What If Steam Never Existed?

Ten years ago, you’d struggle to find fifteen retail PC games released in any given month – and fourteen of them would launch with bugs, never be patched, and sink without trace. Compare and contrast with today, where Brewsters’ Millions could be spent in the time it took to load the Steam store. The existence of Steam isn’t entirely the cause for our videogame abundance, but it’s certainly a large factor – along with an influence, for good and ill, on almost every other part of PC games culture.

But what if it had never existed? You be Jimmy Stewart-playing-Gabe Newell and I’ll be Clarence, your guardian angel and guide to this alternate reality.

The Steam service grew from Valve’s desire to enable easier online play and more immediately distribute patches and custom maps to players, but suppose they never accomplished that or clung to a third-party service instead, and never even had the idea of an online store. The changes are immediate, rippling across our timeline like Marty McFly vanishing from a photo.

Half-Life 2 still happens, but Episodes 1 and 2 arrive as a single boxed expansion. Team Fortress 2 still happens, but with the prospect of sharing the profits with another outlet, there are no microtransactions and no frequent patches. The Orange Box never happens at all and Portal is a download-only game that requires Half-Life 2 to run. Ricochet and Deathmatch Classic never happen at all. Without the infrastructure of Steam, Valve never get involved with Dota 2 – and Blizzard eventually do, albeit years later.

Conversely, without Steam, Valve are dependent on their creative output for a revenue stream. Unable to explore hardware and other whims, they instead make more games. Half-Life 3 comes out in 2010 to great acclaim – but it’s published by EA.

Meanwhile, other companies continue to pursue the ideas Valve have now abandoned. Microsoft still launch Games for Windows Live and without the competition, more developers sign up to use its online functions and online store. Users still hate it and more people buy consoles instead of struggling with it.

GOG, Stardock and others launch online stores, fighting for a market that’s smaller overall but still growing. More companies get involved, jockeying for position. Epic launch an online store, and so do Nvidia. Ubisoft and EA still launch Uplay and Origin, but Bethesda launch the Bethestore, Activision release Actiplay and Paradox Plaza is an actual thing people use. The market is split and most gamers have half a dozen different online stores and patching utilities installed on their computer. It’s frustrating for everyone involved.

Without a centralised place to buy games and with a reduced market, indie gaming never takes off in the same way. Games like Braid and Super Meat Boy come to PC but make less money than they did on XBox. The number of games released increases over the heyday of brick and mortar stores, but there is no Early Access, less diversity, and a number of genres remain all but defunct. Kickstarter funds the creation of more games, but developers still mostly sign with publishers to reach an audience. Without a way to sell their back catalogue, Introversion go bankrupt from Subversion and never release Prison Architect. Chris Delay Kickstarts an Uplink boardgame. Kerbal Space Program never happens. Goat Simulator never happens. DayZ never happens. Bohemia sign a publishing deal with THQ and go under when Arma 2 is released. Unity and Game Maker exist but most people don’t care. Minecraft is still the biggest game in the world.

The increased competition meanwhile means that the online stores need to do more to win over their customers. Sales are still omnipresent; offline modes are always functional; DRM is marginally worse when present but stores thrive solely on the promise of not having any. It’s not so bad, though Games for Windows Live is still shit.

Then Amazon launch a digital distribution game store, recognising the opportunity to consolidate and dominate a split market through their existing scale, much as they have for books with Kindle and are attempting to do with Lovefilm. They undercut the prices of all their competitors and exploit existing relationships with publishers to sell games from many other companies. Gamers, already used to the site and appreciating the advantage of only needing to install a single piece of software, flock to the system.

Amazon use their control to squeeze the big publishers. EA and Ubisoft still eventually pull their games from the system, to retain more revenue for themselves. THQ still close down. Indie developers are able to self-publish through Amazon much like self-published novelists can, but the market isn’t large enough and the service doesn’t do a good enough job of surfacing games from small creators. The inde resurgence still doesn’t happen, and more money continues to be made on console. Amazon launch their own game developmennt teams, but this time don’t hire Clint Hocking and Kim Swift – both are still at Valve, leading their own development teams working on Half-Life 4 and Portal 3 respectively.

There are still a lot of really good free games distributed online. Twine is still a great thing. A few more developers transition to commercial releases by selling games through their own website, which is a more accepted practice given the longstanding decentralisation of game sales. On the other hand, a lot more indie developers move to mobile game development due to the accessibility of the Apple app store. There are, on all platforms, a lot more games with microtransactions and free-to-play energy mechanics. Eventually HTML5 becomes a viable platform on PC, so small creators can release games without requiring a download service at all.

Recognising a shared desire for an independent games market, Mojang buy Paradox and develop the latter’s online store further. They welcome games from small independent creators and offer favourable revenue shares to everyone. The popularity of Minecraft drives people to the service and kids especially get into the habit of buying cheap, quirky games through the service. The indie game resurgence finally happens.

Everything is still sorta fine, but smaller and slower and messier. Except that Fred Wester – who remains with Mojang Paradox to allow Notch to own the company while being less publicly visible – instead comes to achieve Gabe Newell’s current place as the industry’s kindly internet uncle.

Which is maybe the point at which a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, and Gabe Newell goes running off through the snowy streets. Hello Savings & Loan! Hello Greenlight and Early Access! Hello Steamworks and Workshop and Curators!

This article was first published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.


  1. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    God has it been 5 years since Half Life 3? I remember playing through it again last Christmas when I was holed up for a few weeks after my Jet Pack accident.

    Everyone still loves the playable headcrab level, can’t wait for HL4!

    • April March says:

      It’s the nostalgia goggles. It was pretty linear and by-the-numbers.

      • OctoStepdad says:

        true, I played it for the first time a couple weeks back. It’s over hyped & why would I play it when the halo series on Games for Windows Live.

    • steves says:

      “can’t wait for HL4”

      What? I think that jetpack accident knocked you out for more than a few weeks.

