Steam is a digital distribution, digital rights management and communications platform created and maintained by Valve Corporation, first revealed at GDC (Game Developers Conference) on March 22, 2002 and released later in the year for Counter-Strike 1.6. In the beginning, it was critically shunned due to various bugs and inconsistent server performance. However, over the years it has vastly improved and is now seen as a fast, stable, and reliable service.
Steam is a popular marketplace for large publishers, allowing them to sell their new and old games alike. Steam also allows independent game developers to showcase their games to a wider audience, focusing more on the quality or originality of the game rather than the production level in terms of marketing, so it often advertises debut indie titles such as Altitude and World of Goo next to high profile games such as Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto IV on its front page. Dylan Fitterer, the creator of Audiosurf went so far as to say that Steam is "the dream place to be" for independent game developers.
The platform is commonly used in internet cafes not only because it is the host to popular multiplayer games such as Counter-Strike: Source and Team Fortress 2, but also because games can easily be installed on multiple computers through digital distribution and also because Steam has a dedicated service that caters to internet cafes.
Steam has also been wildly popular among the PC gaming userbase. As of 2009 there are over 900 games available to download (with most new games co-launching with their console counterparts or launching shortly after). In January 2010, Valve announced that they had reached over 25 million active user accounts and averaged well over 2 million concurrent users throughout the day. Most analysts estimate that Steam currently controls 70% of digital distribution market share on the PC, but as Valve is a privately held company they are not required to release sales figures. Additionally, Valve has stated that for a $50 game, publishers earn $30 as revenue whereas in retail only an average of $7.50 is made.
Steam's official site can be found at store.steampowered.com, which can be accessed through a web browser or the official client.
In 2011, Valve released mobile apps for iOS and android allowing users to access the Steam store, view user and group pages, and use Steam chat. More info can be found at this official page: http://store.steampowered.com/mobile/
In 2012, Valve announced that non-game software would be coming to the Steam store on September 5th, ranging from "creativity to productivity". According to Valve, many of the launch titles will use Steam features like Steam Cloud.
On March 8, 2010, after a few weeks of hinting, Valve announced that it was going full steam ahead with a Mac compatible version of the platform, and that a Mac version of Portal 2 would be released simultaneously with the PC version. A feature known as Steam Play was also announced, allowing games marked with the insignia to be playable on both Mac and PC when bought. Thanks to Steam Cloud, it's possible to transfer save games between them as well. Lobbies, servers, content updates etc. are also treated similarly, so Mac and PC can go head-to-head on any multiplayer game. Most Source Engine games have been made available from the start, and most publishers have also added their titles if a Mac version is currently available. The Mac version of the Steam client went live on May 12, 2010.
On July 2012 Valve announced it was working on adding Linux support to the Steam platform and to their Source Engine. Applications for a closed beta that would accept 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 account for approximately 1.12% of the total Steam userbase.
Along with a PC and MAC release, Portal 2 was released for the PlayStation 3 and brought Steam implementation to the console.
Steams original user interface remained largely unchanged from its inception until its first design overhaul in 2010.
On April 26, 2010, a major graphical update was introduced to Steam's user interface, featuring 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: Steam's new UI has made a very conscious effort to help players be more social with their online friends. 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 you buy it.
- News Feed: Steam delivers relevant news from all the games you own. If you want to know the latest news of any of the games you own, you just open up the news feed.
- Achievement Notification: It's now much easier to see when you receive an achievement and to see what trophies you have won in the past. You can see a list of recent wins from within the Steam overlay.
- 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
Steam Big Picture Mode launched on December 2012. It is a 10-foot UI built to be easily navigable with a gamepad controller.
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, among other functionalities, while a 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 bought from Steam either through the website or the official client are initially added to the customer's "My Games" list, into the "Not Installed" section. Installing (downloading) the game will subsequently put that game into the "Installed" section where it can also be put on a "Favorites" list. It will also make that game available for every user that uses that computer that also owns the game on their account. Games on Steam are always kept up to date and patches are downloaded and applied automatically. This means each 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. Demos of most games that have one are also available on Steam.
Steam maintains a no refund and no transfer policy, although exceptions are made in extreme circumstances, such as when Grand Theft Auto IV was released with multiple performance bugs.
Steam saves publishers physical distribution and retailer costs. Because of the money publishers save, they can often afford to dramatically reduce the prices on certain items at certain times. Customers can purchase games individually, or in "packs" which contain several related games and are usually significantly less expensive than if the games were bought individually (e.g. the "Valve Complete Pack" contains every Valve game ever made and saves the customer over a hundred dollars).
Steam games are also tax free, although VAT (value added tax) may apply for European countries.
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 the Steam network by simply entering their username or email address. The recipient receives the game 100% free 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)
As of March 16th 2009, Steam announced that they will now be supporting downloadable content provided by developers to all of their Steam catalog as part of new features added to their current Steamworks feature. This DLC content will act much like DLC distributed on a console and simply install into the game directly. The first game to have Steam DLC content was The Maw with two deleted scenes content packs.
