Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
August 21, 2014
arrowPress Releases
August 21, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

The DRM Distinction of Steam's Success
by Josh Bycer on 05/08/13 02:37:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Reprinted from my site: Game-Wisdom

The release of Sim City 5 and the subsequent server crashes preventing people from playing showed one of the major criticisms of always on DRM. Most gamers have expressed their disapproval at Origin for a while now for many reasons and Sim City 5's release was the new poster child.

During the Game-Wisdom podcast we got on the subject of EA and how much of an opposite they are from Valve with Steam. Leading to today's post as we look at what Valve has done to become king of the hill.


A Steamy History:

Let's get one important fact out of the way: Steam is a form of DRM and its basic function is the same as Origin, Uplay, Impulse and any other DRM you can think of. Back in 2003 (man has it really been that long already?) Valve wanted to figure out an easier way to protect Half Life 2 from piracy.

They came up with an idea to attach Half Life 2 CD Keys to an online account, thus always knowing who had bought a copy of the game and preventing people from just copying the data to another computer. As a side benefit, through Steam they were also able to track metrics on games from: how much time spent playing, what achievements unlocked, how long people spent at different sections etc.

The idea quickly became popular with publishers and other developers who liked the idea of having this control over game copies and signed up to be included on the store side of Steam.

However this did not sit right with a lot of gamers, who found the whole concept to be intrusive. While the sale of Half Life 2 sparked a lot of accounts to be created on Steam, most people didn't bother with the service afterwards.

For people with slow or spotty internet, the service didn't work so well. Personally, after playing Half Life 2, I didn't go back to Steam until 2007 with the release of the Orange Box.

Obviously you can see the parallels between Steam and Origin: A mandatory online service that locks your game purchases to it. However, where people have come to hate Origin, they have rallied behind Steam. Leaving us with a million dollar question that everyone wants to know: What did Steam do so incredibly right?

Valve's success story with Steam can't be attributed to just one element, but several that helped elevate Steam from just a DRM service compared to other ones:

1. A Proper Give and Take:

With any kind commercial product there is a give and take from the manufacturer: they take your money and in return give you a quality product. With Steam, Valve knew that they were taking away some of the basic freedoms people had with older CD games, namely being able to play them anywhere and at anytime. And that to keep people happy and grow Steam, they had to give something back.

Over the years, Steam has gradually become more than just a digital store and DRM: unified friends list, massive sales and facebook integration are just some of the features Steam offers to people who use the service.

Valve has gotten better over time with making it as easy as possible to use the service: such as allowing preloading on major games, providing early bird discounts and preorder bonuses. They have also built up good will by providing good customer support unlike EA who it seems like every time they have a problem, they threaten people with disabling their Origin accounts.

One of the biggest criticisms that have stuck with Steam was that you always had to be online to access your games. However, they have eased off that over the years by allowing you to use Steam in offline mode. Granted you can't access multiplayer games and those that haven't been downloaded, but it still allows you to play games if your internet is out.

2. Providing Service to both sides:

Steam like any digital retailer is a middle man between the consumer and the product/manufacturer. In order for a store to stay in business it has to keep both groups happy: the consumers have to get the best deals and good service, while the manufacturer needs to make sure that their product is handled properly.

Dropping every game to a penny would be great for the consumers, but would ruin any chance of the developers making money. While forcing gamers to download more DRM or jump through additional hoops may be the request of the developer, but would piss off the consumers.

Steam's store has grown over the years to now feature daily sales and pre-order bonuses

Valve has turned Steam into a win-win for both sides and has gained the trust of both the consumers and the developers.

Steam's customer support and features makes it very appealing for gamers to buy the steam version. While working with developers to get them in on special deals and the ever lucrative: "Steam holiday Sales".

Games like The Binding of Isaac, whose content may have been too much to put in a retail store, were welcomed by Steam and proudly displayed multiple times on the front page.

Steam's built in copy protection, multiplayer architecture and analytics are great for developers as they can make use of them without any additional software or fees. The best part is that the developers don't have to worry about any complaints from Steam owners, as they already have gotten used to and enjoy those features.

 3. Valve's Good Will:

Simply put: Valve has done a lot more to earn gamers’ respect and trust compared to EA or Ubisoft and that has helped tremendously with Steam. Personally I think the reason is that Steam was not developed from a publisher point of view like Origin or U-Play, but from a designer. Valve knew what they wanted Steam to be and wanted to build a quality product much like a video game.

While EA and Ubisoft wanted software that allowed them to maximize profits and basically help them first and foremost.  As I talked about earlier, Valve has done a good job with balancing support between the consumer and the developer. But EA and Ubisoft, most of their decisions are meant to only benefit themselves and gamers know that.

One major example was the supposed rumor of why EA pulled their titles off of Steam, which had to do with EA wanting more control over DLC pricing which Valve wouldn't allow.

