Steam is 20 years old today

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Valve’s Steam officially launched on 12th September 2003, 20 years ago today, sparking a revolution in game distribution.


Twenty years ago today, Valve officially launched its Steam client, ushering in a new era of digital distribution. Since then, Steam has become such a bedrock of PC gaming that it’s almost impossible to imagine a time before it existed.

Nowadays, Steam is best known as a digital storefront, host to thousands upon thousands of games. But when it began, it was initially designed as a way to distribute patches for Valve’s games, such as Counter-Strike. The service was originally unveiled at GDC in 2002, with a closed beta starting soon afterwards, leading up to the official launch in 2003.

The launch wasn’t without its problems. Users reported being locked out of their games as the servers struggled to cope with demand, and not everyone was happy with submitting to online authentication and DRM. It wasn’t until the release of Valve’s highly anticipated Half-Life 2 in 2004 that the service really gained traction. Anyone who bought the game had to register it through Steam, even if they bought a physical copy, which led to a massive influx of new users.

Although initially designed for patches and facilitating online multiplayer, Steam gradually started to take off as a digital storefront. The first non-Valve games were hosted on the store in 2005 – Rag Doll Kung Fu and Darwinia. The former was made by Mark Healey, who went on to co-found Media Molecule, and People Make Games posted a video a few years back about how Rag Doll Kung Fu ended up on Steam. Darwinia, meanwhile, was an early game from indie developer Introversion, which scored a more recent hit with Prison Architect.

The now-legendary Steam sales first started in 2006, and gradually more and more publishers were attracted towards the service, which promised a greater cut of the profits than selling games through bricks and mortar shops. The digital revolution was well under way.

It’s difficult to emphasise just how much of an impact Steam had. Reports of the death of PC gaming were regular occurrences in the early 2000s, as the PC’s market share declined. Although it can’t be held solely responsible, Steam did a lot to turn that situation around, providing an easy, centralised way for publishers to sell games and consumers to buy them, safe in the knowledge that fiddly things like patches would be automatically taken care of.

Whether you love it or hate it, the PC gaming scene wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for Steam.

Read more: Counter-Strike 2 could be in development at Valve, trademark filings suggest

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