Sales and Holiday Extravaganzas
Every week Steam always has two or more sales. The most popular is the Weekend sale that starts either Thursday at 5pm PST or Friday at 10am PST. The second is Midweek Madness which starts on Tuesday and goes until Thursday. Daily sales were introduced on the 16th of May 2011, as the name suggests, a game will go on sale for 24 hours at significantly reduced prices. Valve has released multiple press releases about the effectiveness of these sales, the most infamous being the 700% sale increase from the first large Left 4 Dead sale over Valentines Day weekend in 2008. Over the weekend Valve sold more copies of the game at 50% off than at retail by a large margin. Games, game packs, or temporary game packs (which only exist for the duration of the sale) may be discounted.
The largest seasonal sale on Steam is during the Winter Holiday Season from late December into early January of the following year. During this time nearly all titles on Steam are on sale for at least a small amount, with daily specials during the two week sale. Likewise the Steam Summer Sale in July offers these reductions as well as bundle sales which can contain a company's entire catalog at an 80% discount. For the 2012's Summer Sale, Steam introduced a daily, three-choice voting system that gave users a chance to vote on the game that they would like to see go on sale. The proposed game titles came at a pre-determined discount.
Prima Game Guides
On May 20th, 2010, Valve announced it had partnered with Prima to sell their guides on the Steam storefront. The guides are displayed in a web-page style format and are accessible from either your Steam library or while playing by using the Steam in-game overlay.
Steam Community, released on September 17 2007, is a social networking feature for Steam. Steam users can create their own profile and find other players to add to their friends list. Steam Community can be accessed through the Steam website as well as through the Steam client and has an in-game communication feature which allows players to communicate, view their friends list and view the Steam Community website while in-game by using the "Steam Community Overlay". Steam users are given a 'Steam Rating', ranging from 1-10, on their profile which is based off how much time they have spent playing Steam games in the past 2 weeks. Users may also view their time played for individual games as well as stats for Team Fortress 2 and Day of Defeat: Source. In addition, users can earn Steam Badges, which are a form of achievement earned by performing basic tasks on steam such as posting screenshots or recommending a game, but also for "years served" on the service and for joining a group.
Users can join a wide range of groups that are created by the millions of other people using Steam. Groups allow users to communicate with people like themselves much more easily through the Group Chat feature and a group's admins and moderators. Group members can also post announcements that will be sent out t o all members to alert them of the most recent news and events that are taking places. The 2008 redesign brought in 'Official Game Groups', groups created by Steam for top selling games such as Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Source and Left 4 Dead.
Announced on July 9, 2012 and launched on August 30th of the same year, Steam Greenlight allows the community to greenlight games so that these can be released on Steam. This will be done via a rating system and ways of providing feedback. The goal is to give developers the opportunity to convince the community to pick their game for release.
Valve has released a set of tools called Steamworks that lets developers add features to their game that are unique to Steam. Achievements, online stat tracking, and multiplayer matchmaking are some of the features provided by Steamworks.
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.
On May 7, 2009 global stats were added to Steam Community. These global stats show what percentage of players have unlocked any given achievement in all games with achievements on Steam. These stats are available here
Steam Cloud is a method of syncing some in-game settings with a central server created by Valve and was first utilized in Left 4 Dead. Valve has since implemented it with many older games. Other developers are also able to add this functionality into their products. It automatically (by default it is on, but can be turned off) saves your mouse, keyboard, gamepad and multiplayer settings i.e. settings not determined or limited by hardware and allows them to be preserved or transferred between different computers. Saved games will also be backed up, meaning that save games can be deleted from a computer and players will be able to resume previous saves years later.
In Feb. 2011, Steam added a new feature that allowed players to take screenshots and automatically upload them to their Steam profile.
Steam Hardware Survey
Launched originally with Half-Life 2, the Steam hardware survey is a monthly survey that allows users to voluntarily submit their computer's information, regarding specifications such as processor speed, graphics card speed, internet speed, free hard drive space, memory and even driver information to Valve where it is collated along with information from other users and presented as charts and diagrams. This information is interesting in its own right, as it allows users to compare their computer with the average computer on Steam, but the hardware survey proves especially valuable for developers as well. Because it's a large and detailed sample of their target audience, developers beyond just Valve analyse the information from the hardware survey and base games in development on the capabilities of the average user's computer. The monthly results from Steam's hardware survey can be found here.
Steam Software Survey
Launched on July 15 for Steam beta clients, the Steam software survey checks what kind of software (such as antivirus, web browsers, etc) is installed on users systems. Similar to the Steam hardware survey, Valve publicly publishes these results at the end of each month.
Since September 15, 2010, users with AMD graphics cards can directly download official Catalyst video drivers from Steam.