Digital media is the future of entertainment. Not everyone will find this news comforting (there are still those amongst us who swear by the ‘feel’ and ‘ownership’ of a physical copy) but for the majority this is a logical step forward.
Technology’s primary function has always been to make our lives better and easier and although many old school gamers of my generation might wax nostalgic about the ‘glory days’, the truth is, being able to instantly access content without leaving your front room has always been a pretty exciting prospect. Paving the way for its numerous imitators, the Valve Corporations ‘Steam’ software, is the industry leader in digital gaming distribution, with millions of users across the world and a 70% digital market share.
Valve first announced its Steam platform back in 2002 at a time when digital distribution was is ins infancy. It was initially designed to be a more convenient method of streaming patches and updates but its potential as a major digital distribution and digital rights management system was soon revealed.
Today Steam users are able to pre-order a game and download it the second its released, completely negating the ‘launch day queues’ of yore. It’s also become the most cost effective manner in which to digest PC and Mac games thanks to the now legendary frequent ‘Steam Sales’ that offer fantastic discounts on hundreds of quality games of all shapes and sizes, from indie sleeper hits like ‘Castle Crashers’ to gigantic blockbusters like ‘Diablo 3’.
Perhaps the main selling point of Steam is the digital storefront, dubbed the ‘Steam Store’. The store is where customers can purchase and instantly download full games, items you can use to customise your profile and bespoke DLC content. It’s not only games bought through Steam that use the services afforded by the service either. Players can add most games bought elsewhere to their library so that they can use the attractive and ergonomic Steam overlay.
The overlay can be brought up with a simple key press and allows access to all a players community lists and settings, the overlay also allows players to take screenshots and videos of games in progress that can be shared with their friends. Speaking of which, a players friend list on Steam is comparable to their Facebook friend list and thanks to bespoke apps (available for both Android and iOS devices) players can take their ‘Steam powered’ lives with them on the go.
A players Steam profile page is a reflection of their identity, with thousands of potential customisation options and a range of features including ‘trading cards’ which can be earned through completing various in-game tasks and exchanged or bartered for extra features. Steam is also an incredibly stable platform on which to launch online multiplayer game sessions and is the industry leader in independent gaming thanks to ‘Steam Greenlight’, a platform from which Steam’s user base gets to decide which indie games make it to the storefront.
Whereas other, similarly structured software is struggling to keep up with the progressively lofty demands of the modern gamer. The sheer flexibility, convenience and monumental value of Steam has yet to be bettered or even matched. Both Sony and Microsoft have spent the last couple of years moving steadily away from the traditional ‘disc based’ business model with their respective Playstation Network and XBOX Live stores.
The ultimate goal no doubt is to render physical media completely redundant, as this would benefit the industry in a number of ways (not least of which would be the financial and environmental savings). However Steam is thus far the only platform that has the potential to supersede physical media in this generation. Not only does it have an already massive user base, but the range of games available is more than double that of both Xbox and Playstation services combined.
In the PC gaming world the only other platform that can really compare with Steam is Electronic Arts ‘Origin’, though Origin has yet to catch on with users due to its limited software roster (only EA games are available) and poor performance. As it stands, Steam is in a field of its own and for the foreseeable future it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The home console market is even a potential gold mine for Valve thanks to the upcoming ‘Steam box’, a dedicated video game console currently in development that will ship with a bespoke Linux based operating system later in the year.
Although other platforms are doing their best to catch up, Steam is fast becoming the primary source for digital PC gaming. Considering the widespread proliferation of piracy in recent years, Steam’s ascent can only be seen as a positive step for the PC gaming industry and as concepts such as ‘cloud’ gaming and ‘freemium’ business models become more standardised across the board, it’s foothold will only strengthen. The ‘next generation’ of games consoles might be on the horizon but personally I believe the Playstation 4 and Xbox One will mark the end of the traditional console era.
As all media (be it games, music or films and TV) becomes more accessible and cheaper via digital distribution, traditional, physical formats will eventually become a thing of the past. And when this eventuality comes to pass, Steam will be there standing head and shoulders above the competition.
Valve began life in 1996 as a humble software company with lofty ambitions. Former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington set about creating what was to become the 20th centuries defining 1st person action adventure game 'Half Life', the game that launched not only Valve, but an entirely fresh genre. This was a first person shooter game paced like a hollywood movie with the production values and plotting to match. That it was designed using the outdated Quake engine was even more impressive, it wasn't until 2004 that Valve developed its own 'Source' engine. The monumental international of success of Half Life took the developers by surprise but it didn't hamper their creative drive. Over the ensuing years they have released some of the most critically acclaimed and commercially popular video games of all time including the still unbeaten 'Half Life 2' and its episodic sequels, the peerlessly unique, zeitgeist defining puzzle game 'Portal' and recent free-to-play massively multiplayer RTS game 'Dota 2'. Valve remains an independent company that operates on its own terms and its games all share the same subtle sense of humour and tight focused gameplay. Steam though is perhaps the most notable of all the companies various triumphs with its fusion of social media networking and a traditional gaming platform delivered in a non traditional manner.
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