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Steam (service)

Initially launched as a software client component to help keep Valve's games up-to-date, the Steam service has expanded to include web- and mobile-based interfaces for consumers and developers for third-party games.

It also provides the user with installation and automatic updating of games, and community features such as friends lists and groups, cloud saving, and in-game voice and chat functionality.

The software provides a freely available application programming interface (API) called Steamworks, which developers can use to integrate many of Steam's functions into their products, including matchmaking, in-game achievements, microtransactions, and support for user-created content through Steam Workshop.

Through user polls at the time of its announcement in 2002, Valve also recognized that at least 75% of their users had access to high-speed Internet connections, which would grow only with planned Internet expansion in the following years, and recognized that they could deliver game content faster to players than through retail channels.[6]

Initially, Valve was required to be the publisher for these games since they had sole access to the Steam's database and engine, but with the introduction of the Steamworks software development kit (SDK) in May 2008, anyone could potentially become a publisher to Steam, outside of Valve's involvement to curate games on the service.[31]

Prior to 2009, most games released on Steam had traditional anti-piracy measures, including the assignment and distribution of product keys and support for digital rights management software tools such as SecuROM or non-malicious rootkits.

The CEG technology creates a unique, encrypted copy of the game's executable files for the given user, which allows them to install it multiple times and on multiple devices, and make backup copies of their software.[32]

Normally this is done while connected to the Internet following the user's credential validation, but once they have logged into Steam once, a user can instruct Steam to launch in a special offline mode to be able to play their games without a network connection.[33][34]

When the main player initiates a game while a shared account is using it, the shared account user is allowed a few minutes to either save their progress and close the game or purchase the game for his or her own account.[43]

In accordance with its Acceptable Use Policy, Valve retains the right to block and unblock customers' access to their games and Steam services when Valve's Anti-Cheat (VAC) software determines that the user is cheating in multiplayer games, selling accounts to others or trading games to exploit regional price differences.[45]

Valve later changed its policy to be similar to that of Electronic Arts' Origin platform, in which blocked users can still access their games but are heavily restricted, limited to playing in offline mode and unable to participate in Steam Community features.[47]

In April 2015, Valve began allowing developers to set bans on players for their games, but enacted and enforced at the Steam level, which allowed them to police their own gaming communities in customizable manner.[49]

However, this feature enabled a gray market around some games, where a user in a country where the price of a game was substantially lower than elsewhere could stockpile giftable copies of games to sell to others, particularly in regions with much higher prices.[58]

The keys are sold by third-party providers such as Humble Bundle (in which a portion of the sale is given back to the publisher or distributor), distributed as part of a physical release to redeem the game, or given to a user as part of promotions, often used to deliver Kickstarter and other crowd funding rewards.

A grey market exists around Steam keys, where less reputable buyers purchase a large number of Steam keys for a game when it is offered for a low cost, and then resell these keys to users or other third-party sites at a higher price, generating profit for themselves.[62][63]

It is possible for publishers to have Valve to track down where specific keys have been used and cancel them, removing the product from the user's libraries, leaving the user to seek any recourse with the third-party they purchased from.[65]

In May 2016, Steam further broke out these aggregations between all reviews overall and those made more recently in the last 30 days, a change Valve acknowledges to how game updates, particularly those in Early Access, can alter the impression of a game to users.[68]

To prevent observed abuse of the review system by developers or other third-party agents, Valve modified the review system in September 2016 to discount review scores for a game from users that activated the product through a product key rather than directly purchased by the Steam Store, though their reviews remain visible.[69]

In conjunction with developers and publishers, Valve frequently provides discounted sales on games on a daily and weekly basis, sometimes oriented around a publisher, genre, or holiday theme, and sometimes allow games to be tried for free during the days of these sales.

Steam Guard was advertised to take advantage of the identity protection provided by Intel's second-generation Core processors and compatible motherboard hardware, which allows users to lock their account to a specific computer.

