The Steam Ecosystem

The Steam Ecosystem

Home consoles are in a transitionary period. Both the PlayStation 5 Digital and Xbox Series S don’t have a disc drive. Collector’s editions of first party games are released without a disc in the box. Physical games aren’t disappearing, but their prominence is declining. Subscriptions like Xbox Game Pass and cloud streaming are accelerating this process.

PC gaming went through this same thing 20 years ago. Unlike consoles, the PC market was a mess. PC games would ship and solely rely on their publisher’s marketing to reach the target audience. Physical games had egregious DRM that drove people to piracy, and even made legitimate buyers apply cracks to their games.

“Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem”
- Gabe Newell

Steam was introduced for distribution of Counter-Strike patches, and to protect the game with anti-cheat. It was most commonly known for its requirement to play Half-Life 2. At the time it was seen as just another form of DRM, especially since it housed only Valve games at first. It would later open up to third party publishing, and Valve would keep adding to and improving the client, until it would become the beloved platform it is today.

Until the launch of the Orange Box, Valve made sure Steam was a fully featured platform including community features like statistics tracking, a friend list, and voice chat. The feature I most adore Steam for was introduced all the way back in 2008 and is now a deeply established feature I can expect from any game on the platform: Cloud saves.

Cloud saves were added to consoles over time, being locked behind paywalls. Not only did Valve pioneer the feature, it has always been free for anyone. Keep cloud saves in mind - they will be important later.

What really is PC Gaming?

High end parts, many pixels, and the big fps. A tower lit up by RGB lights, with the lightest mouse and most linear keyboard to control it.

Many people have a specific mindset when it comes to PC gaming. A big advantage of PCs is being able to have much more capable hardware (and much higher price tags) than home consoles do.

However, what I believe to be PC gamings strongest suit is its flexibility. It can be the RTX 4090 powerhouse someone wants it to be - but it can also be a used laptop from eight years ago without a dedicated graphics chip at all. Neither its performance level nor its form factor are set in stone. PC games instead scale to whatever is trying to run them.

Portable Gaming

Nintendo had an instant hit when they released the Game Boy in 1989. Video games on the go (or just at home on the toilet) had massive appeal to people. Nintendo, having incredibly talented people developing their games, made sure their releases would draw people to their systems. They would continue to dominate the handheld gaming market until this day.

I grew up playing video games on a PC. I was already a teenager when I got my first ever console, a Nintendo DS. Being able to play games on the go was a game changer. It was something a PC could never offer me. I later tried playing games on my laptop on the train - it’s just not the same.

To explain why I love the Steam Deck so much, I need to elaborate on what growing up playing video games only on PCs was like. We had a family PC that was never built with gaming in mind. Games ran accordingly. It got to a point where new games wouldn’t even start, so my parents got me a new graphics card for Christmas. From that point onwards, I was able to play whatever I wanted. It was amazing.

Some years down the road, I got my first own PC. It consisted of used parts and cost me about 200€. It was pretty awful. I loved it though; it allowed me to play all my games from when I was younger, and everything that would come out from that point onwards. It continues like this until this day; whenever I’d upgrade my PC, I would keep my library and add new ones to it.

My point here is, I never had to deal with console generations. I’d just keep playing until new games wouldn’t run anymore. I never had to leave games behind when the console manufacturer decided it was time for a new one.

I own a Nintendo Switch, and it’s a great device - in isolation. I also own a Wii U. None of my Wii U games work on my Switch. None of my Wii U controllers work with my Switch either. Back in 2008, my parents gifted me a Logitech controller for Christmas. Not only does it still work just fine, Steam even translates the inputs so it works perfectly in any game out there, no matter how old or new.

Choosing which platform to buy a game for was always a struggle. The portability of the Switch is great, but anything remotely demanding would run better on a PC. 4K or HDR output through the dock isn’t even possible in theory. The Switch library also has a shelf life, my Steam library does not.

Enter Steam Deck

When Valve announced the Steam Deck in 2021, I felt excitement I hadn’t felt for a piece of technology in years.

The Steam Deck is an incredible device. It offers a console-like experience, but plays PC games. Your existing library of Steam games, no matter how old or new the titles are. Anything that doesn’t quite work out of the box can be arranged to work with a bit of tinkering. It can be used like a full PC through the dock with mouse and keyboard, or like the portable device it is on the go.