      As we all now know, Half life 4 (amusingly nicknamed quarter-life by it’s many detractors) was spectacularly mediocre when it finally showed up, and led to the rapid demise of Valve software.

      When the remnants of Valve were bought out by EA, many questioned whether they could re-invigorate the Half Life brand, but after the announcement that Peter Molyneux had been hired to take charge of the 5th instalment, there was much rejoicing in the gaming community.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        We felt that the Half Life brand deserved an extra amount of care, it’s really important to us as we all absolutely love the PC platform and we can definitely understand the frustration, as we felt it heavily aswell.

        A good place to start would be to reintroduce a setting to change your desired resolution, but this time around we’ll go the extra mile and provide support for AA too. There are other exciting news that we’re about to disclose in the coming months, but a teaser is due: expect a fun and compelling companion app that will revolutionize how you interact with the world and a whole lot of social feature.

        We’re still not ready to talk about multiplayer as of now, but i promise it will be a blast and that we won’t repeat our previous mistakes.

    • bitwright says:

      I still think it sucks that they turned Half Life into a cover shooter, but EA just had to have it’s Gears of War clone.

  2. gorgonaut says:

    I’m still waiting for my latest Valve Trading Cards. I just hope the mailman didn’t lose them, like he lost my boxed copy of The Stanley Parable. Man, that was an epic isometric adventure game. Who would have thought that Molyneux could, for once, keep all his promises?

  3. April March says:

    Maaaan, there is no way in hell that EA and Ubi would launch their own stores if GfWL had caught on (which in this case means “people actually use it”). It does for them all that they’d want from a distributor, which is to make things slightly more difficult to pirates so that their investors can be appeased and give them metrics about how the players are engaging with the game. EA and Ubi are more or less in the same class as ValvE, which is why they thought they could go toe to toe with them; but Microsoft is a degree of magnitude above them, (in matters of company size, in case you haven’t realize) so they wouldn’t want to create their own digital distribution store, any more than they presently want to design and sell their own consoles.

    I also think the indie revolution would still happen; remember it was kickstarter by Braid, which was first released in the 360. I mean, until Steam opened the Greenlight floodgates it was pretty much happened without their intervention anyway; joining Steam was just the award some of the biggest titles would get, and this would continue more or less in the same way, albeit perhaps with forced achievements and bizarre filesize restriction. That would go on until perhaps itch.io got created a few years earlier and took on the role of Steam for indie games. Of course, because it would grow a lot more and a lot faster it would quickly start charging a cut for games shown there, but it’d still be considered a good alternative to both GfWL and Amazon Games, which wouldn’t allow free games at all (like Kindle self-publishers).

    It’d also probably be a worse environment for me, since Amazon officially doesn’t sell games here in Brazil at all. Or maybe it’d be the same and everyone would be using a Wisconsin address. There would certainly be a lot less of the blind love that Steam gets, since Amazon would be an outsider to games – I wonder if Amazon keys would be as much of a near requirement as Steam keys are now…

    • LTK says:

      I think the hypothesised role of Amazon isn’t an unlikely scenario. They’re already a distribution powerhouse, if they saw an opportunity to reach millions of gamers in a fragmented online market, they’d arrange for international sale of online licenses in a heartbeat.

      • Tacroy says:

        Yeah, this is basically something Amazon already does, it’s just that today they’re leveraging Steam instead of S3.

  4. amateurviking says:

    Gabe Newell was saved from obscurity by a time-travelling, skateboarding, self aware copy of Dota 2.

    Dota 2 totally kissed IceFrog on the mouth (ew!) and accidentally invented survival sims whilst teaching Gabe about self respect and kung fu. Ultimately Gabe punches out Mike Morhaim and he and IceFrog go on to make Dota 2 and well, enormous amounts of money and stuff.

    HOORAY (unfortunately this means no Half Life 3)

  5. PhoenixTank says:

    No mention of Humble Bundle in this parallel universe, at all?
    The Humble Store is a thing and the Humble Widget provides an easy way to buy games on dev’s websites.
    I appreciate most people see it as a way to get steam keys most of the time, but without steam there, they might’ve made a client as well as downloads for the traditional drm free install files. Kinda like GoG are intending to do with Galaxy.
    This all assumes HIB 1 happens in the first place, though. Could still come about as a result of indie devs bemoaning the lack of selling platforms. Start with a store initially (or the widget), then bundles to improve take up rates?

    What do you lot reckon?

    • tigerfort says:

      I think Humble would definitely have been present – the original Humble Bundle was way back in 2010, when Steam was quite a bit smaller than it is now, and DRM-free-ness (including no Steam) was a major selling point for it. I suspect they’d actually be a much bigger player than they are in the real world, especially relatively. (With no Steam, Humble seems the most likely to achieve critical mass, especially before GOG start selling new games, although that might well happen earlier.)

      I actually wonder whether we’d be looking at a world with lots of people running curated storefronts full of Humble widgets for games they like.

      • RobF says:

        Although, of course, Humble could only thrive the way it did by offering Steam keys. So there is that.

        • Llewyn says:

          That’s something we can only speculate on, in this scenario. It’s clear that Humble could only thrive by offering Steam keys while operating alongside Steam, but not clear that it couldn’t in the alternative reality.

          • PopeRatzo says:

            All of this is something, “we can only speculate on”.

          • RobF says:

            It’s an interesting hypothetical because *before* Humble, bundling was done at x games for a premium (by today’s standard) price. Humble’s Pay What You Want approach was only possible because a) by 2010 PC games were in rude health again, b) there was distinct media interest in PC games still, in no small part thanks to RPS and c) the audience was less fragmented (or access to the audience, if you like). Later Steam keys. Obviously, I’m simplifying for the sake of not sitting at a pub table with a pint to argue the minutiae of all this guff but I’d argue that if we’d have continued on the trajectory we were on before Valve moved Steam towards being a storefront with all the games (2005 was, I think, the first bit push), keeping publishers on board and all that jazz, few of these conditions would be in place for it to work as it did, let alone be repeatable on that scale.

