Steam turned 10 today. Remember when it sucked?

By Luke Plunkett on September 12, 2013, 8:01 PM
valve, happy birthday, steam, gaming, digital distribution

Birthdays are normally a time for celebration, but you know what? People heap adulation on Steam every day of the year. So let's flip it, and spend today remembering when Steam was new, and was just about the worst thing ever.

Launching ten years ago today, Steam had a relatively inauspicious beginning. The games business was in the last days of an old-fashioned era, before iOS, before Facebook, before, well, Steam. You either bought console games on a disc, or you bought PC games on CD/DVD. That was it!

Steam, though, was trying something different. 

Known today as a retail and multiplayer gaming juggernaut, the origins of Steam are actually a little more innocent. The idea at its time of inception was that Valve, struggling to keep on top of online updates (and stay one step ahead of cheaters) for its multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike, would create a service that could do all that sort of stuff for them.

You would run the game through that service and all the updating, and anti-cheat protection, would be baked-in, providing consistent and reliable support for gamers.

Development on the platform began in 2002, and after a successful beta it launched on September 12, 2003. It wasn't that big a deal. The service wasn't mandatory for all Valve games, and was only really useful if you were playing a game (or mod) like Counter-Strike or Day of Defeat.

That changed in 2004. The release of Half-Life 2, one of the biggest games of all time, also saw Steam step up from being an optional gaming extra to a necessity. Here's Valve's Doug Lombardi (still in the job, btw) prior to the game's release:

All versions require an Internet connection upon installation. This is for authentication/anti-piracy purposes. Once this has been completed, the owner of either the retail or the Steam version can play Half-Life 2 single player in offline mode.

So Steam was mandatory for everyone buying Half-Life 2. Everyone was buying Half-Life 2, and when Half-Life 2 launched...Steam fell over. So badly it even made the BBC.

Valve's servers simply weren't ready for the flood of users trying to play the game at launch, and for days, people around the world struggled to even start the game, a real kick in the teeth considering they'd waited over five years for the oft-delayed sequel.

We accept server issues at a game's launch as an unfortunate standard today, but that's for multiplayer games, and that's in 2013. In 2004, the idea that a singleplayer experience had to be "unlocked" remotely, even though you held the discs in your hand, was seen by many as an unnecessary intrusion, a roadblock to their enjoyment of a game.

It was SimCity, before SimCity. Only for a new Half-Life game. If you weren't involved or around at the time, doesn't matter, I'm sure you can imagine.

This left a bad taste in people's mouths. While Valve swiftly sorted out the server issues, and most people had got their games working after only a few days, the memory of that forced installation and subsequent failure would linger for years.

You can still find, if you look, forum posts from the time complaining about Steam, complaining about Valve, talking about how the service would ruin PC gaming, how it had ruined Half-Life. In hindsight, these prophets of doom turned out to be so wrong it's adorable.

It's not like Half-Life 2 was fixed and Steam suddenly found itself King of the PC gaming world, though. From 2003-2005, Steam was really only relevant to Valve's games, and then only as a means of updating and launching them (or buying them, if you somehow hadn't done that already).

It wasn't until 2005, when Valve began signing on external publishers, that the service began to change, not just in its priorities, but in people's perception. By 2007, Valve had convinced many of PC gaming's biggest and most important companies, from id Software to Activision, Eidos to Capcom, that selling their games on Steam was a good idea.

It had also, very quietly, improved its quality of service to the point where it was, in online gaming terms, almost bulletproof. Where Half-Life 2's launch was a disaster, by 2007, the thought of the same thing happening for Modern Warfare's release seemed impossible. And it had only been three years!

By 2008, a service begun as a way to patch online shooters had become a marketplace. From there, you know the rest.

User Comments: 27

Got something to say? Post a comment
psycros psycros said:

And when Half-Life 3 launches it will collapse again Oh, and I'm still completely opposed to any form of online authentication except while installing the game initially. It forces bloatware onto your system, its a hassle for those with unreliable Internet and it and hasn't stopped a single pirate.

1 person liked this | St1ckM4n St1ckM4n said:

It sucked as early as two years ago. There's been a lot of back-end changes to improve.

1 person liked this | JC713 JC713 said:

It sucked as early as two years ago. There's been a lot of back-end changes to improve.

