Valve on Steamworks (And Magick Obscura)

Because I’m an internationally awesome globe-trotting journalist of excellent repute, I was able to sit down with Valve’s Doug Lombardi and have a chat about Steamworks within a few minutes of yesterday’s announcement being made. Because I forgot my laptop and was really tired, I didn’t get round to posting the conversation until now. Head clickwards for enlightenment.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: So the Steamworks announcement is kind of interesting. All those Steam features for free?

Lombardi: Yeah, it’s basically it’s all the plumbing involved in Steam, minus the distribution piece. Copy protection, auto-updating, voice, Steam community, and the other stuff on the release. It’s all available for free, and people can use any single part, or all of it. It’s free of charge, and you don’t have to distribute the game itself via Steam.

RPS: So how obvious will the Steam interface be in a game that uses it?

Lombardi: Developers are going to be able to skin this stuff so that it’s basically invisible to the user. If they used Steamworks on their disc and didn’t use Steam to distribute you’d install, then have a box come up and say “hey, you have to create this account and unlock the game” and they’d launch and go into the game. The only time you’d see Steam was in creating an account, everything else can be reskinned, auto-updating will be transparent to the user already.

RPS: And the community stuff means you’d be able to create an instant community for your game?

Lombardi: Yeah, and the developer would be able to instant message users like we do with pre-orders, news, and so on. They can publish information specifically for the guys playing their game. Then there’s all the stuff on the back end, so if they use Steam for the encryption or the copy protection they can go in and one hour after their game is unlocked they can see how their game is selling and in what territory. They don’t have to wait to see how their game is working, and where it’s working. For example, if I came out with Left 4 Dead and was sitting on a bunch of marketing money for post-launch, I can look on Steam and see that the game is selling like mad in the UK and not selling so well in The States, and I can address that quickly. Currently most people have to wait a week or two for data on the sales charts, but if you need to boost sales and stop that product coming back from retail, well, two weeks could be deadly. For us that’s a really strong tool, just like the Steam hardware survey.

RPS: How solid is Steam against the activities of villainous pirates?

Lombardi: It’s solid in what we call “day zero piracy”. We encourage people to preload, so we give the bits of a game away on Steam, but those pieces are useless until we supply the magical final parts that allow all those things to become game pieces, the same will be true of using Steamworks from a disc. All the art assets and game assets will be useless until a user authenticates them and gets the final pieces. What we’ve seen, and what many others have seen, is that piracy really frustrates in that period when you send the disc to the replicator and then the trucks take it from the warehouse to retail. What you find is that during that two week window some guy grabs a copy from the chain and uploads it. So few up to three weeks people can only find this game on the piracy sites. Gamers are generally good people and they pay for all kinds of stuff, but if piracy is the only place they can get it, temptation piles in. The pirates always are going to have some version of the game thrown together after the title is released, but it’s when good gamers get tempted away pre-release that we feel the really nasty piracy occurs. The year Half-Life 2 came out we had distributed all the bits via Steam, and then released both the retail shelf and digital game on the same day. What we saw that year was Doom 3, one of the GTA games and Halo 2 all coming out around the same time, and all getting “day zero” piracy. And there was nothing for Half-Life 2, those guys who might have been tempted weren’t tempted and sales were great.

RPS: Are people going to start releasing digitally before getting anything on the shelves? We certainly saw GSC talking about where Clear Sky was coming out digitally before they talked about retail release…

Lombardi: Maybe. I mean Steam is a really straightforward way of publishing. Steamworks is one thing, but distribution is so easy with Steam too. We’re not getting involved in that “portfolio management” sense, we’re not saying that we have too many shooters, or that there are too many RPGs available at one time, or anything of that stuff. It’s a straightforward deal like that. GSC, who we get on with really well, knew what Stalker did on Steam and came straight to us when Clear Sky was announced and said “we want to do all our online sales like this” and they could do that. In that case it was folks we’ve worked with before, but any smart developers who keep their online distribution rights to themselves [like GSC] will find it super profitable, because only our small cut doesn’t go them. This is where they get the greatest amount of profit.

RPS: Going back to Steamworks, it seems like you’re giving away just the kind of software that a whole bunch of other companies are making money from by selling to developers and publishers – what’s your motivation for doing it for free?

Lombardi: To get people on Steam. Simple as that. We think the platform benefits as a whole if people don’t have to learn to navigate new stuff, say copy-protection systems, or to navigate a new server browsers each time they get a new game. And programming a server browser is boring work, yet people keep rewriting them, over and over, and customers are figuring them out time after time. It’s just easier for people: when we’ve rolled retail games over into Steam and had the auto-updater working through Steam people have always come back and said “I want all my games to work like this”. So there’s a load of good reasons gamers, and a load of good reasons for developers for us to give it away.

RPS: Unified PC gaming through Steam?