In 2015, between Steam-based game inventories, trading cards, and other virtual goods attached to a user's account, Valve stated that the potential monetary value had drawn hackers to try to access user accounts for financial benefit, and continue to encourage users to secure accounts with Steam Guard;

ReVuln, a commercial vulnerability research firm, published a paper in October 2012 that said the Steam browser protocol was posing a security risk by enabling malicious exploits through a simple user click on a maliciously crafted steam:// URL in a browser.[96][97][98]

German IT platform Heise online recommended strict separation of gaming and sensitive data, for example using a PC dedicated to gaming, gaming from a second Windows installation, or using a computer account with limited rights dedicated to gaming.[98]

In December 2015, Steam's content delivery network was misconfigured in response to a DDoS attack, causing cached store pages containing personal information to be temporarily exposed for 34,000 users.[102][103]

While these changes brought Steam's privacy settings inline with approaches used by game console services, it also impacted third-party services such as Steam Spy, which relied on the public data to estimate Steam sales count.[104][105]

The SteamVR mode enables the user to operate the Big Picture mode and play any game in their Steam library with a virtual theater displayed through the VR headset, the equivalent of looking at a 225-inch television screen, according to Valve.[117]

Remote Play added the ability for local multiplayer games to be played by people in disparate locations in beta form in October 2019, though will not necessary resolve latency issues typical of these types of games.[122][123]

Users can use text chat and peer-to-peer VoIP with other users, identify which games their friends and other group members are playing, and join and invite friends to Steamworks-based multiplayer games that support this feature.

These redesigns are aimed to aid users to organize their games, help showcase what shared games a user's friends are playing, games that are being live-streamed, and new content that may be available, along with more customization options for sorting games.

Steamworks provides networking and player authentication tools for both server and peer-to-peer multiplayer games, matchmaking services, support for Steam community friends and groups, Steam statistics and achievements, integrated voice communications, and Steam Cloud support, allowing games to integrate with the Steam client.

This program allows for developers to release functional, but not finished, products such as beta versions to the service to allow users to buy the games and help provide testing and feedback towards the final production.

The early access approach allowed more developers to publish games onto the Steam service without the need for Valve's direct curation of games, significantly increasing the number of available games on the service.[155]

In general, up to 2012, Valve would manually select games to be included on the Steam service, limiting these to games that either had a major developer supporting them, or smaller studios with proven track records for Valve's purposes.

Valve have sought ways to enable more games to be offered through Steam, while pulling away from manually approving games for the service, short of validating that a game runs on the platforms the publisher had indicated.[175]

Alden Kroll, a member of the Steam development team, said that Valve knows Steam is in a near-monopoly for game sales on personal computers, and the company does not want to be in a position to determine what gets sold, and thus had tried to find ways to make the process of adding games to Steam outside of their control.[175]

While the Greenlight service had helped to bring more and varied games onto Steam without excessive bureaucracy, it also led to an excessively large number of games on the service that make it difficult for a single title to stand out, and as early as 2014, Valve had discussed plans to phase out the Greenlight process in favor of providing developers with easier means to put their games onto the Steam service.[188]

With Steam Direct, a developer or publisher wishing to distribute their game on Steam needs only to complete appropriate identification and tax forms for Valve and then pay a recoupable application fee for each game they intend to publish.

Once they apply, a developer must wait thirty days before publishing the game as to give Valve the ability to review the game to make sure it is 'configured correctly, matches the description provided on the store page, and doesn't contain malicious content.'[189]

On announcing its plans for Steam Direct, Valve suggested the fee would be in the range of $100–5,000, meant to encourage earnest software submissions to the service and weed out poor quality games that are treated as shovelware, improving the discovery pipeline to Steam's customers.[190]

Valve opted to set the Direct fee at $100 after reviewing concerns from the community, recognizing the need to keep this at a low amount for small developers, and outlining plans to improve their discovery algorithms and inject more human involvement to help these.[191]

Without more direct interaction on the curation process, allowing hundreds more games on the service, Valve had looked to find methods to allow players to find games they would be more likely to buy based on previous purchase patterns.[175]

The September 2014 'Discovery Update' added tools that would allow existing Steam users to be curators for game recommendations, and sorting functions that presented more popular games and recommended games specific to the user, as to allow more games to be introduced on Steam without the need of Steam Greenlight, while providing some means to highlight user-recommended games.[196]

A second Discovery update was released November 2016, giving users more control over what games they want to see or ignore within the Steam Store, alongside tools for developers and publishers to better customize and present their game within these new users preferences.[198][199]

By February 2017, Valve reported that with the second Discovery update, the number of games shown to users via the store's front page increased by 42%, with more conversions into sales from that viewership.

Curators can set up descriptors for the type of games they are interested in, preferred languages, and other tags along with social media profiles, while developers can find and reach out to specific curators from this information, and, after review, provide them directly with access to their game.

