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Steam (content delivery)

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Steam
Original author(s)Valve Corporation
Developer(s)Valve Corporation
Initial releaseSeptember 12, 2003 (2003-09-12)[1]
Stable releaseAPI: v009 Package: 55/1082
 (January 22, 2010; 2 months ago) [+/−]
Preview releaseAPI: v009 Package: 55/1081
 (January 21, 2010; 2 months ago) [+/−]
Written inC++
Operating systemMicrosoft Windows[2]
PlatformPC
Size41.5 megabytes
Available in21 languages
Development statusActive
TypeContent delivery, digital rights management (DRM), social networking
LicenseSteam Subscriber Agreement (Proprietary software)
Websitehttp://store.steampowered.com/

Steam is a digital distribution, digital rights management, multiplayer and communications platform developed by Valve Corporation. It is used to distribute a large number of games and related media entirely over the internet, from small independent efforts to larger, more popular games. Steam is set apart from similar services primarily by its community features, completely automated game update process, and its use of in-game functionality.

There are over 1,000 games available on Steam, and in January 2010 Valve announced that it had surpassed 25 million active user accounts.[3] It regularly services in excess of two million concurrent users.[4] Although Valve never releases sales figures, Steam is considered by its competitors and clients to be the market leader, controlling an estimated 70% of the digital distribution market.[5]

Many major publishers have catalogues on Steam, including Electronic Arts, Activision, 2K Games, Ubisoft, THQ, Sega, Codemasters, LucasArts, id Software, and BioWare.

Contents

Client functionality

Steam allows users to purchase computer games entirely digitally. Instead of receiving a box, disc, or even CD key, purchased software is immediately attached to the user's Steam account. Content can be downloaded from Steam servers unlimited times to any number of internet-connected computers that have the Steam client installed. Users who buy boxed games sold at retail stores must register the game on Steam with the included CD key, which will then be attached to the user's Steam account in the same way a digital purchase is, and act in every way like a digital copy. To play, users typically launch the game from the client's built-in list of currently installed games. Steam provides a server browser for users to search, filter, bookmark, and join internet and LAN servers for games that integrate with it. It can be accessed from the desktop and from an integrated game's menu system, and queries friends to show a list of servers to which a user's contacts are connected.

Steam automates the process of downloading the content and keeping it up to date for the user. All patches are downloaded as soon as they become available, and if there are multiple versions (e.g. a 64-bit edition), the correct one will be chosen automatically based on the computer's hardware and/or software environment. This process happens every time the user logs in, or a game is launched, ensuring that as many users as possible will have the latest software.

Steam transfers content over its own protocol, as opposed to the more common web protocols, such as HTTP and FTP. It downloads from a set of dedicated content servers spread out across the world, connecting to several at once to try to ensure a fast and stable connection.[6][7] The servers are organized into geographic cells to help clients choose intelligently which to connect to.[8]

Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC), Valve's proprietary anti-cheat system, is available for online game servers to use. On VAC-secured servers, it automatically detects users that connect to the server who are using third-party modifications to give themselves unfair advantages.[9]

Localization

Steam is currently available in the following languages: Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, and Thai.

Steam sells its products in US Dollars, Euros and Pound Sterling. The currency is automatically chosen based on the user's location.[10]

Mods

Steam's interface treats mods in almost exactly the same way as it does purchased games, and even distributes popular mods for free.[11] This is in contrast with most games that offer no built-in launch utility at all. Mods appear in a user's list of installed games with the icons, developer links and other such details that are used by full games.[12] They can also use VAC, Friends, the server browser, and any other Steam feature supported by their parent game.

Multiplayer lobbies and matchmaking

Introduced in Left 4 Dead and made available through Steamworks, a lobby system allows for players to organize and agree on game settings before joining a server and a matchmaking system can automatically group players together based on a certain criteria.

Payment

In November 2008 Steam's payment system was switched from a wizard embedded within the client to a web-based basket/checkout process.[13] The checkout system expanded on the wizard by allowing users to buy multiple games at the same time and by allowing the storage of billing address details between transactions.

Games can either be bought individually or as part of packages; Steam accepts most popular credit cards and some debit cards, as well as PayPal and ClickAndBuy.[14]

Steam Community

File:Steam community.PNG
The Steam Community's homepage

On 12 September 2007, Valve released the Steam Community, a social network service that allows Steam users to communicate with each other on a many-to-many scale.[15] It is accessible from both the desktop (in a web browser or the Steam client) and through an "overlay" program that can be viewed on top of 3D-accelerated games. In January 2010, Valve reported that 10 million of the 25 million active Steam accounts had signed up to Steam Community.[3]

Notwithstanding privacy settings, a user's page includes some brief personal information, links to any friends' user pages, details of any games owned, the number of hours of playtime during the past two weeks, a 0-10 'Steam Rating' of activity,[16] and links to any groups of which the user is a member. Users can also receive a feed of their friends' actions, including groups joined, games purchased, and Steam Achievements earned.