Lombardi: “Unified” is a word that all kinds of groups and consortiums push about, but the thing is just that we have a system that we’ve tried and we’re using for thirteen million people. It makes sense for developers to just have access to this stuff that is essential, but no great design challenge – the copy protection, the server browser – and the motivation for us is that if a game uses our encryption and sells millions of copies, all those people who didn’t already have a Steam account have to make one. Once they’re there we can talk to them and turn them on to all the other games on Steam.

RPS: And presumably success with Steamworks also provides developers a good nudge in the direction of licensing Source for their use?

Lombardi: [Laughs] Yeah.


  1. Janek says:

    Best headline of a week of fabulous headlines.

  2. Turin Turambar says:

    Haha, agreed!

  3. chesh says:

    Definitely agreed on the headline.

    edit: also, nice interview!

    editedit: also, neato comment editing system!

  4. Andy Simpson says:

    The interview is brilliant – this is such a game-changer we’re seeing unfold here it’s not even true. This is probably the smartest thing Valve have ever done, and they’re not exactly slouches on the clever.

    Here’s to hoping we get some really concrete stuff on this soon!

  5. Thiefsie says:

    Can mod teams use this for example? How modifiable is it? What sort of agreement needs to be made to use the goods?

    I must say the only thing that I think is truly good for the gamer in this is the voice implementation (which still isn’t fantastic across steam) and perhaps the encryption unlocking.

    From another point of view… wow… once again Valve prove they are the leaders in gaming no matter what. Perhaps not in sole game design, but along with everything else they do for the field. They may single handedly bring about a rebirth of pc gaming heydey.

  6. Mo says:

    This is super-exciting to me as a developer. For years I’ve wanted to write online multiplayer games, but simply haven’t had the balls to do it because of *all* the stuff listed above (voice chat, lobby code, auto-updating, encryption, etc). Steamworks is great news for me because the awesome turn-based strategy that’s been living in my head for years can finally be written! :)

  7. Laco says:

    Aww.. I heard about the Steamworks announcement yesterday, but my first thought when I read the headline was “Arcanum is coming to Steam!” For some reason that lead on to fantasies of them offering all the old isometric RPGs, like Icewind Dale, Fallout, Planescape Torment…

    Damned imagination causing disappointment!

  8. Ging says:

    I suspect mod teams will struggle to make use of this – it’s not the distribution side of anything, so they’d still have to setup download mirrors and they’d have to find a way to hook it all into an existing game engine (HL2 mods would I suspect, break spectacularly if you tried to hook them into two different steams).

  9. Lunaran says:

    So I guess it’s like this:

    Steam is like the Apple Store for Valve. The Valve Store or whatever. And what they’re saying to developers with this is “Hey, we’ve got a bunch of extra room in here, so if anyone wants to come in and set up a fruit stand or sell something else, just come on in. We won’t charge you rent and you can use our utilities and the private bathroom and everything. Hell, set up on the sidewalk outside, it’s all good.” This helps everyone, helps ‘standardize’ Steam, but more importantly for Valve, it gets people into the store.

    I don’t see why mods or free games can’t use this. If the pay model is all up to the developer/publisher, I guess there’s nothing requiring they actually have one at all. Steamworks + SDL could lead to indie types producing something really awesome.

  10. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    Title made me think they were releasing Arcanum over Steam.

    Shame on you for getting my hopes up like that.

  11. PleasingFungus says:

    Laco, Zeno: yes.

    But it’s a neat title anyway.

  12. TychoCelchuuu says:

    Lunaran, the Steam store is completely seperate from the Steamworks part. A game can integrate Steam and the user will never ever see the Steam store. In fact, Steamworks doesn’t let the developer use the Steam store. It’s everything except that, basically.

  13. Thomas says:

    I must say i can’t say i know the apparent reasons to use this with modding, a HL2 mod would already use the HL2 Engine, steam and the masterservers.

    I guess the only plausible thing to use it for is checking the popularity and/or publishing updates directly through steam, other than that i would say you already have room for most of it.

  14. Rich Powers says:

    Still not a fan of locking all of my games up via Steam. What if my account is incorrectly suspended? There goes $x worth of games I’ve paid for.

    I like Steam well enough for HL1 + DoD + Orange Box, but at the moment I refuse to purchase any other third party games over the service.

  15. cliffski says:

    i wish they had opened up the payment stuff personally, as that is what attracted to me (and getting my games on to steam itself). Sadly I don’t need the other stuff :(

  16. Stick says:

    I, for one, welcome our new gaming overlords?

    I’m sure we’ll have to take to the barricades and topple Valve eventually, but for now…

    (Re: the last question)

    I approve. Getting the Source engine out there seems preferable to a dozen home-brewed Crysis wannabes. (Use the Zots on design, not inventing a better wheel. Be good-looking yet scalable; stop making games that only work on Star Trek hardware. Give me more stuff. Sooner.)

  17. Irish Al says:

    You could use Steam to distribute anything, why limit yourself to games.