This step, which eliminates the use of a Steam redemption key, is aimed to reduce the reselling of keys, as well as dissuade users that may be trying to game the curator system to obtain free game keys.[201]

To help assist finding and removing these games from the service, the company added Steam Explorers atop its existing Steam Curator program, according to various YouTube personalities that have spoken out about such games in the past and with Valve directly, including Jim Sterling and TotalBiscuit.

Any Steam user is able to sign up to be an Explorer, and are asked to look at under-performing games on the service as to either vouch that the game is truly original and simply lost among other releases, or if it is an example of a 'fake game', at which point Valve can take action to remove the game.[208][209]

In July 2019, the Steam Labs feature was introduced as a means of Valve to showcase experimental discovery features they have considered for including into Steam, but seek public feedback to see if it is something that users want before fully integrating that into the storefront.

For example, an initial experiment released at launch was the Interactive Recommender, which uses artificial intelligence algorithms pulling data from the user's past gameplay history, comparing it to all other users, as to suggest new games that may be of interest to them.[210]

In June 2015, Valve created a formal process to allow purchasers to request full refunds on games they had purchased on Steam for any reason, with refunds guaranteed within the first two weeks as long as the player had not spent more than two hours in the game.[211]

For example, the Steam version of From Dust was originally stated to have a single, post-installation online DRM check with its publisher Ubisoft, but the released version of the game required a DRM check with Ubisoft's servers each time it was used.

Valve also removed Earth: Year 2066 from the Early Access program and offered refunds after discovering that the game's developers had reused assets from other games and used developer tools to erase negative complaints about the title.[214]

Valve stated it would continue to work on improving the discovery process for users, taking principles they learned in providing transparency for matchmaking in Dota 2 to make the process better, and using that towards Steam storefront procedures to help refine their algorithms with user feedback.[215]

in September 2018, Valve explicitly defined that trollers on Steam 'aren't actually interested in good faith efforts to make and sell games to you or anyone' and instead use 'game shaped object' that could be considered a video game but would not be considered 'good' by a near-unanimity of users.[222][223]

As an example, Valve's Lombardi stated that the game Active Shooter, which would have allowed the player to play as either a SWAT team member tasked to take down the shooter at a school shooting incident or as the shooter themselves, was an example of trolling, as he described it was 'designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict through its existence'.[224]

In May 2017, Valve identified that there were several games on the service with trading card support, where the developer distributed game codes to thousands of bot-operated accounts that would run the game to earn trading cards that they could then sell for profit;

these games would also create false positives that make these games appear more popular than they really were and would impact games suggested to legitimate players through their store algorithms, affecting Steam's Discovery algorithms.

Subsequent to this patch, games must reach some type of confidence factor based on actual playtime before they can generate trading cards, with players credited for their time played towards receiving trading cards before this metric is met.[227][228]

Valve identified a similar situation in June 2018 with 'fake games' that offered large numbers of game achievements with little gameplay aspects, which some users would use to artificially raise their global achievement statistics displayed on their profile.

These algorithms have resulted in select false positives for legitimate games with unusual end-user usage patterns, such as Wandersong which was flagged in January 2019 for what the developer believed was related to a near unanimous positive users reviews from the game.[230]

Valve has also removed or threatened to remove games due to inappropriate or mature content, though there was often confusion as to what material qualified for this, such as a number of mature, but non-pornographic visual novels being threatened.

Eek Games were later able to satisfy Valve's standards by including censor bars within the game and allowing the game to be readded to Steam, though offered a patch on their website to remove the bars.[238]

In May 2018, several developers of anime-stylized games that contained some light nudity, such as HuniePop, had been told by Valve they had to address the issues of sexual content within their games or face removal from Steam, leading to questions of inconsistent application of Valve's policies.

Rather than trying to make decisions themselves on what content is appropriate, Valve enhanced its filtering system to allow developers and publishers to indicate and justify the types of mature content (including violence, nudity, and sexual content) in their games.

