Steam - it caused a few headaches when Half-Life 2 released in 2004, did it not? We can still clearly remember the angry rants over authorising the sequel through the online service and the problems many encountered when trying to do so. You could hear the sound of gamers' teeth gnashing together reverberating around the globe...
Fast forward a little and Valve has ironed out the hiccups and the online gaming and digital distribution platform has gone from strength to strength. We've seen a number of major publishers leap on board in recent months, back-catalogue PC games appearing on the service and brand new titles available on release day.
It's become yet another Valve success story, tucked into the developer's belt and nestling in alongside the Half-Life series. Valve's director of marketing Doug Lombardi was kind enough to tackle our questions.
What was your vision for Steam when it was originally created?
Doug Lombardi: Way back in 1999, we started seeing our multiplayer games (Team Fortress Classic, Counter-Strike) surge in terms of simultaneous player numbers. Traditionally, the leading online action games would have a peak simultaneous player number of about 2 or 3,000 people. But both TFC and CS passed that number and never went back. CS is now over 200,000 simultaneous players, generating over 6 billion player minutes per month.
So, I'm not sure it was so much a vision as it was a function of watching the trend of player interests and thinking about how we could do a better job of managing the games played by all these people.
The first Steam feature set was more a list of things we needed immediately and some features we knew would be needed as the community grew - auto updates, better anti-cheat measures, being able to access your games from any PC, in-game communication systems, etc.
Once we were that far, the idea of selling the games was just another piece of the puzzle that made sense, and more features present themselves seemingly every day as we gain experience in this arena.
Do you have an ultimate vision for Steam and how far down the road are you to achieving it?
Doug Lombardi: Our goal is to provide value to gamers and tools to game developers and publishers. With new types of content and technology debuting constantly, it's unclear that a final "ultimate vision" will present itself as we tend to continually iterate on our products as new capabilities are enabled.
Steam has certainly evolved in the past year alone, and we've got many new features planned for 2007 and beyond.
In the last few months we've seen a number of publishers embrace Steam - what's the appeal for those companies?
Doug Lombardi: Profits and improving the customer experience. The word is out: Steam has established itself as a viable platform for selling and managing PC games. Many of the developers and publishers using Steam presently have more planned - from bringing new day-and-date titles to re-launching critically acclaimed but out of stock titles to over 10 million active gamers.
Of all the metrics we use to gauge the success of our efforts, the fact that our partners are excited and coming back for more is the most telling.
What protection against piracy does Steam afford software released through it?
Doug Lombardi: Steam's encryption system has proven effective for both electronic and retail distribution. The holiday Half-Life 2 was released was a big year for new releases. And like many holidays, unfortunately, many of the titles released that year experienced "Day Zero" piracy - meaning the final product is available on the black market but the retail versions are still in replication. Half-Life 2 was a noteable exception and the only title encrypted through Steam.