            It’s also worth noting that the first few Humble bundles were reliant on at least one super big hitter, which was invariably a title that had found great success in the wider world, or rather “on a console”. The first had World Of Goo, the second Braid. They were massive draws in the themselves.

            It’s hard to imagine how the indie boom itself that laid the groundwork for Humble would have panned out without Steam, mainly because the big push for new-indie happened whilst Steam was an already successful thing, whilst XBLA had laid the groundwork for smaller titles to be accepted outside a casual audience and so on. And of course, where Valve had worked at keeping PC gaming in the mainstream “a thing” whilst retail edged further away.

            But let’s just assume it did, I can imagine a world where Humble still exists but not as successful and I have my doubts that a PWYW model would have been anything but disastrous for indies who, without the reach Valve offered, would be more determined than ever to retain premium price points. Sure, Amazon broke the price lock for casual by force but with no-one else in the PC space to make that viable to the outer world, without the hope of selling lots outside of a console, I’m struggling to see how it would have played out for the better.

            Of course, in this alternate universe we might have all been using the GFWL marketplace by then and paying a monthly subscription to Microsoft for online play so who knows.

        • lomaxgnome says:

          Humble Bundle did exist without Steam keys, in the beginning. But it definitely exploded when Steam keys became available. I think without the Steam ecosystem we’d still have had something like HB, but it would have remained an indie thing, and the bundlemania of the past few years, which relies entirely on Steam keys, would have never happened.

          Of course I agree with the bigger idea of this article, which is that if Valve hadn’t done it, someone else would have (and Amazon does seem a likely choice). Or maybe pc games would have actually finally died… nah.

  6. Continuity says:

    A world without Steam? I imagine it something like the plot of Fallout 3.

  7. Colthor says:

    “…and most gamers have half a dozen different online stores and patching utilities installed on their computer.”
    I currently have Steam, Origin, Uplay, GMG Capsule, Battle.Net, GameFly and the thankfully optional GOG downloader installed so that would be one fewer ;)

    • SuicideKing says:

      Not to mention SOE’s launcher for Planetside 2 and the one for War Thunder.

      Though I only have Steam at the moment. Have stopped buying EA games and Far Cry 4 still isn’t cheap enough.

  8. Premium User Badge

    dnelson says:

    Gaaah! Staring Eyes! Staring Eyes!

  9. pekingduckman says:

    Pfft, Steam is such an overrated service, and Greenlight and Early Access has just much trash as before. I miss the golden days of PC gaming from 1995-2005, when games were developed for PC first and ported to consoles later, not the other way around, and dedicated servers and mod tools come as standard. Steam only made it easier for developers to charge PC gamers DLCs, which previously were often giver for free. Just look Call of Duty, the first few games were developed for PC first, and maps were given away for free. Thanks to Steam, Modern Warfare 2 is the first to abandon dedicated servers, not to mention being a straight 360 port that has far less options that its predecessor.

    • airmikee says:

      So it’s not Activision’s or Infinity Ward’s fault that MW2 on the PC was a port of the 360 version and didn’t run on dedicated servers, that fault, in your eyes, rests with Steam? The developer and the publisher were fully intent on making an original PC game with dedicated servers, but the existence of Steam changed their minds?

      And Steam is really to blame for DLC, even though Atari started it with GameLine more than a decade before Valve was founded and Gabe was still in college? Drengin and TotalGaming aren’t to blame even though they existed before Steam? And the Xbox Live Marketplace, which was the first large scale online store to charge for DLC, doesn’t get any blame for creating the market of large scale online DLC purchases?

      You’ve got some seriously far-fetched and fact-free opinions.

      • Emeraude says:

        Yeah, I much as I don’t like Valve, to put it mildly, can’t put the blame of DLCs on them. Worse you can say is they jumped on a bandwagon initiated by others. If anything, in my opinion, it’s Microsoft (who’s for some time been a reverse Midas of sort: everything they touch turns to shit) who should weather the brunt of the blame.

      • Emeraude says:

        That being said I do think that Steam, by becoming so ubiquitous as a toolbox for developers, had role in killing PC gaming as it existed before it, including, but not limited to the way server solutions are being offered.

      • ansionnach says:

        Weren’t the premium modules in Neverwinter Nights one of the earlier examples of DLC (or forerunners that bear a close resemblance)? Can’t stand Steam. Bought Fallout New Vegas over a year ago from Amazon, not realising that a lot of modern games require Steam even if you get the disc version! At the time the physical game plus postage was a fraction of the regular Steam price. Should just crack the blasted thing and give Steam and all those trying to turn PC gaming into another walled garden the finger!

        • SD says:

          I thought those premium modules were a fantastic value, and loads of fun. Shame that Witch’s Wake was never completed. I’d have paid for it.

    • sinister agent says:

      golden days of PC gaming


      from 1995-200

      … I’m out.

      • SuicideKing says:

        Yeah those 2.3 Hz CPUs in 200 A.D. were pretty damn slow.

    • lomaxgnome says:

      That “golden age” of PC gaming was a time when essentially no console games got released on PC. The number of games developed for and released on the PC now is as large as ever. And in addition to that, we get virtually all of the major console releases as well, and usually they are the best versions. Your nostalgia has the better of you I’m afraid, and if you genuinely believe it, you really aren’t paying attention to modern PC gaming at all, which is a shame.

      • Jason Moyer says:

        There were tons of console games ported or cross-developed for PC from 95-05.

        • Tuco says:

          No, definitely not tons.
          Just a small minority, and in some cases with ports so horrible that would make many of the most reviled ones in the present day look as masterpieces.Today we consider a “horrible port” anything that “barely matches” the console counterpart. At the time it wasn’t particularly uncommon to get ports that were messed up parodies of the original game.