Who can forget the uproar over U-Play for kicking people out of their single player games if they lost their internet connection? And of course there is the little matter of Simcity 5 with always on DRM rumored to be shoehorned in by EA. Not to mention their recent announcement of wanting micro transactions in every game. While when Valve makes a change to Steam in some way there will be a benefit to both the consumers and the developers.

Now Valve has not been infallible over the years and has slipped up from time to time. Greenlight which sounded good on paper has ran into loads of problems with quality games still not getting on Steam, while something like The War Z having no issue.

Many people don't like how Steam has become such a golden ticket for indie developers -- as getting your game into the hands of all the Steam users has proven to have a big affect on game sales above other sources.

But with that said, comparing Valve to EA in terms of mistakes and negative opinions, it's easy to see who would come out the worst. While I agree that having one store become the monopoly is not good, it's hard to really root for the other companies after Valve has done so many things right with Steam. The only other digital retailer that I trust has been Good Old Games and between Steam and GOG, I'm pretty much set for games.

This year marks ten years that Steam has been in service and it's amazing how much the state of the game industry has changed thanks to it. With Valve still moving forward with the Steambox idea, who knows where the company will be in another ten years.

Related Jobs

Retro Studios - Nintendo
Retro Studios - Nintendo — Austin, Texas, United States

Gameplay Engineer
Crystal Dynamics
Crystal Dynamics — Redwood City, California, United States

Trion Worlds
Trion Worlds — Redwood City, California, United States

Senior Gameplay Engineer
GREE International
GREE International — San Francisco, California, United States

Senior Software Engineer, Unity


Adam Rebika
profile image
The Steambox. If it allows, and it certainly will, people to get all their Steam games on it, it will simply be the strongest selling point any console ever had at launch in its history.

Nate Anonymous
profile image
I don't see Valve getting away with a "we build it and they will come" strategy with the Steambox. At its core, the Steambox looks like Steam as an OS built on the linux kernal. Unfortunately, from what I've read Linux use has flatlined on Steam despite their increase in the number of games ported.

And Microsoft is coming. Assuming the Xbox strategy remains where discs are just install media and online activation/DRM is the real system, how soon until Microsoft ports the entire Xbox DRM storefront to PC? And then makes it a mandatory, or even exclusive, install on Windows? While I think that the Microsoft's Xbox strategy will probably lose to the PS4 because of the used game controversy, they may be able to steal a large market share from Steam on Windows.

Valve needs a big push in order to their install rates high enough to convince the other major publishers to get on board and start porting their libraries. The best way they can do this is look to history. Make Half Life 3 a Steam Linux / Steambox exclusive, at least for the first 3 months, handholding the customers into setting up dual-boot installs, etc. Or if they want to be nicer, they could sacrifice revenue by offering Half Life 3 75% off for the Linux version, day 1.

Once you have the install base, Valve can make the argument that gamers should always opt for Steam OS whenever playing games, as their OS devotes 100% of the systems resources to the game by killing off all the Windows background processes.

Marc Magi
profile image
Quote "One of the biggest criticisms that have stuck with Steam was that you always had to be online to access your games. However, they have eased off that over the years by allowing you to use Steam in offline mode. Granted you can't access multiplayer games and those that haven't been downloaded, but it still allows you to play games if your internet is out."


True, but only for a period of 10 to 14 days. After that period you will get a popup box notifying you to connect to the Steam Network. Once you do so and get the usual steam and game updates you can stay offline again for another 10 to 14 days. Not a problem in most First World Countries or even Third World Countries but there are always exceptions.

Also, and this is another fact that game writes seem to forget, but once in offline mode, you get a popup box asking you to go online or stay in offline mode whenever you reboot or cold start your system.

Neither fact is troublesome for most people but neither are they technically necessary for the use of Steam either.

While I like Steam there are many minor irritations with the service but I'll only mention one more. On the issue of Steam Sales, while you can certainly make out like a bandit to legally own a large number of software, once you have made purchases of any 3/4/5 player game bundle, you are barred from another similar purchase again. So, for instance, if an older wealthier Clan leader wanted to purchase multiple copies of a game for some or all of his clan mates, he could take advantage of a bundle sale (keep a copy for himself and gift the others). But he would not be permitted to purchase any more of that bundle whether the item was on sale or not unless he used a different Steam Account each time.

Last, while I have no particular fondness for EA or Origin, I don't think that DLC pricing was the only issue between EA and Steam. Obviously, for starters, they are competitors and if you can keep your catalog of games on your game game service this should benefit you at least in the short term. Also, if I understand correctly, EA and other companies have an issue with Steam regarding the subject of game patches. Apparently, Valve mandates that all game patches come via Steam and not be available solely or alternately from other venues such as a company's web site.