Dharker noted that in discussions with Valve that they would be liable for any content-related fines or penalties that countries may place on Valve, a clause of their publishing contract for Steam, and took steps to restrict sale of the game in over 20 regions.[243]

Valve ultimately decided against offering the game on Steam, arguing that while it '[respects] developers' desire to express themselves', there were 'costs and risks' associated with the game's content, and the developers had 'chosen content matter and a way of representing it that makes it very difficult for us to help them [find an audience].'[245][246]

Apple later clarified its rule at the following Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in early June, in that iOS apps may not offer an app-like purchasing store, but does not restrict apps that provide remote desktop support that would allow users to purchases content through the remote desktop.[289]

This service will be called locally 'Zhengqi Pingtai' ('Steam Platform'), and will be run entirely independent from the rest of Steam by Perfect World with features that are aligned with China's strict regulations on video games, featuring only games that have passed approval by the government.[300]

Valve does not plan to prevent Chinese users from accessing the global Steam platform, and will try to assure that a player's saved games for a game on the main Steam client will be usable within the Steam China version of the game.[297]

While most accounts are from North America and Western Europe, Valve has seen a significant growth in accounts from Asian countries within recent years, spurred by their work to help localize the client and make additional currency options available to purchasers.[302]

By August 2017, Valve reported that they saw a peak of 14 million concurrent players, up from 8.4 million in 2015, with 33 million concurrent players each day and 67 million each month.[302]

The growth of games on Steam is attributed to changes in Valve's curation approach, which allows publishers to add games without having Valve's direct involvement enabled by the Greenlight and early access models, and games supporting virtual reality technology.[155]

In early 2011, Forbes reported that Steam sales constituted 50–70% of the US$4 billion market for downloaded PC games and that Steam offered game producers gross margins of 70% of purchase price, compared with 30% at retail.[318]

he said that while he supposes that its release can boost GNU/Linux adoption leaving users better off than with Microsoft Windows, he stressed that he sees nothing wrong with commercial software but that the problem is that Steam is unethical for not being free software and that its inclusion in GNU/Linux distributions teaches the users that the point is not freedom and thus works against the software freedom that is his goal.[321]

Steam was responsible for 58.6% of gross revenue for Defender's Quest during its first three months of release across six digital distribution platforms—comprising four major digital game distributors and two methods of purchasing and downloading the game directly from the developer.[323]

Steam's customer service has been highly criticized, with users citing poor response times or lack of response in regards to issues such as being locked out of one's library or having a non-working game redemption key.

In May 2017, in addition to hiring more staff for customer service, Valve publicized pages that show the number and type of customer service requests it was handling over the last 90 days, with an average of 75,000 entered each day.

As these processes allow developers to publish games on Steam with minimal oversight from Valve, journalists have criticized Valve for lacking curation policies that make it difficult to find quality games among poorly produced games, aka 'shovelware'.[331][332]

Some praised Valve in favoring to avoid trying to be a moral adjudicator of content and letting consumers decide what content they want to see, while others felt that this would encourage some developers to publish games on Steam that are purposely hateful or degenerate of some social classes, like LGBTQ, and that Valve's reliance on user filters and algorithms may not succeed in blocking undesirable content from certain users.

Some further criticized the decision based on the financial gain, as Valve collects 30% of all sales through Steam, giving the company reason to avoid blocking any game content, and further compounds the existing curation problems the service has.[333][334][335][336]

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation issued a statement that 'denounces this decision in light of the rise of sexual violence and exploitation games being hosted on Steam', and that 'In our current #MeToo culture, Steam made a cowardly choice to shirk its corporate and social responsibility to remove sexually violent and exploitive video games from its platform'.[337]

From its release in 2003 through to nearly 2009, Steam had a mostly uncontested hold over the PC digital distribution market before major competitors emerged with the largest competitors in the past being services like Games for Windows – Live and Impulse, both of which were shut down in 2013 and 2014, respectively.[338][339]

Steam's critics often refer to the service as a monopoly, and claim that placing such a percentage of the overall market can be detrimental to the industry as a whole and that sector competition can yield only positive results for the consumer.[340][341]

Several developers also noted that Steam's influence on the PC gaming market is powerful and one that smaller developers cannot afford to ignore or work with, but believe that Valve's corporate practices for the service make it a type of 'benevolent dictator', as Valve attempts to make the service as amenable to developers.[342]

Shortly following an announcement from Valve that they would reduce their cut on games selling over US$10 million, Epic launched its Epic Games Store in December 2018, promoting that Epic would take only a 12% cut of revenue for games sold through it, as well as not changing the normal 5% revenue cut for games that use the Unreal engine.[347]

In December 2015, the French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir initiated a lawsuit against Valve for several of their Steam policies that conflict or run afoul of French law, including the restriction against reselling of purchased games, which is legal in the European Union.[357]

The French gaming trade group, Syndicat National du Jeu Vidéo, noted that geo-blocking was a necessary feature to hinder inappropriate product key reselling, where a group buys a number of keys in regions where the cost is low, and then resells them into regions of much higher value to profit on the difference, outside of European oversight and tax laws.[363]