          That said, it was also a time where a lot of PC exclusives tried to explore new ideas and to as technically and mechanically ambitious as possible, in contrast with a lot of modern game design where the goal seems often to be making things as “simple and accessible” as possible.

          Then again, today we are getting more multiplatforms/console ports than ever before and things like crowdfunding and a thriving industry of indie/mid tier developers are bringing back a lot of PC exclusives and/or ambitious/original ideas.
          We are living the Renaiassance of PC gaming, and I’d argue that digital delivery (with Steam being a pioneer and major player in it) should be credited for many of these good trends.

  10. heretic says:

    Nice alternate reality! I find it difficult to be objective about Steam, anything Origin doesn’t do the same way just pisses me off – though I’m sure Steam drove me nuts when it first came out as well, but it seems my memory of those times has been erased.

    • Continuity says:

      I remember when Steam first came out purely as a platform for counterstrike, it pissed me off no end because a) it was a seemingly unnecessary and fairly large (at the time) install b) it would go down constantly leaving me unable to play counter strike c) it wouldn’t accept my keys so I essentially had to buy counterstrike over again. This is to the best of my recollection anyway, we are talking about 10+ years ago.

    • Shadowcat says:

      Well to be frank, Steam was an absolute abomination when it launched. But hey, who knows… maybe one of these days it’ll improve.

    • airmikee says:

      I absolutely hated Steam the first time I was forced into using it almost five years ago. I purchased Civ5 boxed from Best Buy and all the disc did was install Steam and then download the game. I was fairly annoyed at first because the neighborhood I was in at the time had spotty internet service, but what really sent me over the edge was that the game was essentially broken for me. It would start just fine, but as soon as the map was generated the zoom control went haywire, going as far in and out as quickly as possible until the game would crash to desktop. After a few weeks of trying every trick in the book to get the game working I finally uninstalled Steam. Wasn’t until six months later when I’d finally quit WoW for good that I decided to give Steam another shot and I’ve been mostly pleased with it ever since. 200+ additions to my Steam library later and I really can’t imagine a world without it. I bought three boxed copies of SimCity 4, all lost or stolen, until I bought it on Steam, now it’s unlikely I’ll ever lose this copy. I’ve got dozens of old games on disc that I simply can’t get to work on modern hardware, but if Steam is around in ten years it’s likely I’ll be able to play my entire library (barring Microsoft borking compatibility in Windows 30.)

      Steam isn’t perfect and definitely has its flaws, but none of its flaws are unique to Steam, they’re shared by any video game distributor, online or brick and mortar.

      • Emeraude says:

        Some of its flaws are intrinsic and specific to its model. But it has both flaws and qualities it does not share with neither retail nor its online competition.

      • Shadowcat says:

        I’ve always hated how I have to phone my brick and mortar games store to confirm who I am, every time I want to play a game I bought from them. Steam really made that whole process a bit simpler; I don’t understand why anyone dislikes it.

    • Kempston Wiggler says:

      Wasn’t it only a few months ago that Steam upgraded the page-loading and browsing bits to actually work faster than Netscape Navigator? For me, that’s the moment it stopped being an excruciating crawl over broken glass and became something I could tolerate. I’ll never love it, but with nearly 300 games in my list I guess we’re not soon parted.

  11. Emeraude says:

    Can’t say I agree with a good chunk of the hypothesis which led to this alternate history.

    • April March says:

      Let us hear yours! I’m not being glib, I think you’re pretty clever and I’d like to know what you think would happen!

  12. Spacewalk says:

    What a horrible future present we’re living in.

  13. montorsi says:

    Oh man, life without Steam. I recall having to go to CompUSA to rustle up whatever games were available for my crappy Performa 630 back in the day. Myst, 7th Guest, Gold Box, etc, and we played the hell out of each and every release. Prior to that I’d relied on my uncle — who’d given me a C64 and later an Amiga 2000 — to pass me down whatever games he’d been playing. There were a huge pile of those, though.

    I can’t imagine having to frequent local game stores nowadays. I suppose I’d just two-day from Amazon.

  14. sharkh20 says:

    Before Steam was selling games, I was using Direct2Drive. It was pretty alright at the time.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I used to Direct2Drive quite a bit too, but I disagree that it was all right. It was terrible, and my only regret about its passing is that I was never able to get them to let me re-download my copy of Condemned before they folded.

      Seriously, if Steam made you jump through as many hoops to make games work as D2D did, the PC gaming space would be a wasteland.

      • sharkh20 says:

        I never really had any trouble with it. Gave me a download. Gave me a serial. Played the game. Obviously it wasn’t the best thing ever, but it was really early in digital distribution. Steam was absolute garbage at the time to the point where I played Counter-Strike 1.5 instead of 1.6 until WON shut down.

    • ansionnach says:

      Got Bionic Commando Rearmed on Direct2Drive. It really was galling when GameFly took over. Tried to install the game after that and it no longer worked. Contacted GameFly and they’d changed my terms of ownership for a game I’d bought years ago. Now I had to get their client and jump through the rest of their blasted hoops. To hell with them!

      This kind of nonsense and other examples of digitally-distributed content disappearing are warnings of what lies down the road when these guys control the lines of communication… and a cowed public lap it up because they don’t know any better. Maybe this is a modern variation of people being sold the same music and films over and over on different formats. I mean, who’d be stupid enough to do that… or delight at “remastered” “HD” versions of games where they just cranked the resolution up (even though you could probably do that anyway)? All this paranoia from publishers trying to sell us the DRM Trojan Horse will probably backfire eventually. As someone once said:
      “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

      • Hex says:

        GameFly didn’t change the terms, exactly. They purchased D2D — which was bankrupt and would otherwise have simply disappeared entirely — and provided no-cost downloads to everything they could hammer out licensing agreements for with the various publishers out there.

        Not everybody wanted to play ball, so a small percentage of titles never became available through GameFly’s store.

        Don’t get me wrong, the GameFly service was ultra shitty, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame GameFly for D2D going out of business, impacting your access to games you purchased from a different company entirely.

