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Steam
Steam logo.svg
Original author(s) Valve Corporation
Developer(s) Valve Corporation
Initial release September 12, 2003 (2003-09-12)[1]
Stable release API: v009 Package: 56/1098
 (February 8, 2010; 39 day(s) ago (2010-02-08)) [+/−]
Preview release API: v009 Package: 60/1151
 (March 17, 2010; 2 day(s) ago (2010-03-17)) [+/−]
Written in C++
Platform Microsoft Windows
Mac OS X[2]
Size 41.5 megabytes
Available in 21 languages
Development status Active
Type Content delivery
Digital rights management
Social networking
License Steam Subscriber Agreement (Proprietary software)
Website store.steampowered.com

Steam is a digital distribution, digital rights management, multiplayer and communications platform developed by Valve Corporation. It is used to distribute a large number of games and related media entirely over the internet, from small independent efforts to larger, more popular games. Steam is set apart from similar services primarily by its community features, completely automated game update process, and its use of in-game functionality.

There are over 1,000 games available on Steam, and in January 2010 Valve announced that it had surpassed 25 million active user accounts.[3] It regularly services in excess of two million concurrent users.[4] Although Valve never releases sales figures, Steam is considered by its competitors and clients to be the market leader, controlling an estimated 70% of the digital distribution market.[5]

Many major publishers have catalogues on Steam, including Electronic Arts, Activision, 2K Games, Ubisoft, THQ, Sega, Codemasters, LucasArts, Capcom, and Bethesda Softworks.

Contents

Client functionality

Steam allows users to purchase computer games entirely digitally. Instead of receiving a box, disc, or even CD key, purchased software is immediately attached to the user's Steam account. Content can be downloaded from Steam servers unlimited times to any number of internet-connected computers that have the Steam client installed. To play, users typically launch the game from the client's built-in list of currently installed games. Steam provides a server browser for users to search, filter, bookmark, and join internet and LAN servers for games that integrate with it. It can be accessed from the desktop and from an integrated game's menu system, and queries friends to show a list of servers to which a user's contacts are connected.

Steam automates the process of downloading the content and keeping it up to date for the user. All patches are downloaded as soon as they become available, and if there are multiple versions (e.g. a 64-bit edition), the correct one will be chosen automatically based on the computer's hardware and/or software environment. This process happens every time the user logs in, or a game is launched, ensuring that as many users as possible will have the latest software. Once a patch has been applied, it cannot be be removed unless Valve issues a new update to reverse the previous patch. While there is no option to globally disable automatic updates, it is possible to set a specific game to only update when requested by the user. Steam requires that games be fully patched before they can be played, however.

Steam transfers content over its own protocol, as opposed to the more common web protocols, such as HTTP and FTP. It downloads from a set of dedicated content servers spread out across the world, connecting to several at once to try to ensure a fast and stable connection.[6][7] The servers are organized into geographic cells to help clients choose intelligently which to connect to.[8]

Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC), Valve's proprietary anti-cheat system, is available for online game servers to use. On VAC-secured servers, it automatically detects users that connect to the server who are using third-party modifications to give themselves unfair advantages.[9]

Localization

Steam is currently available in the following languages: Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, and Thai.

Steam sells its products in US Dollars, Euros and Pound Sterling. The currency is automatically chosen based on the user's location.[10]

Mods

Steam's interface treats mods in almost exactly the same way as it does purchased games, and even distributes popular mods for free.[11] This is in contrast with most games that offer no built-in launch utility at all. Mods appear in a user's list of installed games with the icons, developer links and other such details that are used by full games.[12] They can also use VAC, Friends, the server browser, and any other Steam feature supported by their parent game.

Multiplayer lobbies and matchmaking

Introduced in Left 4 Dead and made available through Steamworks, a lobby system allows for players to organize and agree on game settings before joining a server and a matchmaking system can automatically group players together based on a certain criteria.

Payment

In November 2008 Steam's payment system was switched from a wizard embedded within the client to a web-based basket/checkout process.[13] The checkout system expanded on the wizard by allowing users to buy multiple games at the same time and by allowing the storage of billing address details between transactions.

Games can either be bought individually or as part of packages; Steam accepts most popular credit cards and some debit cards, as well as PayPal and ClickAndBuy.[14]

Steam Community

The Steam Community's homepage

On 12 September 2007, Valve released the Steam Community, a social network service that allows Steam users to communicate with each other on a many-to-many scale.[15] It is accessible from both the desktop (in a web browser or the Steam client) and through an "overlay" program that can be viewed on top of 3D-accelerated games. In January 2010, Valve reported that 10 million of the 25 million active Steam accounts had signed up to Steam Community.[3]

Notwithstanding privacy settings, a user's page includes some brief personal information, links to any friends' user pages, details of any games owned, the number of hours of playtime during the past two weeks, a 0-10 'Steam Rating' of activity,[16] and links to any groups of which the user is a member. Users can also receive a feed of their friends' actions, including groups joined, games purchased, and Steam Achievements earned.

