20 Years Ago, Valve Changed How We Play Games Forever
Full steam ahead.
If you play games on PC, you almost certainly play them on Steam.
Since its launch on September 12, 2003, Valve’s digital game distribution platform Steam has grown from a patch delivery system to the de facto way of buying PC games for millions of users. And while now it feels as ubiquitous as PC gaming itself, Steam has been through a lot of upheaval over the years.
When Steam first launched, its purpose was simple. Developer Valve wanted a way to automatically update its games, rather than relying on players to individually download patches themselves. While Valve was at it, it also baked in anti-cheat measures for its online games and — more controversially — anti-piracy Digital Rights Management tools, locking users into the Steam service. In the years since, most of us have accepted that the convenience of Steam outweighs the costs, but the idea of putting an unavoidable third party between you and your games earned Valve some ire at the time.
It didn’t help that Steam kind of sucked in the beginning. Up until 2004, Steam was a totally optional and useful way of keeping games up to date. But when Half-Life 2 launched, it required an internet connection and Steam to authenticate, even if you didn’t buy the game through Steam. Anyone who’s ever tried to play a multiplayer game on day one can guess what happened next.
As thousands of players rushed to unlock Half-Life 2 using this newfangled Steam software, Valve’s servers struggled to keep up. On top of what we’ve now all grown accustomed to as launch-day chaos, factor in that internet adoption was lower back in 2004 and connections were much, much slower. The result: one of the most anticipated PC games ever was rendered temporarily unplayable, and it was all Steam’s fault.
Still, Valve kept building its fledgling service, and in 2005, it started offering third-party games for the first time. With the introduction of Rag Doll Kung Fu, a bizarre physics-based fighting game from the future creator of Little Big Planet, Steam began its transformation from simple patch installer to digital distribution juggernaut.
Nowadays, Steam is a one-stop shop for PC games, but it took a long time to get there. More publishers added their games to Steam throughout the ‘00s, and the process was even slower for indie games. In 2012, Valve launched Steam Greenlight, a program that let developers pitch their games directly to Steam users, and those that got the most support would be granted the privilege of using the Steam platform. By and large, developers hated it.
Greenlight was rife with problems, from fraudulent game submissions to the simple fact that so few of the games submitted ever actually made it to Steam. Valve eventually opened the floodgates in 2017 with Steam Direct, which let anyone list their game on Steam after a short review, but that introduced a new problem. Small developers now had trouble getting seen at all in the deluge, and by then, Steam was no longer the only game in town.
In 2013, itch.io launched, offering indie video game and tabletop designers an easier way to sell their games — and one that takes a much smaller revenue cut than Steam, without the mandatory launcher.
Other services sprung up not to challenge the Steam model but to emulate it. EA and Ubisoft both pulled their games from Steam at different points and — harking back to Steam’s origins — created launchers just for their own games. CD Projekt launched GOG as a DRM-free alternative to Steam, complete with its own launcher, GOG Galaxy.
Yet even as competitors sprung up, they’ve never come close to challenging Steam’s supremacy. Even EA and Ubisoft have brought their games back to Steam, now requiring the irritating extra step of booting up their own launchers through Steam before you can actually get to the game.
So while Steam has made buying digital games far more convenient, it eventually ushered in the hellscape of nested launchers and DRM we exist in today. It’s made indie games more accessible to casual players while at the same time serving as a gatekeeper to limit their exposure. Steam’s effect on the market for games has been, in a word, complicated.
And with the 2022 launch of the Steam Deck, it got even more complicated. Valve started as a game developer, became a distributor, and is now a hardware manufacturer. More than ever, it’s feeling like a direct competitor to console makers, and one with a massive library of games to draw on. Whatever Steam becomes next, its messy history has changed the way we play games forever.