        And for what it’s worth, GameFly Digital has been sold (again) and rebranded back to Direct2Drive. You could always contact the new owners and see if they can help you out. They should have records of all past transactions, even back to the original IGN D2D days.

        • ansionnach says:

          The only point I’m making is that if I had a physical copy this wouldn’t be a problem.

        • ansionnach says:

          Oh. Bionic Commando was one of the games that they kept. They did have a solution to my not being able to play it: install their client. Counts as a change of the terms to me seeing as I never had to do this before. I don’t care about the circumstances around it. If you don’t eternally retain the right to enjoy digital content in exactly the same way as when you bought it, then it doesn’t have my confidence. I don’t care about bankruptcy, legal details, yada, yada, yada – all I see is an important distinction between games I’ve bought over the last twenty-five years on floppy, CD and DVD and this nonsense. I mean, I can take out an old game most people have never heard about like Shadow Sorcerer or D/Generation and play it whenever I feel like. Doesn’t matter what the current legality of their distribution is. If there is a barrier to playing these old games it’s often to do with DRM… and just like these issues with digital distribution they add more grey areas to any debate around piracy. It’s a bit like having some tool standing at your shoulder nagging you whenever you try and play one of the games you’ve paid for. If that literally happened I’d tell the guy to feck off and physically remove him from my presence if he didn’t comply. This is an issue that isn’t often discussed for obvious reasons but I think a perfectly valid solution to all and any issues you have around playing games you’ve paid for is to remove the DRM if you can… and obtain the game again at no further cost if the disc has become damaged… or the digital distributor vanishes into the ether.

  15. P.Funk says:

    I think the remarkable thing about Valve and Steam is that Valve are a strange and unique company to be heading such a powerhouse of distribution. Its really kind of an accident of history. Their peculiar nature certainly makes our reality feel like, when you look at potential alternates, like one of those weird alternate realities you stumble into about mid way through the episode where time is shattered and you’re trying to find a way back to your familiar if imperfect one.

    In some ways I do feel like Valve being what it is today is like stepping through a portal to see pyramids in Washington DC. I honestly think the oddity that is Valve makes for a better world than if we had a more unimaginative corporation in a similar position.

    I don’t agree necessarily with all the the presumed differences this article supposes but I do agree that without Valve where it is today we would be in a very different gaming landscape. I will never understand the Valve hate. Sure, don’t love them, no reason to, but hate? Baffles me when we see the alternatives like GFWL.

    And don’t anyone go talking to me about GOG. DRM free is not a term the mainstream will ever embrace wholesale.

    • Sirius1 says:

      Yeah, people with different opinions than you, eh? What are they thinking!

  16. Tayh says:

    Wow, could this article be even more of a love letter to valve and gabe?

    • sinister agent says:

      Yes: it could be about Valve or Gabe.

    • Hex says:

      I took it as more of a love letter to Paradox. With maybe a bit of a handie on the side for Mojang.

      • teije says:

        Yeah, a definite man crush going on here for Paradox. I love their stuff, but frankly, if they were running a Steam equivalent, it’d be quirky as hell and the UI would suck.

  17. Premium User Badge

    JimmyJamNYC says:

    I would still have to deal with the creepy kids at Gamestop

  18. Sam says:

    I think the importance of Steam to indie games is overstated in this.

    As mentioned in the article Minecraft is the obvious example of huge success without Steam. It was Minecraft that made the sell-in-alpha model popular, not Steam’s later support. Kerbal Space Program and Prison Architect were selling alphas through their own sites very successfully before Steam hopped on the bandwagon.

    I think the rise of what we now call indie games was much more reliant on Flash portal sites (interesting that you mention HTML5 as a space for indies to flourish.) Ushering large audiences to games that could be made with relatively little experience and providing something like a liveable wage to creators who were prolific enough. Steam coming along meant that those who were plucked out by Valve for success had their incomes raised several orders of magnitude, which along with Minecraft’s success changed the character of indie game creation towards hit-seeking and away from steady output.

    • lomaxgnome says:

      I do agree the flash sites were a huge thing, but I don’t know how much money any of those sites made for their game makers. I do think a large centralized market helped make the bigger successes that much bigger, and while that happened to be Steam, it could have been someone else. But I think the growth we see from companies like Amplitude, Paradox, and other “big” indies requires that large pond to exist.

  19. SD says:

    Damn, I really want to play that Uplink boardgame now :-(

  20. kalirion says:

    If Steam never existed, there would be a LOT more pirates right now.

  21. Michael Anson says:

    You forgot the huge positive effect the announcement of SteamOS has had on the Linux games market.The fraction of games released on Linux platforms has grown immensely in just the last year.

  22. mumblez says:

    UPlay would have evolved into a thing of beauty.

    DAMMMIT Sorry i couldnt keep a straight face there.

    EA would have got its shit together and developed Origin into a framework that would have developed into something people would joke about.. remember when origin took as long as uplay to update, fucked up all your save games, haha.. remember that shitty valve thing that stopped us playing counterstrike.. such a bad idea. My granpappy had steam. he said it was over-rated.

    That’s the alternative universe if Steam never happened. (Less *nix games too.. hmmmm)

  23. HisDivineOrder says:

    Activision would have totally called their service, “Battle.net.” It predated Steam and is a brand I still can’t believe they haven’t co-opted as a be-all, end-all service name for everything they produce. Especially Call of Duty.

    I also think you assume a lot of things that Steam brought to the forefront as expectations of the modern age were not imagined until Steam made them not just imagined, but real and present and easy.

    For example, I think modern consoles just finally caught up (mostly) to the way Steam has been doing digital distribution (ie., sales, free play weekends, delta downloads) and are mostly inspired by the fact that Steam did them first.

    So assuming that it would have happened is like assuming without Jobs and Apple finally deciding IPS displays being better than TN displays made superior displays a thing again would have happened without them. I’m not so sure.

