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Steam just turned 20 years old, and Valve is celebrating

Steam just turned 20 years old, and Valve is celebrating


The game digital distribution platform launched September 12th, 2003.

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All of Valve’s games are on sale today — because Steam is 20 years old. The company’s got a cute walk down memory lane to help celebrate, too. But don’t go looking there for a history of Steam itself... perhaps because Steam was originally a tad controversial?

It’s easy to forget: many PC gamers hated Steam at launch.

When it launched 20 years ago today on September 12th, 2003, it seemed like Valve was trying to take away our multiplayer server browsers and our DVDs. 2004’s Half-Life 2, which required Steam to play even if you bought a physical disc, made Steam look like a glorified piece of DRM.

And why pay Valve, many game publishers asked themselves, when they could build or buy their own digital distribution platforms like EA’s Origin or Ubisoft’s UPlay instead?

But Half-Life 2 and its mods turned out to be a massive hit that PC gamers couldn’t ignore — and deals Valve cut with publisher after publisher quickly made Steam the de facto PC game platform.

Twenty years later, the last stragglers are still coming into the fold, like EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Sony and allies. Square Enix has fully returned. Even Blizzard is putting games on Steam as of earlier this year. Meanwhile, Epic has given away millions upon millions of dollars in free games to boost its upstart Epic Games Store, and yet it’s still struggling to compete with Steam’s momentum.

Today, Valve says the “ultimate goal” of Steam was “to give any game developer a way to reach their players and build their audience directly.” Even if Steam didn’t feel that way at first, and even if Valve is still getting in scuffles over certain forms of content, it has indeed become a massive platform for indie game discovery.

And it’s only grown more popular over the years. Steam player numbers went through the roof during the pandemic, and they haven’t stopped: 10 million players were simultaneously logged into games this past January. The Steam Deck gaming handheld has provided not only a compelling new place to play but also a huge and wonderful kick in the butt for the entirety of Steam’s long-stale user interface.

Today, you don’t hear much about Steam being a piece of DRM; it’s just a convenient place to buy and play games, one with constant sales and handy new features (like a cloud notepad or in-home streaming) every year or two. I don’t bat an eye when Steam gets an exclusive because it’s become my PC gaming home — even if I never planned it that way.

If Valve does wind up delving a bit deeper into its history, I’d love to see an interactive museum like the one Sony built into PS5 pack-in Astro’s Playroom. What happened to Microsoft’s Xbox one, I wonder?