  18. Kast says:

    “You could use Steam to distribute anything, why limit yourself to games.” – Irish Al

    Absolutely agree on this point. I really enjoyed watching Zombie Movie (several times) and the one thing Valve hasn’t done to make me happy (besides giving me free money) is put more such indie movies up.

  19. SwiftRanger says:

    “I approve. Getting the Source engine out there seems preferable to a dozen home-brewed Crysis wannabes. (Use the Zots on design, not inventing a better wheel. Be good-looking yet scalable; stop making games that only work on Star Trek hardware. Give me more stuff. Sooner.)” – Stick

    A dozen home-brewed Crysis wannabes? Where? I hope you also don’t mean that the HL² Episodes actually came on time or that they added a lot of new memorable “stuff” when compared to the original game? Also, why that big trust in Source? It’s like saying the only thing you want are extremely linear, small-level shooters.

    We’ll see how Steamworks works out but I think I would have preferred some intel on a new Arcanum-project (idle hopes prolly).

  20. Stick says:


    Sorry if I was unclear. I was talking about them licensing out the Source engine. And developers using their tools, as opposed to everyone going tech-crazy and spending years attempting to build Crysis-level engines which require near-sentient computers to run. (To me, the Source engine wins because of its friendliness to different grades of hardware. I don’t know anything that matches it in that regard.)

    I didn’t mean everyone should copy the structure of the HL2 eps. Or the cartoony Awesome of TF2. Or Valve’s concept of time.

    (Look at Bloodlines and Dark Messiah. Both nifty – if non-perfect – games, using Source iterations without being Valve-esque in mechanics or structure.)

    Erm… end of ramble. For now.

  21. markcocjin says:

    Imagine if they actually used the Source Engine and added a few more proprietary modes and functionality without flooding your hard disc with too many game engines for every other game.

    Think of this…. What if you can play first person shooter and then.. jump into a full RTS mode.. commmanding.. and then later on… jump into a flight simulator…. and then into a driving game…. all within Source.

    Source is modular. This means that you can in theory have modules enabling it to run in different ways on the fly. How about switching on the fly to three to four different modes of an FPS? Action shooter to tactical to squad tactical with an RPG overlay.

    The reason why games don’t do this is because it takes a lot of time and data for an engine to be developed into something this versatile. The Unreal Engine is widely used for games for even more gametypes than Source but without the modularity, a newer version essentially renders older games obsolete.

    I’m surprised that they haven’t even thought of making Steam communities like a Source engine powered FPS virtual meeting place with group pages resembling rooms in a huge building with people walking around with their avatars as their heads.. walking around and chatting with friends before jumping into a real game.

  22. EMPty=IRL= says:

    This is obviously Valve’s reply to Microsoft’s Live services.
    So what I want to know from you RPS sleuths is how do Steamworks services compare to Live services and is Live free for developers as well?
    (I know all the basics but I want to know which service is more attractive for developers, in your opinion.)

  23. Tim says:

    I can’t get out of my head that this is Valve doing what microsoft said they were going to do with Game For Windows (but never got around to doing it properly).

    I hate to harp on about microsoft, but I guess microsoft just left PC gaming out in the cold, and Valve thought, no problem we’ll do it ourselves.

  24. Tim! says:

    (I seem to have double posted)

  25. Tim! says:

    DAMMIT! For a moment I thought that hidden behind the Steamworks announcement they were actually releasing Arcanum which was exciting because no one seems to want to sell it to me for a reasonable price.

    Curse you, RPS!
    Curse you, my own idiocy!

  26. EMPty=IRL= says:

    Yea it certainly seems that way.
    Hopefully this will be the start of a larger change in the gaming industry that will see even more developers moving over to digital distribution and therefore getting a larger percentage of the RRP of the games they develop.
    I know the retail shops will always exist and that’s not a bad thing but I’m all for developers getting a larger percentage of the profits and cutting out the distributors.
    (I know that valve is in one sense a distributor but they take a smaller percentage that retail distributors)

  27. AbyssUK says:

    Have I mentioned I hate this?

    But on a side note, is Linux supported? anybody know?

  28. atrpunk08 says:

    I think Linux is supported via Wine….

    But with SteamWorks, you can make a mod and publish it with SteamWorks? And for free?

    If for example a mod team made a very popular mod and they want to make it trough SteamWorks, they could release it for free?

    P.S. I’m curious about this :D

  29. Duoae says:

    Looks like i was right when i called Valve the Microsoft of the gaming world a couple of years ago when steam was announced…

    I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing or a good thing…. they definitely need to work on their customer support though.

  30. Kadayi says:

    “I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing or a good thing…. they definitely need to work on their customer support though.”

    Vs which other publisher doing a better job exactly? I think their Customer Service is pretty good tbh, esp given they’ve more people using the Steam service than playing WoW.

  31. Circuitous says:

    Can I just say, great title?

  32. liposuction surgery says:

    Looking forward to the rest.

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