    It takes a power player to make a thing a thing and take away that power player, it’s not hard to imagine a world where that thing no longer became a thing to the rest of us without someone to push the idea.

    In a world without Steam, I think we’d be a lot less farther down the rabbit hole of digital distribution. That’s from PC gaming to consoles and back again. Compared to how quickly music and TV and movies went from hitting digital distribution to becoming prevalent, it’s amazing how quickly gaming has made the transition. Steam played a huge part in that.

    And since so much of Origin and Uplay are basically EA and Ubisoft ripping Steam off, it’s hard to imagine them being remotely the same as they are now without Steam to copy their notes from. More likely, they’d be copying Battle.net, which would probably still be just an online, peer to peer connectivity service with mild DLC offerings and a reliance on physical distribution.

  24. mezron says:

    I’m of the firm belief that PC gaming is only still viable due to Steam. When Steam first came out, it wasn’t very good… in fact it was kinda crappy. And, really, it only became good in the last 6-7 years.

    But in the 4-5 years before Steam became viable the game makers and publishers seemed hell bent on making games console only. Games started being made for console first, then pc. Games that had always been pc first like Unreal Tournament and Battlefield were now being made console first. 2005-2009 was not really looking good for pc gaming. Features weren’t equal… hell even Doom 3 had coop on the xbox, but not on pc.

    The xbox and playstation 2 were good enough graphics wise for gaming. But the game makers and publishers were absolutely convinced that piracy was killing the industry on pc, so they did whatever they could to help make sure that happened. The copy protection schemes that wouldn’t let you install if it detected cd burning software, or iso mounters (remember daemon tools?) If you wanted to have the ability to burn disks you needed to find a crack for the game you bought so it wouldn’t break your computer.

    Good luck finding more than 15 or so pc games on the shelves between 2005-2009 also. The only ones you’d see were the AAA that were expected to sell millions, and the same Diablo set that had been on the shelves since 2003. Oh and World of Warcraft. CD Keys started being registered to a users email account, so no more trading your pc games like you could with console games.

    Valve was the company that really resurrected pc gaming. They had a hard time of getting it off the ground too. It wasn’t until Half-Life 3 when they required Steam that it started getting any traction at all. The internet was all in an uproar about it too. “They can pry my disks from my cold dead hands” “Not renting my games” “They’ll disable my game when they want to sell me the next version”… I remember hearing all that.

    No, Valve rightly deserves a lot of credit. They took a huge chance, and it paid off for them. So far they haven’t really abused their position either. They certainly could, since they became the 800lb Gorilla in the industry before anyone else even acknowledged what they were doing was financially feasible.

    And paying the Steam sale prices. Who saw that coming 10 years ago? Or getting games that haven’t been on the shelves for 15 years?

    I know what I just said sounds like a lot of boot-licking, but I was one of the people who originally resisted Steam. The thought of losing access to my games still doesn’t sit well, but I also know there’s no going back.

    • Sirius1 says:

      I don’t buy it.

      There’s more that makes PC gaming attractive than steam (and I think people overstate steam’s attractiveness anyway.) Like modding. More powerful hardware. More innovation, coming from a stronger indie crowd who have a lower barrier to entry than on consoles.

      People have been predicting the death of PC gaming for as long as PC gaming has existed, and they’ve always been wrong. With steam or without it.

      • Kempston Wiggler says:

        I agree with Mezron. I remember the “PC Gaming is dying” years very well. We were lucky to even SEE a AAA release some months. It wasn’t fun, and I think without Steam is wouldn’t have exactly died but it would have collapsed into a very niche market again, much like the Linux or MAC market is today.

  25. xsoulbrothax says:

    Giving credit where it’s due on this line:
    “GOG, Stardock and others launch online stores, fighting for a market that’s smaller overall but still growing.”

    Stardock already had a digital distribution platform up and running when Steam came out! I think many of us that played GalCiv remembered Stardock Central (which launched in 2001 apparently, but I only knew of it in early 2003 due to aforesaid game).

    Similarly, EA had the EADM for digital downloads in 2005 or so, but it was nothing to write home about for a long time.

    • Squiggy says:

      Was going to say, Stardock launched thier own system, and I used it.

      The even sold it to Gamestop.

      To this day, Stardock is still one of may favorite companies (I have bought all but one of thier games in fact).

  26. gp says:


  27. trjp says:

    Merry Christmas PlayGreenHouse

    Merry Christmas OriginEmporium

    Merry Christmas You Wonderful Old Piles of DVDs

    NBA15 would need 11 DVDs btw – so thank GabeN for Steam…

  28. Vinraith says:

    That was quite an impassioned defense of monopoly.

    • dagnamit says:

      Oh you. Origin exists, so does Uplay, and GoG, and brick and mortar places. Steam’s as much a monopoly as Microsoft Windows is. Which is to say, a lot people think that it is. (it’s not)

      The biggest takeaway of Steam’s success is just how inept the established companies were (and continue to be). They were so entrenched into selling the old way and so risk adverse that they put off introducing their own online distribution services for YEARS, A FUCKING ETERNITY, for which what was undoubtedly going to be a sure thing. It wasn’t hard to see that everything was going to be downloaded and they waited YEARS to act. It’s unfathomable, right? Use this knowledge for success, my friends.

      Nothing in my life has inspired me to do great things more than the realization that most people have no fucking clue what’s going on most of the time outside of their comfort zone. They’re too entrenched in their way of doing things to see the sure thing. If you have a good idea, all you need are the guts to put it forward, because the powers that be area only going to tell you that it’s not going work. Well, history has proven, time after time after time that those fuckers don’t know shit. Wow… that went off on a tangent.

  29. Zenicetus says:

    I don’t have any interest in “what if?” scenarios like this. I just wish I could have a version of Steam that was like it was a year ago, or maybe two years ago. A much more friendly and uncluttered interface, without trying to sell me a ton of indie games that cost $5.00 that I have zero interest in.