An IM conversation in Steam

Friends, Steam's instant messaging tool, supports both one-to-one and group conversations, held publicly or privately, and Peer-to-Peer VOIP. It provides extended information about what games each user is playing, allowing others to join their contacts in Steam-integrated multiplayer games.

Steam Cloud

In mid-2008 Valve announced their plans to provide Steam users with the ability to store game settings and saves on a central server. This allows users to more easily install Steam on a new computer or play Steam games on multiple computers. In this automatic process, any changes to game files are uploaded to the main server, and newer files are automatically downloaded and used when a game is started.[17] The first game to use this technology was Left 4 Dead; the service may eventually support all Valve games and is already used by other developers selling their games on Steam.[18]

Downloadable content

On 16 March 2009, Steam gained the capability to distribute premium downloadable content.[19] This was debuted with two new levels for The Maw. DLC, if available, is listed on the game's store page. New DLC releases are listed alongside full games in the "New Releases" section on the storefront.

File system

Steam-integrated games are stored as single non-compressed archive files with the extension .gcf (an acronym for Game Cache File[20]). Steam allocates space on the user's hard disk for .gcf files before downloading in order to reduce fragmentation which may occur when downloading large files and performing disk access. This helps to make games more portable, to stop users from accidentally overwriting important files, and to allow for easy modification of resources.[21] For games that do not integrate, a 'No Cache File' system is provided. Here, a .ncf index file points to a folder of loose files somewhere else on the system.[22]

This system also allows Steam to validate its downloaded content for errors,[23] a process that gives many of the benefits of reinstalling in a fraction of the time.

Steamworks

On January 28, 2008, Valve released Steamworks, a free development and publishing suite that gives developers access to every component of Steam.[24] Steamworks can be combined with a standard Steam distribution agreement, the latter of which gives it advertising space in the Steam store but also provides Valve with a share of revenue; Audiosurf became the first game to be released in this way on February 15, 2008.[25]

Most games using the Steamworks API also opt for a presence in the Steam store. The only known exception (since Valve does not make announcements about such games) is NBA 2K9.[26]

Promotions

"Guest Passes" are allocated to a user when he or she purchases an applicable game. The user can then share the passes with others who have not purchased the game, allowing the new user to play the game for a limited time (which varies depending on the game). Once an activated guest pass expires, the recipient will be prompted to purchase the game in order to continue playing. The number of guest passes available to a game purchaser is determined on a game-by-game basis, and they expire one month after being granted if not used.[27]

Users who already owned either Half-Life 2 or Half-Life 2: Episode One and who purchased The Orange Box are eligible to give full copies of these games to friends. These "Gifts" do not expire. Valve does not allow these gifts to be bought, sold or traded because doing so violates the Steam Subscriber Agreement, and Valve may disable the Steam accounts of users who are believed by Valve to have done that.[27]

"Free Weekends" are multi-player promotions in which a game becomes free to play on Steam for a weekend. When the promotion ends participant users can no longer play the game, but the game's files can remain installed on their PCs which would save time in downloading future updates if they purchase the game.

At the end of each week, Steam offers a temporary "Weekend Deal": a title or pack of titles heavily discounted (50-75% is typical). The promotion ends as the following week begins. In December 2009, an extended Year-End version of this deal was offered, with different games sold at significant discounts each day until January 3, 2010.

Steam has also allowed Valve to run the subscription-based Valve Cyber Café Program,[28] which is the only legal way for a cyber café to offer Steam-based games. There are two pricing models: a flat-rate per-client fee each month, or the "Valve Time Tracker" system that offers a pay-as-you-go model.

Hardware promotions

Steam keeps a record of the hardware in the computer it is running on for various purposes, one of which is enabling hardware manufacturers to run after-sale promotions directly to their customers. Both AMD's ATi and nVidia use this feature: owners of ATi's Radeon video cards receive Half-Life 2: Lost Coast and Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, as well as a discount on Half-Life 2[29], while owners of nVidia's GeForce video cards receive Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, Portal: First Slice (a demo of Portal, now available to all Steam users for free) and Peggle Extreme (now available to all Steam users for free).[30]

History

Beginnings

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Steam's development began at an uncertain date prior to 2002. Prior to "Steam", its codenames were "Grid" and "Gazelle".[31] It was revealed to the public on 22 March 2002 at the Game Developers Conference,[32] and was presented purely as a distribution network. To demonstrate the ease of integrating Steam to a game, Relic Entertainment had created a special version of Impossible Creatures. The game was ultimately not released on Steam, however.