Its thumb sticks are full sized. The back buttons and trackpads with their customisation make any game a joy to play. Performance is great while battery life is decent.

It’s biggest W for me was the Steam ecosystem, and what all this is about. All those struggles I had with home and portable consoles, particularly the Switch, evaporated. I was suddenly able to play my entire library of PC games I had amassed over the years wherever I wanted.

I didn’t even have to pick which device to play a game on. I could start playing a game on my PC with mouse and keyboard, then later switch to my Steam Deck when I’d want to play on the train. My save file would seamlessly synchronise to the Steam Deck and allow me to pick off exactly where I left off the last evening.

When friends came over, they could bring whichever controller they were most comfortable with and connect it.

I was able to install old PC games from when I was a child and play those. I was able to install emulators and play whichever console games I wanted to.

None of this required me to subscribe to an online service. Particularly when compared to the Switch, an online service that often doesn’t work properly or even puts certain emulated consoles behind an even bigger paywall, what Valve provides really stands out.

There was nothing about this device that didn’t make me happy.

…except for the screen. The Steam Deck’s screen is bad, and a real downgrade from my Switch’s OLED screen.

My backlog is sorted by platform I plan on playing a game on. It had a real divide between Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck games, as I’d still try to play light indie games on the Switch for its better screen. This was the only thorn left that kept me from truly committing to the Steam Deck.

Enter Steam Deck OLED

The Steam Deck was not going to get a major revision for years to come. This would help developers target and optimise for the Steam Deck hardware, and would give players certainty their investment would stay worthwhile for multiple years.

The announcement of the Steam Deck OLED was an accordingly massive surprise for me. Valve was right in that the Deck’s performance would not change. They just never meant the rest of the device.

The Steam Deck OLED upgrades the screen to a 90hz OLED panel, including much higher sRGB and P3 coverage as well as 600 nits SDR and 1000 nits peak HDR brightness. The chip has received a node upgrade, resulting in improved efficiency, and the battery increased 20% in size. It lasts notably longer as a result.

The WiFi and bluetooth modules have been split and updated for higher performance and better reliability. The controls were refined and weight slightly reduced.

The list of changes is long, and the Steam Deck as an overall package even more appealing than it already was.

That backlog that used to be split between light games for the Switch and heavier games for the Steam Deck is now split between Nintendo games and everything else.

I could go into detail about why exactly the Steam Deck is an amazing device on its own - but for me, it’s so amazing because of the library and ecosystem I built for my gaming hobby over the years. The Steam Deck is just that perfect last piece of the puzzle, completing it.

The Steam Ecosystem

There are many more reasons why I love the Steam platform. The Steam store itself has transformed into a great discovery platform and is a joy to browse. Regular events highlight vast numbers of upcoming indie games and give them visibility they get nowhere else. Reviews help get an overview over opinions on a game. Library sharing allows my partner to demo games I recommended them without having to buy them first. The Steam Workshop and third party sites add endless content to games and breathe new life into old ones. The community features help me stay connected to people all the way back to high school. And the client itself just works and leaves me alone.

I use Steam for so much more than just clicking ‘buy’ and playing a game. It is now an entire ecosystem that previously was only possible by buying into multiple platforms at once. Other stores can buy exclusivity deals all they want. It's all this work Valve put into its platform over time that draws people in. Steam just offers too much to leave - and it’s all built on making for a good customer experience.

The Relationship between
Valve and PC Gaming

The contributions Valve made to PC gaming cannot be understated. The entire platform would not be where it is today if it weren’t for them. Valve never stopped and sat on their marketshare, they always experimented on how to improve people’s experience playing games.

Some of these attempts were misguided. The Steam Link was a short-lived device, but its technology still exists within Steam and can be used to stream games to another device, even on the go. The Steam Controller was beloved by a niche audience, but never got very popular. Its technology now lives on in the Steam Deck - as does the idea Valve first had with Steam Machines.

I did not even get into Valve’s Proton. Being able to run Windows games on Linux was what allowed the Steam Deck to use a custom operating system and as a result be as joyful of a device as it is. The magic Valve worked here took many years, but those years paid off. They even added HDR support recently! Linux couldn’t do that before at all.

Now, in 2023, the result of all these ideas and work is an ecosystem that nothing else can even get close to - and it’s all free. No subscription required.

Keep it up, Valve.