All steamed up


When I was at Codemasters I followed closely the announcement of Steam by Valve in 2002. The growing pains, the successes and the opening up of the platform to other publishers. Steam was so clever, so obvious and so clearly the future that I would have liked Codemasters to do a “me too”. Unfortunately the directors had other things on their minds. So I tried to get them to at least put our PC games on Steam. And they didn’t.

Since then Steam has gone from strength to strength and it is now one of the most important platforms in the whole video game industry. With 15 million active users, probably about the same number (or maybe more) as Xbox Live has. But every Microsoft Xbox 360 purchaser gets a month’s free membership of the Xbox Live gold service. So Steam is outperforming. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the spend per user is far higher on Steam than it is on Live.

Gabe Newell, the MD of Valve was one of the Microsoft millionaires and was the producer of the first three versions of Windows. He has said that he wants to have every PC game on Steam. Why not? Each one is just a bit of space on the server so the marginal cost of each extra game is minimal. However the utility this provides for a Steam user is fantastic. The ability to sit down and, on a whim, play any PC game. Outstanding stuff.

Now Valve have made a simply stunning announcement. They are making a whole pile of powerful and important development tools available to the development community. For free. Steamworks includes real-time stats, anti piracy, auto-updating, community and matchmaking utilities. This is an amazing gift and will save PC developers very many millions of dollars. But it is not altruism. The effect of this will be to make more and more PC development Steamcentric. And to raise industry standards for all the mechanics behind a PC game.

I have to admit that if I were a publisher of PC games I would not bother any more with the plastic and cardboard boxed game at retail business model. It is too much work and it opens you up to so much piracy that you are shooting yourself in the foot. It is a concept that has reached the end of it’s life. Now it is far better to give the game away for free like EA are doing with Battlefield Command. Or use Steam. It will be very interesting to see which of these two mechanisms works best.

So Steam has the potential to become the standard global platform for PC gaming. This is absolutely massive. There are a lot more PCs in the world than there are game consoles. Also the barrier to publishing is very low on Steam. So we would see all sorts of great, amazing, fantastic new stuff which otherwise would never see the light of day. This is the opposite of the console gaming model which has a massive barrier to publishing and which lays a dead hand of censorship on games, both of which contrive to stifle innovation and so hold the industry back.

Of course Valve could make Steam available for consoles. Now that would be interesting.

In the meantime the value of Valve as a company is immense. Gaming is growing to be mainstream entertainment and will become bigger than television and film combined. There is a very good chance that Steam will become one of the most important cornerstones of this immense industry. I wish I owned 0.001% of Valve!!!


  1. Well, about the piracy thing, I don’t see how going for online distribution will be safer than retail. In fact, game piracy is so easy to find on the web, yourself has published articles about that. Even small, low-value indie titles are pirated!

    I think only games with multiplayer features (or multiplayer-only) can reduce piracy using an online platform.

    Or maybe single-player titles could do that as well, as long as they still to just Steam for distribution. But since downloadable-games market is so fragmented and chaotic right now, and developers need so much every single channel they can find, I don’t think this is feasible.

  2. Steam has very good anti piracy protection.
    So if a game is only available on Steam it is far less likely to be pirated, so at the end of the day you may well sell more, despite not being in retail.

  3. I see. That said, I believe the online services of Steamworks can work wonders for indie developers. The cost of self-developing an online service is too high – for Lex Venture, we originally planned a multi-player version, but got to drop it in favor on focus on the single player experience. It would delay the project for 6 months minimum.

    The thing to watch is if Steam can “pick up” for more casual gamers. PopCap has been selling their titles there, but it’s the single casual publisher on Steam, so I don’t know how much it is successful. Casual titles have a lower cost and time to develop, and it’s important as an option for indies, who commonly doesn’t have much of either.

  4. I like the fact that while your post is pro-steam/valve you still put a “true-to-life” picture of Gabe at the top.

  5. Hi, I just wanted to let you know that the anti-piracy in steam doesn’t stop pirates. It has been shown to be just as easy to crack as standard DRM protection.

  6. I’d rather just make a legal purchase than work on cracking DRM or finding a pirate hook up. The anti-piracy in steam doesn’t have to be impossible to crack. Criminals who want to get in will get in anyways. But putting up a fence will keep the kids out. People aren’t noble. If you don’t have some barrier they’ll walk all over you. Sad but true.

  7. Criminals? I dunno, software piracy is a issue that is a real non-issue. Being a pirate, I can say that this “criminal” has downloaded much, prolly several times more in value then my whole life’s earnings. Pirates are often, like me, the finacially poorests people of society, living below the poverty level, and guess what? We aren’t going away anytime soon. I guess the real criminals are those that support the sociocially engineered poverty that the “have-nots” are alotted, i.e the monetary system. Good luck stopping us, as we will deny the plausabilty of accusations just like you, and we will snare your profits at every turn. If I paid for every peace of garbage software I’d stole, I would be in great debt and pissed off about the fact that 1% of that software was actually worthy of being bought ( I do buy those that I can afford, mostly games – but only if they’re worthy) Happy and true.

Comments are closed.