In the world of console video games, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo stand as titans. For PC gamers, however, Valve reigns supreme. Its distribution platform, Steam, may not be the only place to buy and play games on the PC, but it’s easily among the largest, oldest and most iconic. Today marks Steam’s 20th anniversary.
Valve is celebrating by slashing prices on its self-published games, offering most of its catalog for 90 percent off, except Half-Life: Alyx. The sale’s landing page doubles as a cheery retrospective of Steam’s last two decades. It’s a fun read that offers users the chance to buy the “Top Games” from key years in the platform’s history, punctuating footnotes about the very first Steam Sale with a chance to buy the original Portal for just $0.99.
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Again, it’s fun, but the nostalgic look back leaves out a few key details. Folks who were around when Steam first launched might remember its early days as a time of frustration. Valve built the platform as a way to easily deliver updates to its games and combat cheating in online multiplayer — but many saw it as an antagonistic force and an early attempt to impose restrictive DRM on players.
Digital distribution was in its infancy in 2003, and most PC gamers bought their games at the store, installing them manually from a CD or DVD. That didn’t change, but when Valve released Half-Life 2, players were surprised to find that the game required Steam — and an internet connection — to launch the single player experience. It was unheard of at the time, and people hated it.
As history shows, however, we got used to it. Other publishers started selling games on Valve’s platform. Users were drawn in by the convenient distribution model and the allure of the aforementioned Steam Sales. Steam added cloud save backups, a hub for player-created content, social features and more. Soon, Valve started toying with making its own hardware, first with the somewhat lackluster Steam Machines initiative, and later, the much more successful Steam Deck.
Today, Steam is a household name in the gaming community, and with good reason. Go ahead, celebrate. Valve even brought back the platform’s original dark green color to give the anniversary a nice, retro feel.