Let’s face it, when Half Life 2 was released and required installation of a program called Steam, the gaming world exploded with rage. Every man and his dog was shouting from the roof tops that this was an outrageous move by Valve. How dare they tell us what we can or can’t install on our PCs! Quite a few years later and digital distribution has really taken off and the regular Steam deals are jam packed with bargains each and every time. But, have we simply just accepted Steam as a necessary evil or is Steam genuinely good for PC games and just to take it one step further, did Steam actually stop PC gaming from dying?
I have to admit that after years of waiting to get my hands on Half Life 2 I was not amused to learn that the game had to be activated online through Steam. I had no idea what Steam was and at that point in my gaming life I was trying to tease every last bit of power out of my PC so that games could look their best and I didn’t like the thought of memory being taken up by a program which was not the game I wanted to play. My broadband connection was just about OK but may have even been as low as a 1MB connection which made the whole initial experience with Steam that bit more sour.
In the weeks and months that followed, not many gamers were defending Steam and stories of peoples accounts being locked if they forgot their password and Valve refusing to reopen them again did not help the acceptance that digital distribution was an insight to the future. Other arguments against Steam included the fact that once purchased you could not sell the game once you had finished with it as it was associated with your Steam account forever and a day. The main arguments in favour of Steam were that it would reduce piracy and the need to actually leave your house to purchase a physical copy of a game. It didn’t take long before a pirated version of Steam was created and in circulation and the main attractions i.e Half Life 2 was playable on this pirated version. The argument about digital distribution being a preferred option to walking into a store to purchase a game was also fairly weak at the time as the price of purchasing games via Steam were often in excess to prices for retail copies either in-store or through an online retailer.
Steam was also meant to be the gateway for episodic gaming and the big hitter that was first out of the blocks was Sin Episodes. Episode one came and went with a bit of a whimper and episode two never saw the light of day. Not the most successful start and not a great advertisement for episodic gaming through Steam. Of course, those of us who prefer to buy our games rather than troll the shady paths of piracy had no choice other than to use Steam if we wanted to play Half Life 2, so we simply accepted that it was a necessary evil. The tide may have started to turn when patches were automatically downloaded and installed. This raised a few gamers eyebrows as they sensed that the traditional task of sourcing the latest patch, downloading and manually installing could be a thing of the past. The benefits of Steam were starting to peak through the initial darkness.
That was then and this is now. Steam is a much changed beast from its early venture into the open world, with many developers using Steam as their preferred choice of distribution. Steam sales are now famous for great bargains within a short period with many games being available at very low prices for 24 hours for example. The Steam client has seen many updates and most recently a complete face lift to make it more appealing to the masses. It is no longer something that just loads up and sits in the task bar, it has become how many PC gamers communicate in-game, coordinate gaming events and organise their clan. Steam games now have achievements more often than they do not, which is starting to win back PC gamers who were tempted to the dark side of Xbox by the lure of its own achievements. The success of Steam can also be appreciated by a quick search to see just how many rivals have set up alternative digital distribution networks but none can match the catalogue of over 1,100 titles Steam now boasts. Steam also made the jump over to Mac OS x and hit the ground running with 50 titles at launch. One of the big surprises at this years E3, was the announcement that Steamworks is coming to PlayStation 3. We’ll have to wait and see exactly what this could mean but given the market share and experience Valve have built up with the PC market, it’s hard to see this being anything but a success.
So lets step back to the initial paragraph and the questions I posed at the start of this piece.
Is Steam good for PC games? My answer is almost definitely YES as it is now a slick setup with a massive catalogue and the prices are often competitive. It’s a lot easier for a non techical player to keep up to date with game patches and the achievements mean that there is an extra incentive to choose the PC version of a multiplatform game.
Did Steam save PC gaming? This is really up for debate for as long as I can remember people have been saying that PC gaming is dying but the sales figures that Steam release periodically suggest otherwise. The need for physical media is all but gone for PC gaming, cloud saves is a great new addition to Steam functionality and both Microsoft and Sony have in a way started to copy the path that Valve laid with Steam.