Where would the PC gaming market be without Steam, the digital distribution platform that was developed by Valve Corporation more than a decade ago? It likely would be in worse shape than it is now, but that’s not to say it would be bad.
First, despite the repeated cries that “PC gaming is dead,” the state of PC gaming is actually pretty good and PC gaming is very much alive because of Steam, which also offers digital rights management, multiplayer game hosting and social networking services.
Valve can take a lot of the credit. Steam was the largest digital distribution platform for PC gaming as of late 2013, and it accounted for about 75 percent of the market space, according to a Screen Digest report. Games purchased through Steam accounted for about 15 percent of total PC game sales for the year.
The service had more than 125 million users by the end of 2015. It tallied 12.5 million concurrent users on that year’s Halloween.
Good for Games… Mostly
Steam has leveled the playing field in many ways, supporting titles from leading publishers while providing a reliable platform for the discovery of independent games. Without Steam, many small studios wouldn’t even get a chance to bring their titles to market.
Multiplayer gaming has benefited in countless ways too.
Valve, which released Steam in 2003, also created the platform to ensure that games would be updated and patched when gamers logged in. That helped ensure that all users had the same version, something that had been a problem with multiplayer games up to then. The platform further created stronger antipiracy and anticheat measures.
It might seem that Steam is really the best thing that has happened to PC gaming — but Steam also has been a curse. For families, it could be the very worst thing to happen to PC gaming.
DRM and Storefront in One
What sets Steam apart from past services isn’t just the fact that it is a matchmaking service for multiplayer games, even if that has been a big part of its success. It is the fact that Steam has been able to reduce computer game piracy to a great extent, because each and every game’s serial number is tied to a user ID that is required to play the game.
That solved a problem that plagued PC gaming for years — namely that a single copy could be shared by friends, even uploaded online. With the advent of online gaming, PC developers were able to make it difficult for two people to use the same software at the same time if there were only one serial number.
That is, it was possible if they were playing online. It remained possible for friends to share codes for games that weren’t played online. While that might not seem like a big deal, it was a huge problem for game developers that viewed such sharing as lost sales.
The requirement that games be tied to an account means that it is impossible for two people to play the same game, even offline. That should be a good thing, but it really isn’t.
The first issue is that online connectivity is required even for single player games.
Steam actually prevents ANY game that requires the service to be played offline. That means when Steam is down, all the games that players have in its library are inaccessible. Gamers can’t play games on airplanes or anywhere they can’t log into the service.
One Account, One Computer
A bigger problem with Steam’s system is that it hurts families and couples who like to play games on multiple computers.
The problem is that Steam does allow accounts to be used on multiple computers. If one account has multiple games, they can be accessed only by that account on a single computer.
This is akin to having a cable TV service with multiple set-top boxes, but being allowed to watch TV only on one set at a time.
Valve’s counter-argument could be that cable TV subscribers pay more to have multiple boxes, but Valve doesn’t even offer such an option for the Steam service.
What this means is that if an account holder bought Civilization V and Call of Duty, the legitimate owner could play either game, but the other game would be inaccessible during that time.
So if a husband and wife — and yes, I’m speaking from experience — want to play two different games at the same time, they need to own multiple copies of each game, even if they have no intention of engaging in a multiplayer match.
Multiple Copies of the Same Game
Steam does offer sales and promotions offering multiple copies of games — usually those that have a robust multiplayer version — but this falls short of solving the problem.
To date, Steam doesn’t offer sub-accounts like Netflix and other video-streaming services do, which is a shame. Games, especially new triple-A titles like Civilization VI, for example, are expensive. What is a family that owns multiple computers to do?
The game industry could argue that if two family members want to play a game at the same time, then they should pay for the privilege. The issue with Steam is that each account needs to purchase the game if it is ever to be played.
If I choose to play Verdun, a favered World War I shooter, that prevents my wife from playing any of the other games linked to my account.
An argument could be made to have multiple Steam accounts, with games assigned to each, but short of a unique account for each game — something that even Valve discourages but hasn’t yet banned — that means users need to keep track of more passwords and logins.
These issues may explain why Valve was even given an “F” grade from the Better Business Bureau in 2015, in light of the way the company handled complaints related to gamers being locked out of their libraries, and for non-working game redemption keys.
These issues are quite serious, especially because so many game publishers require that their games run on Steam. Requiring consumers to deal with Steam in essence gives it a monopoly — and one with rather poor customer service.
Who Owns the Game?
My wife and I now buy the games we like, and if either of us has an interest in something the other is playing, we watch for a sale. For us, this an easy solution that isn’t too cost prohibitive.
Here is the thing, though. We’re not hardcore gamers. In fact, we’re not even really what you would call “serious” gamers by today’s standards. We do enjoy a few strategy games, and I personally like to try out some historic shooters — so Steam isn’t really hurting us.
Its business model does hurt serious hardcore gamers, though — especially families with multiple computers used by multiple gamers.
No, PC gaming isn’t dead, and it has Steam to thank for that. However, the health of PC gaming is restricted by a policy that often makes it impossible for those who paid good money for a game to be able to play it.