    Not that I’m against $5 indie games. But Steam is worthless now as a gatekeeper for quality, and it’s harder than ever to find the games that I really do want to spend serious money (and time) on.

    • April March says:

      Here’s a little secret: Steam has always been an awful gatekeeper for quality. It’s always been a gatekeeper for fame: its main idea was that it wanted that, if you had heard of a cool game, you would be able to get it on Steam. For indies, that usually would mean that all games that got on Steam were high quality, but never meant that all high quality titles would get on Steam. (For AAA, it meant nothing. A game about staring at Unity Generic Object #23 would get into steam if it was released by EA, because they have special agreements in place.)

      Steam opened the Greenlight floodgates because it realized that, since it wanted to be the place where it could buy any game, it’d be better for it to have plenty of bad games than to not have games that exploded suddenly.

  30. Jason Moyer says:

    I’m going to go in the opposite direction, and wonder if there would even be PC gaming if Valve hadn’t stumbled onto the idea of Steam. While I (and probably many of those posting here) have always been primarily a PC gamer, it’s hard not to remember how niche our hobby seemed 10-15 years ago.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      Er, not so much that it was niche, but that it seemed on a course for near-extinction.

      • Monggerel says:

        I seem to recall plenty of decent games even from that time, including AAA pc only shootfucks like Crystal Meth Crisis.
        Pretty sure it was more to do with public fiat and with marketing being perfectly happy fanning the torrid flames of console rutting. Which is fine. You gotta get paid.

  31. jrodman says:

    I don’t buy the hypothesis. Digital distribution is the big force, not steam.

  32. racccoon says:


    Games would update by themselves, we could download them from the source, plus we could play them the way we wanted without any interference from a now monopolizing burden called STEAM!
    Whom are now trying to be law master and ruler of what is said and done in gaming.
    They have no right to impose upon us there rule of thumb and it would great not to have such a damming corporate ruler suppressing our addiction to their demands and crappy selfish updates.

    • Asurmen says:

      Er, pretty sure none of that would have occurred.

      Also Steam is not a monopoly.

    • April March says:

      I don’t think any game I have outside of Steam updates by itself.

  33. racccoon says:

    Steam is nothing but a parasite on the PC

  34. simonster says:

    I just finished reading the Philip K. Dick alternative universe novel ‘Man in the High Castle’ yesterday and I’m now feeling the effects of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Maybe if I start playing Wolfenstein now I will be able to walk between them.

    Great book thou, should definitely be picked up.

  35. bill says:

    My simple version:

    Microsoft’s built in store dominates, but is pretty shit and their focus is only on big publishers and mainly on xbox.
    Maybe xbox live arcade still happens, but not much on PC.
    The PC games market doesn’t really open up and we din’t get many indies. It’s mainly Microsoft, EA and Activision.

    Then the smartphone app store revolution happens and MS and amazon learn lessons from that. We suddenly get a massive number of mostly crap f2p indie games with microtransactions.

    The PC becomes a casual f2p gaming platform like a tablet, and anyone who want to play big budget games has to do it on a console.

  36. David Bliff says:

    I don’t understand the Ricochet comment, I used to play that game on WON, just like every other HL1 mod.

  37. TheSplund says:

    I’d be tempted to say that the age old myth that PC gaming is dying might actually have some semblance of truth in that reality

  38. eggy toast says:

    Id probably have a Playstation

  39. Kempston Wiggler says:

    I read all that with the voice of Arnold Schwazenegger in my mind, using the same tone as in Terminator 2 when he outlined the future rise of Skynet…

    A world without Steam would, I believe, be a horrible place to be a gamer. It’s no exaggeration to say Valve are directly responsible for saving PC gaming from the onslaught of the console wars – “NO, gentlemen; PC Gaming is NOT f***ing dead” – and also helped spur the Golden Age we’re experiencing right now.

    • Tayh says:

      What colour is the sky in your reality?

    • kud13 says:

      Steam Gauge tells me I joined Steam on December 26, 2010.

      As far as I remember, Steam was still a…. “erm” steaming pile of crap for at least another 2 years, until they got around to fixing the bloody offline mode.

      Steam did do sales, which were great, and the only reason I joined it in the first place.

      I can honestly say that Steam became the most convenient way to get games–it won because it became more convenient than pirating, right around the time the gamers of the 90s, who’ve been pirating since the Internet allowed it started to grow up, get jobs, and be able to afford games.

      In the 2000s, PC games dissapeared form Brick and mortar stores in my area. Internet became the only way to get games I wanted. Then Steam came along with sales.

      If it wasn’t Steam, someone else’d have done it.– Gamersgate sells a ton of “slightly older” games that still operate on the ‘insert serial” model”–and I prefer to get such games form them with an installer rather than from Steam. ditto with GoG.

      Steam may have done great things for MP games–I have no clue, I’ve been gaming since mid-90s, and always strictly single-player. But crowning it the greatest achievement that saved PC games??? I don’t buy it.

      In the “dark Age”, PC games were still being made. they just weren’t in retail, due to publisher’s idiocy. Valve took the market segment, which was at that time only being tested by others, and filled it with a vengeance, enticing people in with HL2 at first, and then ridiculous sales later. But any other retailer could have done it, and enjoyed just as resounding a success.

      • TheSplund says:

        I joined in 2004 – sure it wasn’t perfect then but it was perfectly fine in 2010

  40. P-Dizzle says:

    Slow news day?

  41. tigershuffle says:

    according to Steam ive been a member since November 2004…..but think i started using it with Half Life and a beta version of Day of Defeat on 56k dial up before then?!

  42. Rusteater says:

    What conceit and hyperbole!