I would say 3.

St1ckM4n St1ckM4n said:

Upon review, yes, three. I forgot that I lost some gaming time in there. :P

1 person liked this | cliffordcooley cliffordcooley, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Must have sucked before I signed up for Steam. lol

Member since July 20th, 2011

1 person liked this | Arris Arris said:

I remember the days of "Hmm why am I lagging so much? Oh steam is automatically updating something in the background". In it's infancy it certainly caused a bit of frustration but in it's current format it's being copied by every developer/publisher and their dog(that's you EA!).... Origin, Arc(for Neverwinter Online), one from Ubisoft for Farcry 3 and recently GoG have been moving into new games rather than just old ones. Might have had a few hiccups along the way but now have themselves in a good domination position. I know myself and friends thought "Origin, just to play BF3, what a pain! Why can't they just use Steam like everyone else".

FLWrd said:

I've got just one Steam game (some FPS), but my experience with Steam is quite negative. I still avoid it.

Puiu Puiu said:

All hail Valve! All hail Valve! All hail Valve! All hail Valve! ^_^

Skidmarksdeluxe Skidmarksdeluxe said:

I've had Steam since HL2 and yet apart from having to have it installed to play certain games, I've never used it.

trgz said:

Just looked up my account and I've had 9 years and a few months of Steam - didn't overly like it at first but I could see the potential. As a platform it's never really sucked in my opinion but it has definitely improved.

Now if only I could say the same of Origin; and if Gabe came around my place a took a dump on my keyboard it'd still be a less nauseating experience than GFWL or Uplay..

Guest said:

It still suck.... kill steam and gives us the games for playing when we want to.

4 people like this | ikesmasher said:

It still suck.... kill steam and gives us the games for playing when we want to.

Have fun playing retail prices all the time for your games then...

Steam has pretty much saved PC gaming... Plus you can still play steam games offline...

In one hand I hate steam for being anay sort of DRM but on the other hand I would never play PC games if I couldnt get steam prices on them.

fimbles fimbles said:

I remember buying half life 2 at blockbuster video in the UK.

The salesman said it came with no warranty at all, And once you used the product key you were screwed.

Still bought it,

Waited for it to download, Signed the terms and conditions (seem to remember it being the first one you had to scroll down to get to the bottom paragraph and "I agree" button.

Played half life 2 for a few days but I think CS source that came included was how I spent most of my time playing. Still have the odd go even today.

Ranger12 Ranger12 said:

I resisted for quite awhile, always preferring the shiny boxes and physical CD/DVDs. But I soon learned that resistance was futile and I succumbed to the low prices and ease of purchase, download, and install. I soon found myself trying to convert my friends like it was a matter of life and death. I became a bonafide fanboy. @_@

BigMack70 said:

I've been a Steam member since Oct 11, 2003... I was one of the fortunate ones who had no issues with it with HL2/CS:S/etc and I never understood the complaining about it.

I <3 Steam and wish all PC games were on it

n00bzZy said:

I hate Steam as much as I love it. Made me turn from pirating every game I wanted to ~250 games on Steam. The sad part is I pretty much only play Dota 2 these days xD

ypsylon said:

It still sux donkey ballz. Refuse to use this trojan. I wonder how much NSA paid Valve to create it (or MS for Windows Live).

I have no problem with paying more/much more for independent games. Kudos to all e-shops which allow internal search engine to exclude $team-bound titles.

Death to intrusive DRM!

Guest said:

I really like Steam and think they do a good job for the customer. They have the best sales and deals around. They support PC (Windows, Mac, Linux) gaming. It's easy to use and they continue to improve things. Happy Birthday Steam.

2 people like this | LNCPapa LNCPapa said:

I'm an admitted Steam fanboy, but when it first came out I really hated it. I saw a buddy who had it and thought it was garbage - especially when he had such a hard time showing me a game he "owned". A bit later I had a buddy who I knew wanted HL2 - so I bought him Orange Box and he said he couldn't wait to play with me... had to give him the bad news that I didn't get it for myself because I refused to use Steam. I watched him for a while and noticed that Steam was getting better... and the longer I watched him the better it seemed to get.