An IM conversation in Steam

Friends, Steam's instant messaging tool, supports both one-to-one and group conversations, held publicly or privately, and Peer-to-Peer VOIP. It provides extended information about what games each user is playing, allowing others to join their contacts in Steam-integrated multiplayer games.

Steam Cloud

In mid-2008 Valve announced their plans to provide Steam users with the ability to store game settings and saves on a central server. This allows users to more easily install Steam on a new computer or play Steam games on multiple computers. In this automatic process, any changes to game files are uploaded to the main server, and newer files are automatically downloaded and used when a game is started.[17] The first game to use this technology was Left 4 Dead; the service may eventually support all Valve games and is already used by other developers selling their games on Steam.[18]

Downloadable content

On 16 March 2009, Steam gained the capability to distribute premium downloadable content.[19] This was debuted with two new levels for The Maw. DLC, if available, is listed on the game's store page. New DLC releases are listed alongside full games in the "New Releases" section on the storefront.

File system

Steam-integrated games are stored as single non-compressed archive files with the extension .gcf (an abbreviation for Game Cache File[20]). Steam allocates space on the user's hard disk for .gcf files before downloading in order to reduce fragmentation which may occur when downloading large files and performing disk access. Game Cache Files help to make games more portable, stop users from accidentally overwriting important files, and allow for easy modification of resources.[21] For games that do not integrate, a 'No Cache File' system is provided. Here, a .ncf index file points to a folder of loose files somewhere else on the system.[22]

This system also allows Steam to validate its downloaded content for errors,[23] a process that gives many of the benefits of reinstalling in a fraction of the time.

Retail boxed games

Users who buy selected boxed games sold at retail stores may be required to register the game on Steam with the included CD key, which will then be attached to the user's Steam account in the same way as a digital purchase. The game will then act in every way like a digital copy. Most of Valve's current games are sold in this fashion, as is Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

In addition, there are some games that can be added to Steam that do not require it. This allows the game to take advantage of Steam's features, but is optional.[24]

Statistics collection

Steam collects and reports anonymous metrics of its usage, stability, and performance.[25] With the exception of Valve's hardware survey, most collection occurs without notifying the user or offering an opt-out. Some of these metrics are available publicly, such as what games are being played or statistics on player progress in certain games.[26] Valve has also used information from these statistics to justify implementing new features in Steam, such as the addition of a defragmentation option for game caches. [27]

Steamworks

On January 28, 2008, Valve released Steamworks, a free development and publishing suite (granted at Valve's discretion or with an Unreal Engine 3 license)[28][29] that gives developers access to every component of Steam.[30] Steamworks can be combined with a standard Steam distribution agreement, the latter of which gives it advertising space in the Steam store but also provides Valve with a share of revenue; Audiosurf became the first game to be released in this way in February 2008.[31] Several major games have since implemented Steamworks, including Aliens vs. Predator, Modern Warfare 2, Dawn of War II, and Unreal Tournament 3.

Most games using the Steamworks API also opt for a presence in the Steam store. The only known exception (since Valve does not make announcements about such games) is NBA 2K9.[32]In March 2010, Epic Games announced that they had integrated Steamworks into Unreal Engine 3, and were offering it to licensees.[29]

Promotions

"Guest Passes" are allocated to a user when he or she purchases an applicable game. The user can then share the passes with others who have not purchased the game, allowing the new user to play the game for a limited time (which varies depending on the game). Once an activated guest pass expires, the recipient will be prompted to purchase the game in order to continue playing. The number of guest passes available to a game purchaser is determined on a game-by-game basis, and they expire one month after being granted if not used.[33]

Users who already owned either Half-Life 2 or Half-Life 2: Episode One and who purchased The Orange Box are eligible to give full copies of these games to friends. These "Gifts" do not expire. Valve does not allow these gifts to be bought, sold or traded because doing so violates the Steam Subscriber Agreement, and Valve may disable the Steam accounts of users who are believed by Valve to have done that.[33]

"Free Weekends" are multi-player promotions in which a game becomes free to play on Steam for a weekend. When the promotion ends participant users can no longer play the game, but the game's files can remain installed on their PCs which would save time in downloading future updates if they purchase the game.