    – We had the internet well before Steam ever existed.
    – Downloadable game patches existed well before Steam existed.
    – Indie games existed and had a distribution channel called Shareware – where people were encouraged to copy the game to their friends, then buy unlock codes for the full version or mail order the full version direct from the developers. Take for example the excellent Descent – shareware or another fave of mine robot beat-em-up One Must Fall
    – You could install many games at once and preserve your precious CD originals by installing daemon-tools and cloning the CD to your harddisk even if there was media-protection.
    – Patches, when needed, could be downloaded because they were small, ultra-compressed, differential patches only containing the bytes needed to be patched. Steam even now has primitive entire-file replacement, e.g. XCOM received a 4Gb patch which virtually only deleted 4gb of pre-rendered video cutscene files.

    In my personal experience plenty of quality games came out, in general they were less buggy at launch because it would be more sink or swim based off initial magazine reviews and so on.
    And I had no problem finding games enough to play.
    Battlezones, UFO Enemy Unknown, Civs 1-3, all the lucasarts adventures, X-Wing and Tie Fighter, Freespaces, Ultimas and Underworlds, Command & Conquers and Red Alerts, Baldurs Gates, Simon the Sorcerors, Discworlds and on and on.

    • April March says:

      Hmmm… Your post makes me wonder if, in the absense of Steam, the shareware model would’ve come back in force with indies. After all, nowadays it’s much easier to share files…

    • ansionnach says:

      Yeah. Never really had trouble finding PC games in the shop. Had thought they started to become more scarce around the time Steam started to catch on. There were controversies around DRM, especially Starforce, but I thought in the main it kept Joe Public from casually copying stuff. There were stories about DRM making it impossible to play legitimate games but I think such cases were rare. In my collection I can only think of the physical disk protection on D/Generation as being the biggest pain. Doesn’t recognise the disks in DOSBox, possibly because it can’t get direct hardware access. Installing in FreeDOS might work, but then my USB floppy drive wouldn’t.

      There were plenty of console-only games back in the day as well as ones that lead on consoles before getting late and shoddy PC ports. Thought the main thing that happened to PC gaming was XBox and Microsoft encouraging PC developers into the console arena. Think there was always more money in the hit console games. Microsoft needed games and an x86-based console with much more agreeable licensing terms made it easier for PC developers to join the big boys. So yeah – to hell with the likes Rockstar and Bioware. They did their best work on computers (Lemmings and Baldur’s Gate II) and they’ll never surpass this unless they move away from the lowest common denominator.

  43. Monggerel says:

    Here’s my alternate timeline:
    the Mongols don’t turn back after their successful dismantling of Eastern Europe in the 1230s-50s, but instead keep on truckin westward.

    Then a fucking space alien blows up the universe experimenting with rocket fuel.

  44. Rusteater says:

    Thinking back further, pre-internet you had magazine cover discs with mega patch roll-ups for all the major releases as well as more obscure titles, as well as new shareware and game demos, so even if you were late onto the internet bandwagon, or a particularly gnarly large patch was needed, you’d be covered by buying a magazine with a cover disc containing the patch you needed (and you could check at the newsagents by looking at the CD contents directory page of each mag).

  45. dangermouse76 says:

    If steam didn’t exist……..another steam would exist. Those ex Microsoft employees saw a way to capitalise on where they and many others saw the future of connected PC gaming.

    There is no ” life without steam ” there is only what the other steam would have been called.

    God that sounds terrible, very 1984.

  46. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Why did the Bethestore have to die? I don’t care that they went bankrupt before making Morrowind 2: All of It. I don’t even care that Skyrim imploded in a poof of DRMed DLC when the store closed. That store had the best name.

  47. Crunchyblack says:

    I think EA, would team up with Amazon, to counter GFWL. You would have more first party “mee too!!” distribution programs….much like Trions Glyph pathetically has like 5 or 6 non trion games for sale.

    I think the biggest outcome would be that sales would be rare and low %, I think the conglomerate gaming companies would focus more on selling for more than selling more games for less, so you might see an industry wide shunning on games less than $60…less indy games, and perhaps, but I could see an “Amazon/EA Orgin” indy dev packs for $60 with a few good games and some trash they cant sell.

    What steam did, they made it fun and reasonable to buy games you might never really play.

    Oh and for the 5-10 people who always say they HATE steam…yeah its big, bloated, and *gasp* DRM….but it brings a lot of fun stuff that’s extremely useful to games to the table, ill forgive a bloaty program for that, since im able to voice com with anyone, watch people play a game im interested in, jump into others games, and the biggest benefit to me, the forums and reviews.

    We are right now in the golden age of PC gaming. Because of steam. Im just waiting for those new net neutrality taxes to kick in, bet they tax by the gig downloaded! Enjoy the PC golden age while it lasts, it wont forever.

  48. Wixard says:

    Retail was dying before steam. I remember going into gamestops and EB and other chains only to see an ever shrinking pc game section.

    MS abandoned the pc early in the 2000s, maybe sensing the market was on a downhill slide. I never thought the PC was dying, but it was obvious to anyone that it had certainly shrunk. Websites and others never wanted to admit it, but it was less and less profitable for companies to release anything but a port. (even then, the ports were few and far between, or very low quality.) Blame piracy or just disinterest in the newest games, doesn’t matter. The end effect was still the same.

    It wasn’t until 2006ish-2010 that steam seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, filling the void the lack of retail had left.

    Steam doesnt do a lot of things right. But it gives, and gave AAA studies the desire to dip their toes back into pc gaming in a serious way. Valve put their back into the PC, and they were rewarded. They did what other companies wouldn’t, either due to a lack of funds or a lack of desire.

    They support their own in house games as well as anyone, they offer good prices on games often beating their console counterparts. (though not always the cheapest on PC) The sales are legendary (and the reason microsoft and sony offer them). It’s generally stable, has very little down time, and offers good speed.

    What more do you want? DRM free releases? That’s a tough sell to AAA studios.

    What i don’t like about steam though is the glut of indie games. It feels okay for that on my phone, but it’s hard to separate the good from the bad on steam.

    Either way, i think without them pc gaming would be far worse off, and while probably not dead only existing in a zombie state until someone came along and filled that void.