Is the Steam service from Valve the future of PC gaming?

by Administrator | May 03, 2010

In recent times, downloadable games have become one of the biggest growth areas in the gaming industry, with every major games console including a download service: for the Xbox 360 users are able to access Xbox Live, for the PlayStation 3 there is the PlayStation Network and for the Nintendo Wii users are able to access and buy games through the WiiWare channel. While some of the games sold through these services are smaller, low profile games, this is not always the case. For the Xbox 360 full retail games are downloadable through Xbox Live.

However, one of the most well-regarded game download services is the one offered by Valve Corporation, creators of the Half-Life games franchise. The name of it is Steam and PC gamers all around the world will recognise it.

It is not just well-regarded, and although Valve do not release sales figures, competitors and industry experts consider Steam to be the market leader in digital distribution of games, controlling an estimated 70% of the games download market, with 25 million users worldwide. As such, it is fair to say that Steam is probably the most important digital distribution channel for video games in the world. This is reflected in the list of big-label publishers who sell games through Steam including Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Activision, amongst others.

Gaming with the Steam Service

A major part of its success is undoubtedly due to the fact that it includes a number of community features, similar to features found within Xbox Live. Multiplayer lobbies are included for PPC gamers to meet up and set up multiplayer games and there are services such as peer-to-peer VoIP services and instant messaging. These are accessible both through a browser and as an overlay program within games themselves, allowing a level of social gaming beyond other digital distribution services.

With regards to the future of PC gaming there is one area where Steam can be viewed as a particularly important service and that is in the controversial arena of DRM, or Digital Rights Management. This is a controversial subject amongst gamers, seen by publishers as a necessity to prevent software piracy and seen by gamers as a Draconian measure which ruins the games it is meant to protect. Particularly controversial is the Uplay system used by publisher Ubisoft, made infamous by the recent release of Assassin's Creed II, which required the player to be online at all times for the game to work. Without an internet connection players were simply unable to play the game. This also included such times as when the player's internet connection went down, through no fault of their own, or times when, for example, their gaming laptop couldn't connect through WiFi.

With Steam the ethos is very different and one of the key differences is in the number of PCs or laptops the game can be installed on. With services such as SecuROM, there is usually a limit to the number of PCs or laptops the game can be installed on (in the case of the Electronic Arts game Spore, the number of installations was limited to three). With Steam there is no such limit and users can install any game they've bought to any number of PCs or laptops; it simply requires a Steam account to validate the game once, and then it can be played online or offline, however the player wishes.

Steam seems to be the first game download and community service that is suited to absolutely any user as well as being a DRM system that actually helps the player as well as the publisher. As games can also be played offline it is the perfect system for gaming laptops as it will allow the player to play games without needing an internet connection.

image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paalb

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