI. Aside from changing the platform's green and gray color palette to a gray and black one, the new UI also brought new overlays, updated graphics, and new social-oriented features. The update was first made available as a public beta on February 23, 2010, and marked the first major UI change since Steam's inception. Some of the alterations made to the service include:
- Social Integration: This redesign was made with a conscious focus on Steam Community and the social aspects of Steam. It features an easier to use chat interface, simple ways of knowing which friends play what game the most, and the ability to see if a friend plays a game before buying it.
- News Feed: A feed showing relevant news from all the games a user owns.
- Achievement Notifications: A more direct notification when a user earns an achievement in a game.
- Custom Game Lists: A user can now sort games within the game library into personalized lists.
- New Browser: With the new client the internal browser also switched from Microsoft's Internet Explorer to a custom WebKit-based browser. This change paved the way for the Mac client addition in May 2010. In addition to being noticeably faster than the previous IE implementation, WebKit more thoroughly supports modern open web standards.
Big Picture Mode
Launched on December 2012, Steam Big Picture Mode is a 10-foot UI designed for better compatibility with televisions and gamepads. Big Picture Mode features most of the same functions as Steam's regular UI, including chatting, buying from the store, and browsing community pages. Big Picture Mode also features a custom controller settings system, allowing the user to register and configure a wide variety of controllers for easier use with games.
In late 2014, Steam's UI was overhauled again, this time changing the color palette to be black and blue. Alongside this update, the Steam store also received a number of layout changes, mostly focused around game discovery, personalized recommendations, and the newly-added "Discovery Queue".
In June 2018, Valve overhauled Steam's chat system, modernizing the appearance of the chat UI as well as adding support for more complex messages, including animated images and video-embedding. The Steam Chat update was later joined by a complete overhaul of the Steam Library, originally launched in a beta test in September 2019 and officially released by the end of the year. The library update completely changed how games were presented in the library, with a customizable "dashboard" design being shown to the player upon opening the library, presenting them with various categories of games, such as recent announcements for games they own, games their friends have been playing, games the user has recently played, and more.
The overlay is a user-interface that can be brought up during a game launched from the Steam client. It allows players to use a web browser, check their friends list, manage screenshots, track achievements, chat and trade with other users, and more while their game runs in the background. By default the overlay is brought up by pressing the Shift and Tab keys simultaneously, though this setting can be changed.
Games acquired on Steam, whether through the website or via the official client, are immediately added to the customer's library, with the option for them to immediately begin installing their purchased title(s). Once a game is in a user's library, it can be marked as a "Favorite", adding it to its own "Favorites" category, as well as sorted into custom-made categories designated by the user. A game can be placed into as many or as few categories as a user sees fit, and games not a part of any category will be part of an automatically-generated "My Games" category. While buying games will add them to the user's library, so will installing free-to-play titles, or installing demos of paid titles.
Installed games will be recognized by other accounts on the same computer, allowing them to immediately start playing, assuming they own the game. By default, installed games will automatically scan for updates, downloading and applying them soon after they're available. This means a user's copy of a game is always synced with the games of other users on Steam, and customers don't have to manually search the internet for the most recent patches. There is also no download limit, meaning games can be downloaded an unlimited amount of times, and at any time of the day.
Steam originally had a zero-refund, zero-transfer policy, although exceptions were made in extreme circumstances, such as when Grand Theft Auto IV was released with multiple performance bugs. Following a 2014 lawsuit by an Australian consumer's rights commission, Valve changed this policy to allow users to refund games which they have bought within the past 14 days, assuming they have less than 2 hours of playtime in the game. As with before, exceptions still exist wherein Valve may offer refunds outside of these conditions, such as with the widely-disappointing original launch of No Man's Sky.
Gifts & Guest Passes
When purchasing a game through the Steam store all users have the option of purchasing for themselves or as a gift for a friend. The Gift system allows users to send a game to any other user on Steam, simply by entering their username or email address. The recipient receives the game at no cost to themselves, and can download the game as soon as it is received.
Guest passes work in a similar way to gifts. A guest pass is a trial of a game which last for a certain period of time (usually 10 days). The recipient of a guest pass will have full access to the game and all of its features and once again can instantly download it as soon as it is received. However, once they have used a guest pass they cannot use a different guest pass for the same game again. Guest passes are only available for online games and are obtained by buying the full version of the game.
Downloadable Content (DLC)
On March 16th 2009, Steam announced that they would support downloadable content for Steam titles, as part of new features added to their Steamworks system. DLC content on Steam behaves much like DLC distributed on a console, installing itself to already-installed games upon purchasing. The first game to have Steam DLC content was The Maw, which offered two "Deleted Scenes" content packs.
Game sales occur frequently on Steam, with a number of titles being sold for a discounted price during any given week. Steam also has a number of other sale promotions, such as Midweek Madness, which starts on Tuesday and goes until Thursday, and Daily Sales, which last for 24 hours. Valve has released multiple press releases about the effectiveness of these sales, the most famous being the 700% sale increase from the first large Left 4 Dead sale over Valentines Day weekend in 2008. Independent developers have noted similar increases over the years, with Supergiant Games reporting in 2012 that the four highest selling days for Bastion occurred because of discounts on Steam. Others have expressed less enthusiasm, such as Carpe Fulgur's acknowledgement in 2011 that although Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale had sold 100,000 copies on Steam, the majority of sales were at a significant discount, meaning the revenue from those copies was not as high as the sales figure would suggest.
