Is There Life Beyond Steam?

Don’t panic, Gabe Newell has not decided to fold the entirety of Valve up and support his knife crafting business. This is merely a question of the state of digital media should the worst happen. If Steam were to suddenly collapse and take your hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of games with them, can you still exist as a gamer? Spoiler, the answer is yes.

In 2011 Steam held a pretty heavy hand in the digital games market. Since its inception Valve have lead and revolutionised the way we play games on PC. But it’s always a hefty price to pay, as all games are locked behind the DRM (Digital Rights Management) that Steam provides, whilst most are happy with that, there are still a number of people who are uncomfortable with keeping everything tied to an online service. In those times every PC gamer had a Steam account and relied on the service to buy and play games.

Why 2011? In March of that year EA launched Origin, its own answer to Steam, in an effort to pull sway from the mammoth service. In response several titles were pulled from Steam including Crysis 2 and future titles such as Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3, which were then deigned to be Origin exclusives. This was met with much controversy as many gamers were used to using the Steam client to make their purchases and manage their games. However the client itself was very stable, unlike Steam in its inception, offering direct downloads, patch updates and its own friend list. Despite the complaints, Origin worked well and delivered what was promised, replacing the much maligned EA Link and EA Downloader that had preceded it. Origin now offers a much larger catalogue but doesn’t quite have the same amount of titles that Steam does.

At the time GOG (Good Old Games) was already on the market and offered a DRM free alternative to Steam, but its catalogue consisted mostly of older and historic titles, not directly competing with the AAA titles that Valve were offering at the time. Things changed in 2012, when GOG started to branch out into newer titles and re-branded itself as another digital retailer, instead of just a purveyor of retro titles. In 2016, GOG announced they would be selling the ‘Hello Games’ title ‘No Man’s Sky’, a hugely anticipated release, and completely DRM free. This was a huge benefit for the website and proof that it could hold up as a significant retailer, despite publishers concerns that the lack of DRM would harm sales.

Blizzard have always been a company to do things differently, and until fairly recently had never really entered the digital market, preferring the physical media. However in 2009 they launched a revamped version of Battle.net, an online portal required to launch their games. No other parties or developers are involved, and Battle.net remains to be exclusive to Blizzard’s own titles. While this works for the company, keeping everything under one roof and not having to deal with external publishers, players have lamented the fact that the titles are not available on any other platform with the exception of consoles.

The Humble Bundle had a strange but widely successful launch. Initially presenting a choice of several games with a “pay-what-you-want” scheme, many praised the service for offering indie titles, often DRM free, at low prices whilst having the option to split the proceeds either to charity or to the developers. It didn’t take long before Humble opened up their own digital storefront. It now offers a huge selection of games and still continues the bundle deals, even branching out to eBooks and mobile games.

UPlay, Ubisoft’s answer to digital distribution launched with Assassin’s Creed 2 in 2009. However unlike other services it often piggy-backed itself as a required installation on top of Steam, and early on required the player to be constantly connected to the internet in order to play. This proved extremely controversial as many players lost hours of play time due to connections cutting out and the client software resetting save files to an earlier point. This was later omitted, however the memory still persisted and has significantly hindered the service from expanding. At this time Uplay serves as an optional portal for Ubisoft titles, unlike Origin or Battle.net which are required in order to purchase the titles.

More than ever before, 2016 offers lots of ways of purchasing games. There is more competition than ever, with sites and subreddits devoted to tracking where the cheapest deals can be found. Other sites include GreenManGaming, Itch.io, Gamersgate and many more. A full list of retailers can be found at the bottom of this article.

The point of this is to show that there are options for consumers other than Steam. A monopoly never helps a market grow and it’s good for gamers to have the option of places to make their purchases, even if publishers find the DRM and management of Steam more to their liking. Now in 2016 Steam is still the largest of the group, but in five years its competition has grown significantly in the PC gaming market and consumers have a broad choice of platforms if they feel that the DRM policy is too restrictive, or if they cannot maintain a stable internet connection, something that is still all too common even in this decade.

Some people might complain that they have too many programs installed to launch games, but most of the clients are lightweight, and modern computers are easily powerful enough to handle multiple launchers existing in the same space. You do lose some coherence too, with friends lists being split up over multiple applications and having achievements and profiles disconnected, making it harder to keep the social element in one place. Overlays are still a problem too, as I’m constantly juggling Steam, Discord and Shadowplay to work correctly together.

Valve have mentioned that if they do go under, existing purchases will still be playable to their customers. But nothing is inherently written in stone on this subject, and anything can change. Look at some of the biggest businesses that have collapsed (Northern Rock and Enron come to mind), and it shows that no single business is infallible.

But can you still enjoy gaming? Can you still find titles to play both current and old? Absolutely, Steam is not the only answer anymore, just another player in the game.

Digital PC Game Retailers:

Steam (DRM Locked)
Origin (EA Games Only)
GOG (DRM Free)
Humble Bundle
Battle.net (Blizzard Games Only)
Windows Store (Windows 10 Only)
UPlay (Ubisoft Games Only, games available on other sites)
GreenManGaming
Indie Game Stand
Itch.io
Gamersgate
Shopto
Playism

If I’ve missed any please comment.