Valve partnered with a number of companies including AT&T, Acer and GameSpy Industries. The first mod on the system was Day of Defeat.[33][34]

The client application, Steam version 1.0, was first made available for download in 2002 during the beta period for Counter-Strike 1.6. At that time, it appeared to be a method of streamlining the patch process common in online computer games. Installation and use of the Steam program was mandatory for CS 1.6 beta testers, but Steam remained an optional component. 80,000-300,000 gamers tested the system when it was in its beta period[33][35] The system choked under the strain of thousands of users wanting to play the latest version of Counter-Strike, and the website also strained.[36] In 2004, the World Opponent Network was shut down and replaced by Steam.

Around this time, Valve began negotiating contracts with several publishers and independent developers to release their products on Steam. Rag Doll Kung Fu and Darwinia are two examples, and Canadian publisher Strategy First announced in December 2005 that it would be partnering with Valve for digital distribution of current and future titles. In 2002, Gabe Newell the head of Valve said he was offering mod teams a game engine license and distribution over Steam for $995.[33]

When the system was officially released to the public, users found the software to be very buggy, chokes in the connection to the Steam servers, and users were unable to install the software. It was soon mocked by many gamers experiencing difficulties. Eventually, Valve released a different type of installer via FilePlanet, but that left many waiting in download queues.[36][37]

Half-Life 2 release

On November 16 2004 Half-Life 2 was officially released. The title required activation via Steam in order to play the game. Later in the day of the launch, a significant number of buyers (both through Steam and retail) found themselves unable to play the game, due in part to a bottleneck of Valve's Steam system. The European authentication servers went down for a reported 5 hours before being fixed, preventing those with accounts stored on them from decrypting or playing the game.[38] Other problems included long download times, glitches and seemingly unnecessary updates.[39][40][41] Some customers buying the in-store game had found that the CD-Keys with the game had already been hacked, users contacting support were told to wait for at least two weeks for a solution.[42] It came second in 1UP.com's Top 5 Botched PC Gaming Launches.[43]

Many hacks sprang up following Half-Life 2's launch, each claiming to be able to circumvent Steam and enable the user to get the games for free.[41] Valve responded to these hacks by patching the servers and disabling accounts. It is still possible to download and play some games from Steam, and the games are unrestricted for single-player, LAN play and on "cracked" servers (as in when they can trick the master server).[44]

Profitability

Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software, at QuakeCon 2007 presenting the release of all id Software games on Steam

In 2005, the first third-party games began to appear on Steam. Valve also announced that Steam was starting to be profitable, if only due to some highly successful Valve games. Although digital distribution was still no match to retail in terms of sales volume, and despite a still cautious user base, profit margins for Valve and developers were far bigger on Steam than at retail.[45]

In 2007, big publishers such as Eidos Interactive, Capcom, and id Software started to distribute their games on Steam. In May 2007, 13 million accounts had been created on Steam, and 150 games were for sale on the platform.[46] In October 2007, with the highly successful release of the Orange Box, and the distribution of high-profile games such as BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, Steam began to take the lead in digital distribution.

Criticism

Regional restrictions and pricing

Steam allows developers and publishers to change prices and restrict game availability depending on the user's location, causing some games to cost more than those bought from retail stores, despite digital distribution removing the costs of disc replication, packaging, design time, logistics and dealing with retail fronts.[47][48][49] Both regional restrictions and pricing are unpopular with Steam users, and a Steam Community group lobbying against this practice, "Rest of World", has almost 12,000 members.[50]

Some of the difficulties in selling a retailing game worldwide are detailed by a forum post from a member of Valve's staff:

Sometimes publishers are split into mostly independent North America/European/Asian divisions and one division doesn't have the rights to distribute in all areas. In order to distribute in all areas we have to negotiate deals with all the different divisions and they all have different ideas of how pricing should work and how important digital distribution is for their games. We are always trying to help them understand the importance of markets around the world as well as help them understand the importance of fair and equal pricing for all regions, but it's an ongoing struggle.