While a number of day-to-day sales exist on Steam, the largest sales by far are the Steam Winter Sale and Steam Summer Sale, annual seasonal sale events in which the majority of games on Steam see some level of discount. The seasonal sales usually last for two weeks, and often come paired with special activities, such as the 2011 "Summer Camp" sale, which offered redeemable prizes in a number of games for accomplishing certain tasks across Steam and in compatible games. Early sales frequently featured catalog bundles, offering every game by a developer or publisher at steep discounts. As well, sales from 2012 to 2015 frequently featured "flash sales", massive sales on certain titles which lasted for a handful of hours before the titles would return to their previous price.
Steam Community, released on September 17, 2007, is a social networking feature for Steam. Accessed through the Steam website, or via the official desktop client, Steam Community allows users to create and customize their own profile, join groups, and find other players to add to their friends list.
A user's profile will show various details about their use of Steam, including how much they've played in the past two weeks, items in their Steam inventory, badges they've earned for doing certain Steam activities, their friends and groups, and any community content they have posted. Users can also add "showcases" to their profile, displaying even more details about themself, including their favorite game, content they wish to highlight, and achievements they have earned.
Part of Steam Community, groups are a way for players to connect, chat, and coordinate events with one another. Anyone can create a group, and joining a group is done with the click of a button, so long as the group is accepting new members. Administrators and moderators within a group can post event announcements which will display to all users within the group, set up a Steam curator to broadcast their opinions on games, and manage every aspect of their group.
A 2008 redesign introduced 'Official Game Groups', groups created by Steam for top selling games such as Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Source and Left 4 Dead. Over time, however, these were phased out, being replaced by a "Follow" button on every game, allowing users to directly receive news about games they are interested in.
Announced on July 9, 2012 and launched on August 30th of the same year, Steam Greenlight allowed the community to vote on whether or not certain games should be released on Steam. This was done via a rating system, paired with various ways of providing feedback. The goal was to give developers the opportunity to convince the community to pick their game for release, however the platform saw a lot of criticism from users, as some developers repeatedly forced games through the system by offering free game codes to users who voted their games up, or by hiring bot systems to vote their games up automatically.
In 2017, Greenlight was shut down and replaced with Steam Direct. In June of the same year, voting on Greenlight titles was completely removed, and an announcement detailing the service change was placed on every Greenlight page. The intent of Steam Direct, much like with Greenlight, is to remove Valve's direct approval from the process, instead placing it upon the users to decide which titles find success on the platform. Through Steam Direct, developers only need to pay a one-time fee of $100 USD and wait 30 days, at which point they will be allowed to release games directly onto Steam. Much like Greenlight before it, Direct has drawn criticism from users due to the large amount of perceived "shovelware" titles the service allows onto Steam.
Another aspect of Steam is Steamworks, a set of development tools designed around easy integration of Steam features into games. Among other features, Steamworks offers achievements, online stat tracking, digital rights management, and multiplayer server support, at no additional cost to the developer.
Examples of games that use Steamworks:
- Audiosurf - Achievements
- Half-Life 2: Episode Two - Achievements
- Team Fortress 2 - Achievements, online stats, Steam Community avatars shown on scoreboard, out-of-game server browser and friends list with Steam
- Day of Defeat: Source - Achievements, online stats, Steam Community avatars shown on scoreboard, out-of-game server browser and friends list with Steam
- NBA 2K9 - PC version requires registration with Steam, but is not sold through the Steam store
- Left 4 Dead - Achievements, Steam Community avatars shown in various game menus, out-of-game friends list with Steam, shared in-game settings (see Steam Cloud), leaderboards for survival mode.
- Zeno Clash - Achievements, online leaderboards for the Challenge Mode.
- Madballs in Babo: Invasion - Achievements, Leaderboards, Steam Cloud.
- Modern Warfare 2 - Achievements, Steam Cloud, Valve Anti-Cheat.
- Torchlight - Achievements, Steam Cloud.
- Duke Nukem Forever - Achievements.
- Ninja Reflex - Achievements, cosmetic changes to the game using tools from valve's games.
One of the features offered by Steamworks, Steam Cloud is a method of save game and setting synchronization first utilized in Left 4 Dead. Using the system, Steam automatically downloads and implements a user's game data across multiple computers, removing the need for manual transfer of saves. By default, the system automatically saves a user's game saves, controller settings, and multiplayer settings, and allows them to be preserved or transferred between different computers.
Steam automatically gathers a number of statistics about Steam and the way users interact with the platform. These statistics are then compiled here, where they can be viewed by anyone, whether they are logged in to Steam or not.
Steam Game Stats
Alongside tracking achievement statistics for every compatible game on Steam, Valve also keeps constant track of how many players are connected to Steam at any given time, and how many players are in each game at any given time. This takes the form of a graph showing the fluctuations in logged in users over the past 48 hours, as well as a list of popular games, sorted by current player counts.
Steam Hardware & Software Survey
Launched originally with Half-Life 2, the Steam hardware survey is a monthly survey that allows users to voluntarily submit anonymous information about their computer. Information gathered by the survey includes what Operating System a computer is running, how much RAM it has, what graphics card is installed, how much storage space it has, and more. This information is then compiled into a set of graphs, as well as into lists showing the specific percentage of Steam users who fit into a given category. The monthly results from Steam's hardware survey can be found here.
Steam Download Stats
Valve also tracks and presents information about download traffic on Steam, showing a heat map of the world based on how much each region has downloaded from Steam within the past week. Alongside this map is a graph showing the moment-to-moment bandwidth usage of each region over the past 48 hours. Steam's download statistics can be found here.
Steam Support Stats
In the interest of transparency regarding Steam's support functionality, Valve began presenting official statistics regarding Steam Support, beginning in 2017. The page, found here, presents a chart of the past three months, showing how many support requests have been submitted versus how many unanswered requests are active in any given moment. As well, a breakdown of requests is presented, showing which requests have been most common over the past 24 hours, as well as the average response time for each type of request.