Jan 29, 2010
What is Steam?
Launched admist great controversy back in 2003, Steam is Valve Software's digital distribution system for games. It is a free stand-alone program which provides a wide range of game-related services including game downloads, server browsing, instant messaging, friend lists, automatic game patching, and more. Steam has grown at a dramatic rate over the years, and is generally considered the market leader in digital distribution for games. As a private company, Valve isn't required to disclose statistics on the service, but in February 2009 they claimed to have 20 million active accounts.
Buying and Downloading Games
The selection of games on Steam has become very large. They now offer hundreds of titles ranging from MMOGs to casual games, as well as Valve's own shooters like Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, and Team Fortress 2. Steam accepts most popular credit cards and PayPal.
You don't receive any box or game disks when you purchase games on Steam. Instead, you download the game through the Steam client. Some games are very large, but Steam does give you the option to pause downloads, or resume them in the event of a computer crash. If you order a game before release, you can pre-load it to reduce the download time on the launch date. You can download the games as many times as you want, and access them through any system with the Steam client installed. You can also back them up onto disks to speed up the reinstall process. All of your Steam games are available under a single username and password.
When you buy boxed versions of games that require Steam from a retail outlet, Steam is included on the disks. You then need to register the game on your Steam account using the included CD key, after which you will be able to launch and update the game through Steam.
Games that don't require Steam can be added to Steam for the sake of convenience, but some Steam services, such as automatic patching, may not be supported.
Unlike most digital distribution systems, Steam strives to be a complete package. It now has instant messaging, voice chat, and a game server browser. You can create a friend list that will let you know when they are online and what they're playing, as well as allowing you to join them, assuming you have the same game, with the click of a button.
Every user is given a profile which is updated with their game stats and achievements. This can be shared with people on your friend list or groups you have joined. Groups are a good place to schedule games and tournaments, as well as discuss the games you're playing.
Another handy feature in Steam is an "overlay" function that makes it possible to communicate with your friends even if you're playing different games. You can bring up your friend list without leaving the game, and they've also added a mini-browser that gives you Web access without minimizing your game window. It all works remarkably well, and it has streamlined the entire process of gaming with friends.
Although Steam is an online service, you can use the offline mode to play games when you don't have an Internet connection. You need to connect to the network to setup games on your account and configure offline mode, but after that you can play single-player games while disconnected. To use offline mode you need to make sure all your games are fully updated, and check the "Remember My Password" box on the login screen. You will then be able to start Steam in offline mode.
Digital Rights Management
Steam serves as a form of digital rights management (DRM) by authenticating games that use it on Steam's network. Most major multiplayer online games have had similar systems in place for many years, but Steam authenticates all games sold on the service, whether multiplayer or single-player.
The system is not fool proof. It is possible to hack a single-player game and remove all Steam components so that it will run without authenticating. However, this will also cripple the game's multiplayer features (if it has any), and disable the download of additional content for the game. Several of Steam's features actually act as incentives to keep people from cracking their games.
Despite Steam's phenomenal success, some controversy about the service still lingers. It rules out trading games second-hand, and you're not allowed to sell your account. While other digital distribution sites like Direct2Drive and Impulse don't have comparable community features, they are less restrictive about what you can do with a game after purchasing it.