At the end of each week, Steam offers a temporary "Weekend Deal": a title or pack of titles heavily discounted (50-75% is typical). The promotion ends as the following week begins. In December 2009, an extended Year-End version of this deal was offered, with different games sold at significant discounts each day until January 3, 2010.

Steam has also allowed Valve to run the subscription-based Valve Cyber Café Program,[34] which is the only legal way for a cyber café to offer Steam-based games. There are two pricing models: a flat-rate per-client fee each month, or the "Valve Time Tracker" system that offers a pay-as-you-go model.

Hardware promotions

Steam keeps a record of the hardware in the computer it is running on for various purposes, one of which is enabling hardware manufacturers to run after-sale promotions directly to their customers. Both AMD's ATi and nVidia use this feature: owners of ATi's Radeon video cards receive Half-Life 2: Lost Coast and Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, as well as a discount on Half-Life 2[35], while owners of nVidia's GeForce video cards receive Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, Portal: First Slice (a demo of Portal, now available to all Steam users for free) and Peggle Extreme (now available to all Steam users for free).[36]

History

Beginnings

Steam's development began at an uncertain date prior to 2002. Prior to "Steam", its codenames were "Grid" and "Gazelle".[37] It was revealed to the public on 22 March 2002 at the Game Developers Conference,[38] and was presented purely as a distribution network. To demonstrate the ease of integrating Steam to a game, Relic Entertainment had created a special version of Impossible Creatures. The game was ultimately not released on Steam, however.

Valve partnered with a number of companies including AT&T, Acer and GameSpy Industries. The first mod on the system was Day of Defeat.[39][40]

The client application, Steam version 1.0, was first made available for download in 2002 during the beta period for Counter-Strike 1.6. At that time, it appeared to be a method of streamlining the patch process common in online computer games. Installation and use of the Steam program was mandatory for CS 1.6 beta testers, but Steam remained an optional component. 80,000-300,000 gamers tested the system when it was in its beta period[39][41] The system choked under the strain of thousands of users wanting to play the latest version of Counter-Strike, and the website also strained.[42] In 2004, the World Opponent Network was shut down and replaced by Steam.

Around this time, Valve began negotiating contracts with several publishers and independent developers to release their products on Steam. Rag Doll Kung Fu and Darwinia are two examples, and Canadian publisher Strategy First announced in December 2005 that it would be partnering with Valve for digital distribution of current and future titles. In 2002, Gabe Newell the head of Valve said he was offering mod teams a game engine license and distribution over Steam for $995.[39]

When the system was officially released to the public, users found the software to be very buggy, chokes in the connection to the Steam servers, and users were unable to install the software. It was soon mocked by many gamers experiencing difficulties. Eventually, Valve released a different type of installer via FilePlanet, but that left many waiting in download queues.[42][43]

Half-Life 2 release

On November 16, 2004, Half-Life 2 was officially released. The title required activation via Steam in order to play the game. Later in the day of the launch, a significant number of buyers (both through Steam and retail) found themselves unable to play the game, due in part to a bottleneck of Valve's Steam system. The European authentication servers went down for a reported 5 hours before being fixed, preventing those with accounts stored on them from decrypting or playing the game.[44] Other problems included long download times, glitches and seemingly unnecessary updates.[45][46][47] Some customers buying the in-store game had found that the CD keys with the game had already been hacked, users contacting support were told to wait for at least two weeks for a solution.[48] It came second in 1UP.com's Top 5 Botched PC Gaming Launches.[49]

Many hacks sprang up following Half-Life 2's launch, each claiming to be able to circumvent Steam and enable the user to get the games for free.[47] Valve responded to these hacks by patching the servers and disabling accounts. It is still possible to download and play some games from Steam, and the games are unrestricted for single-player, LAN play and on "cracked" servers (as in when they can trick the master server).[50]

Profitability

Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software, at QuakeCon 2007 presenting the release of all id Software games on Steam

In 2005, the first third-party games began to appear on Steam. Valve also announced that Steam was starting to be profitable, if only due to some highly successful Valve games. Although digital distribution was still no match to retail in terms of sales volume, and despite a still cautious user base, profit margins for Valve and developers were far bigger on Steam than at retail.[51]

In 2007, big developer-publishers such as Eidos Interactive, Capcom, and id Software started to distribute their games on Steam. In May 2007, 13 million accounts had been created on Steam, and 150 games were for sale on the platform.[52] In October 2007, with the highly successful release of The Orange Box, and the distribution of high-profile games such as BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, Steam began to take the lead in digital distribution.

2010 interface update

The 'list' view in the 2010 beta version of Steam.