—John McCaskey, Steam programmer, August 2008[51]

While Valve does not have region restrictions on their own games, they do use Steam's authentication to prevent boxed versions of their games sold in Russia and Thailand, which are priced significantly lower than elsewhere, from being used outside those territories.[52]

Steam offers products in three currencies; US Dollar, Euro and Pound Sterling. The currency is selected automatically based on where the user is connecting from, and cannot be changed by the user. Due to how Steam handles the US Dollar to Euro/Pound Sterling conversion, prices in Eurozone countries are often much higher than in the United States, which has led to much criticism from European Steam users since the Euro support was introduced on December 12, 2008.[53] Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve estimated in 2002 that $30 gross profit can be made from a $50 game sold over Steam, much greater than the $7.50 profit made from games sold through retail.[34]

System failure

The error European owners of Half-Life 2 received when trying to activate their game

After downloading, it is necessary to validate every Steam game online the first time it is played,[54] although an offline mode is available. There are no alternate methods of activation such as via telephone or fax, which causes the system to deny access to those without Internet connections. According to the Steam Subscriber Agreement, Steam's availability is not guaranteed and Valve is under no legal obligation to release an update disabling the authentication system in the event that Steam becomes permanently unavailable.[55]

Despite this, Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve, said in a post on the Steam User Forums that "Unless there was some situation I don't understand, we would presumably disable authentication before any event that would preclude the authentication servers from being available." He added, "We've tested disabling authentication and it works."[56]

Temporary system failures may occur preventing users from activating their games. The first temporary system failure affected Europe on November 2004 just after Half-Life 2 was released,[38][41] and in December 2006 the root authentication servers were unavailable due to storms in Seattle.[57] Many game tournaments had to be canceled before 2005 due to Steam server outages.[58][37]

Default auto-updates

Steam automatically patches games, eliminating the need for users to manually discover, download and install game updates. Although this is intended as a convenience to both players and developers, to those with a slow internet connection or limited bandwidth it can be a problem because Steam will not launch a game if it knows there is an update available. Furthermore, once the update has been installed it cannot be removed: if a patch accidentally makes a game incompatible with certain hardware, a user will be left with no way to access their game. (It is possible to deactivate automatic updates in each game's properties panel, but they must still be updated before being launched.)

Steam does provide an offline mode under which it will not connect to the internet and thus not discover or download new patches. However, in order to activate it a user must first have each Steam game they want to run fully up to date.[59]

Another complaint with enforced updates is that patches can raise the system requirements of a game, or of Steam itself. On June 30, 2007, users who ran Windows 98 or Windows Me were no longer allowed to run Steam or any games that previously supported those operating systems. However, under one percent of Steam users were affected by these changes.[60] Installing Steam on either of these operating systems results in an error forwarding the user to the Steam support website.[61] At the same time, users without SSE processors were warned that Source engine games would no longer function "within the next few months" if they did not upgrade their computer hardware (due to the impending release of its multiprocessor update).

Resale limitation

Games bought through Steam cannot be resold. The Steam Subscriber Agreement denies users the right to "sell, charge others for the right to use or otherwise transfer [an] account"; Valve disables any accounts that they believe to have been sold or transferred.[55][62] Furthermore, retail purchases which have already been tied to a Steam account will not be transferred to another if the receipt presented to Valve as proof of purchase is from an "online auction website or used software vendor".[63] This prevents players from swapping, re-selling or borrowing Steam titles.[42]

Conflict of interest

Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software, has claimed that Valve holds a conflict of interest with Steam, since it gives them the responsibility of distributing their rivals' products. He claimed that Valve took "a larger share than it should for the service it's providing" and that they were "exploiting a lot of small guys."[64] A number of other members of the game industry then spoke out against Pitchford, including Ron Carmel of independent developer 2D Boy, who said that "no other digital distribution service I know of, PC or console, pays a higher cut of the revenues out to developers."[65] John Gibson, President of Tripwire Interactive, said that "I can say with certainty that if it weren't for Steam, there would be no Tripwire Interactive right now."

Steamworks integration

Direct2Drive, a competing digital distribution service, refused to sell Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 because as a Steamworks game it required Steam to be installed. The company released a statement saying "we believe strongly that when you buy a game from us, you shouldn't be forced to install and run a 3rd party software client to be able to play the game you purchased."[66] Elsewhere, it described Steam as a trojan horse.[67]

Following Direct2Drive's announcement, the Impulse and GamersGate services declared that for the same reasons, they would also decline to offer Modern Warfare 2.[68]

Privacy

Steam collects and reports anonymous metrics of its usage, stability, and performance, without notifying the user at the time of collection or offering an opt-out. This information may be shared with other parties. Steam also collects non-identifying data but does not share this information with other parties without the user first agreeing to this in advance.[69]

See also

References

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