There are a lot of comparisons out there between digital distributors on PC and marketplaces on other platforms. We often hear that just because someone has a digital distribution platform it's “just like Steam”. However, that's not always true and there's a reason why people have grown to like and even love Steam, as well as Valve, the private company that operates the service. Here are some of the basic reasons why people have fallen in love with Jedi Master Gaben and the Steam-powered network.
No. 1: Offline Mode
While a lot of people seem to think that in order to play any of your games in Steam you have to be online, this is totally not true. So long as you're not trying to play an MMO, just about every game in your library already downloaded, installed and run at least once, is available in offline mode. You can even have Steam start in offline mode whenever you boot it up and it can stay that way indefinitely. Now, historically the offline mode for Steam was grade-A crap. Offline mode was previously difficult to get working correctly or stable – there were times when you would go into offline mode, exit Steam and re-enter and it would put you back in online mode. However, with some tweaks and modifications, Valve has made offline mode convenient enough so that if you don't want to always be online, you don't have to. It's like gaming in 1996 but without the crappy 28.8 modems. You got a problem with that Mr. Always-Online Adam Orth? #Dealwithit.
No. 2: Free-to-Use Service
While this seems like a “no duh” kind of thing, let's consider that not every service is or was free-to-use. Back before digital distribution was big in the 2000s, we had to deal with paid services like the very first iteration of Xbox Live known as the Microsoft Gaming Zone, which hosted some games for free but then eventually had a charge to access a larger library of games and features. There was also Mplayer, TEN and online services from Sierra affiliates, such as the briefly lived AT&T gaming service for online games. Being able to register, download and use Steam without paying a cent is a great thing, as we sometimes take features like this for granted, because there was a time when simply accessing digital distribution platforms required a few hoops to hop through in order to make full use of their services. Opening Steam up to any and everyone with no financial strings attached is a real breath of fresh air.
No. 3: Automatic Patching
With new beta programs like Steam Pipe and automatic patching updates made available for every game in the Steam library, what's not to love about this feature? Well, technically for things like Garry's Mod or Half-Life, the frequent and uncontrollable updates can sometimes break the game, and given that turning off automatic updates doesn't always work as intended, it can create a bit of headache. Still, for the vast majority of games across Steam's library of available software titles, the automatic update patching keeps titles running clean and pristine. Back in the day if a game didn't work right or required a patch you would have to go through the trouble of visiting the publisher/developer's website and manually downloading the patch and then sometimes you would have to do some file-Tetris and rearrange certain key files or replace some files but leave others alone, etc., etc. In other words, patching PC games back in the day used to be a pain and Steam takes that pain away.
No. 4: Steam Greenlight
There is a small group of gamers and developers who complain about Steam's Greenlight process, but I have to say that this is the best thing made available for the vast array of incalculably good and bad indie games out there. Allowing gamers to vote for the games they want to buy and play only makes sense, as opposed to relegating all non-publisher indie titles to a back-corner section on the service like the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, or keeping a lot of these titles buried like the Nintendo eShop, the Greenlight really does bring a democratic meritocracy to the whole indie community because games people want to play can be voted for by people who want to play them. While there are complaints about the search and filter options (complaints I wholeheartedly agree with), Valve is still working out the kinks and aiming to make the service better. Besides, without Greenlight we wouldn't have awesome games like Vector, Surgeon Simulator or McPixel available to a broad audience. It's not like any of those games would have been picked up and published by EA, Microsoft or Activision.
No. 5: Steam Workshop
In addition to giving indies an outlet to get their games out there with Greenlight (which otherwise never would have seen the light of day on Steam), Valve also broke ground and incorporated one of the coolest modding resources on the net alongside ModDB and it's called the Steam Workshop. This web-based software tool shed enables gamers, developers, modders and tinkerers alike to create, modify and upload their creations for Workshop-compatible games and share those creations and mods with everyone. This here is part of the lifeblood of the growing community and gamer dedication to the pro-consumer Valve machine. Instead of milking gamers with what could have been a DLC shop, Valve opted instead to promote content through the Workshop that allows gamers to experience new ways to play their favorite games, including new maps, new game modes, new enemies, new weapons, new items, new quests and new ways to share experiences and creative ideas. While a lot of people like to draw comparisons to other digital distribution portals and Steam, the fact that other competitors lack a mod workshop speaks volumes for Valve's dedication to the actual gaming community and growing that community beyond the simple attempt to use a service to reach into the pockets of gamers.