On 23 February 2010, Valve released a public beta for a major update to the Steam client.[53][54] Dubbed the "UI Update", it was the client's third complete redesign since its release in 2003. The managing of games and tools was completely reworked with a new "Library" panel, and the rendering engine for the Store and Community pages was changed from Internet Explorer's Trident engine to a WebKit implementation.

Mac OS X release

On March 8, 2010, Valve announced that Steam was in development for Mac OS X and would be released in April 2010.[55] Prior to this announcement, it teased the release through several images emailed to Mac community and gaming web sites featuring Valve game characters with Apple logos or featured in parodies of old Macintosh advertisements.[56][57]

With its release, Valve will include native Mac OS X, OpenGL versions of Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Portal, and the entire Half-Life series. Portal 2, due by the end of 2010, will be simultaneously released on both the PC and Mac versions of Steam. Through "Steam Play", the Mac client will allow players who have already purchased compatible products in the PC version to re-download the Mac versions at no cost, allowing them to continue to play the game on the other platform. The Steam Cloud will be cross-platform compatible. Multiplayer games are also cross-compatible, allowing Windows and Mac players to play with each other.[55]


Criticism

Regional restrictions and pricing

Steam allows developers and publishers to change prices and restrict game availability depending on the user's location, causing some games to cost more than those bought from retail stores, despite digital distribution removing the costs of disc replication, packaging, design time, logistics and dealing with retail fronts.[58][59][60] Both regional restrictions and pricing are unpopular with Steam users, and a Steam Community group lobbying against this practice, "Rest of World", has almost 12,000 members.[61]

Some of the difficulties in selling a retailing game worldwide are detailed by a forum post from a member of Valve's staff:

Sometimes publishers are split into mostly independent North America/European/Asian divisions and one division doesn't have the rights to distribute in all areas. In order to distribute in all areas we have to negotiate deals with all the different divisions and they all have different ideas of how pricing should work and how important digital distribution is for their games. We are always trying to help them understand the importance of markets around the world as well as help them understand the importance of fair and equal pricing for all regions, but it's an ongoing struggle.

—John McCaskey, Steam programmer, August 2008[62]

One example of regional restriction can be seen where Valve uses Steam's authentication to prevent boxed versions of their games sold in Russia and Thailand, which are priced significantly lower than elsewhere, from being used outside those territories.[63]

Steam offers products in three currencies; US Dollar, Euro and Pound Sterling. The currency is selected automatically based on where the user is connecting from, and cannot be changed by the user. Due to how Steam handles the US Dollar to Euro/Pound Sterling conversion, prices in Eurozone countries are often much higher than in the United States, which has led to much criticism from European Steam users since the Euro support was introduced on December 12, 2008.[64] Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve estimated in 2002 that $30 gross profit can be made from a $50 game sold over Steam, much greater than the $7.50 profit made from games sold through retail.[40]

System failure

After downloading, it is necessary to validate every Steam game online the first time it is played,[65] although an offline mode is available. There are no alternate methods of activation such as via telephone or fax, which causes the system to deny access to those without Internet connections. According to the Steam Subscriber Agreement, Steam's availability is not guaranteed and Valve is under no legal obligation to release an update disabling the authentication system in the event that Steam becomes permanently unavailable.[66]

Despite this, Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve, said in a post on the Steam User Forums that "Unless there was some situation I don't understand, we would presumably disable authentication before any event that would preclude the authentication servers from being available." He added, "We've tested disabling authentication and it works."[67]

Temporary system failures may occur preventing users from activating their games. The first temporary system failure affected Europe on November 2004 just after Half-Life 2 was released,[44][47] and in December 2006 the root authentication servers were unavailable due to storms in Seattle.[68]. Several game tournaments had to be canceled before 2005 due to Steam server outages.[69][43]

Conflict of interest

Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software, has claimed that Valve holds a conflict of interest with Steam, since it gives them the responsibility of distributing their rivals' products. He claimed that Valve took "a larger share than it should for the service it's providing" and that they were "exploiting a lot of small guys."[70] A number of other members of the game industry then spoke out against Pitchford, including Ron Carmel of independent developer 2D Boy, who said that "no other digital distribution service I know of, PC or console, pays a higher cut of the revenues out to developers."[71] John Gibson, President of Tripwire Interactive, said that "I can say with certainty that if it weren't for Steam, there would be no Tripwire Interactive right now."

See also

References

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  51. ^ "Digital distribution: Keep the money and run?". The Hollywood Reporter. 2005-06-13. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000955338. Retrieved 2010-01-31. "Valve won't talk about how many units it's sold through Steam, but Lombardi describes the venture as being "extremely successful. Even though the lion's share of our sales is still at retail, the digital units are wildly more profitable for us."" 
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