These days I mostly refuse to buy any games if they are unavailable for Steam except maybe an MMO. I even have an Origin account with several games in it but I don't play any of them because I refuse to install Origin (I've hated EA for years now). Games that I do acquire outside of Steam are still launched via Steam. I got my wife and two daughters their own Steam accounts and now I fund 4 gaming habits. I also set up a "server" account that I was hoping to use both for my dedicated game server (for steam tools) and hopefully one day for my Big Picture games. I talk to game developers here that I know and I share this experience with them so they see that some of us find it important to have our games available via Steam (you'd be surprised how many game development companies are within a few miles of me).

When it comes down to it, Yes I'd prefer no DRM at all, but I'd still like to have that along with a library management tool. Steam DRM is acceptable to be simply because it works 99.9% or more of the time. They don't try to do any janky mess like install rootkits (say what you want about the Steam software) and the more you learn about it the more you figure out that you can still use it mostly the way you want. I still hear people complain about not being able to play their games without being connected or showing everyone on their lists what they are playing but that's not entirely true. Also, when Steam makes a price mistake and sells stuff wayyyyy too cheap they still honor it. I picked up a AAA game right after release for $4.91 one time - it was priced that way for only a few minutes but they still let me keep it. Steam gives that proper balance (IMO) of DRM + Convenience. Steam sales don't hurt anything either except my wallet.

2 people like this | lipe123 said:

It still sux donkey ballz. Refuse to use this trojan. I wonder how much NSA paid Valve to create it (or MS for Windows Live).

I have no problem with paying more/much more for independent games. Kudos to all e-shops which allow internal search engine to exclude $team-bound titles.

Death to intrusive DRM!

Excuse me.. you have a little foam in the corner of your mouth ^^. I hope you realize no one will take you serious for spouting such a load of garbage.

Back to topic, I get that DRM is "intrusive" but honestly don't see us moving away from that model anytime soon. I really like steam, been using it only since L4D and had I bought these games as physical copies I would have lost the discs years ago. But with steam I can reinstall those games anytime with a buttonclick.

Guest said:

When it sucked? It still does at times. Plenty of issues depending on the game, just look at the CoD BO II. It's a joke.

Allowing companies to put a game out that's clearly not finished and then allowing them to make money on it. Alot of games are starting to get to where they are free (betas) but if you really want certain things or advance quickly (not as slow as the game does) you are going to have to pay some amount of money. Some call it pay to play. Whatever you want to call it, it's the new thing. Realize though you playing and paying for an unfinished product that can only get finished is if you actually buy stuff, otherwise it wont/can't get completed. War Thunder is a big example of this.

There are plent of others are there that are starting to do this type of model. Steam even allows a developer to sell a game but dev only does an update once in awhile, while the game itself is riddled with bugs and mods are unplayable since no development has happened for some in 3 years. To me that is unacceptable and Steam needs to be held accountable for even allowing a game like that on their platform.

LNCPapa LNCPapa said:

Wait.. what? You're expecting Steam to control the development of a game other than a Valve title? I'm confused. Steam is a distribution/metering/monitoring tool - they have no control over the development process or cycle of any game other than those from Valve. I think you have some misdirected feelings about games you've had bad experiences with.

amstech amstech, TechSpot Enthusiast, said:

Just seeing the 2004 screenshot was worth the clicky.

Xclusiveitalian Xclusiveitalian said:

I remember when Steam sucked and was hated haha Now I can't imagine PC gaming without it! lol It truly help PC gaming trive!

Arris Arris said:

I've been a Steam member since Oct 11, 2003... I was one of the fortunate ones who had no issues with it with HL2/CS:S/etc and I never understood the complaining about it.

I <3 Steam and wish all PC games were on it

I've also been using steam since 2003. I think a lot of CS related problems were with Punkbuster rather than steam itself. At first the best thing they brought in with Steam is being able to join servers that your friends were playing on, and messaging while in game.

Arkane316 Arkane316 said:

Good times indeed.. Personally I've had very few problems with Steam itself.. Come to think of it, as of the past few years I only been buying games on Steam.

Besides, Steam has some great deals in the marketplace which are extremely hard to beat :)

RenGood08 RenGood08 said:

I love Steam. Been a member since last year after I got my laptop. I love it. So far I have like 7 games on it. Or more. I don't remember...maybe 8....downloaded a crappy game and I might uninstall it.

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