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Steam is a digital distribution platform developed by Valve Corporation , which offers digital rights management DRM , multiplayer gaming, video streaming and social networking services. Steam provides the user with installation and automatic updating of games, and community features such as friends lists and groups, cloud saving , and in-game voice and chat functionality.
The software provides a freely available application programming interface API called Steamworks, which developers can use to integrate many of Steam's functions into their products, including networking, matchmaking, in-game achievements, micro-transactions , and support for user-created content through Steam Workshop.
Though initially developed for use on Microsoft Windows operating systems , versions for OS X and Linux were later released. Mobile apps with connected functionality with the main software were later released for iOS , Android , and Windows Phone devices in the s. The success of the Steam platform has led to the development of a line of Steam Machine microconsoles , as well as the SteamOS operating system.
Before implementing Steam, Valve Corporation had problems updating its online games, such as Counter-Strike ; providing patches would result in most of the online user base disconnecting for several days. Valve decided to create a platform that would update games automatically and implement stronger anti-piracy and anti-cheat measures. Steam's development began in , with working titles for the platform being "Grid" and "Gazelle".
The first mod released on the system was Day of Defeat. The client was officially released out of beta on September 11, , for which it was mandatory to use with Counter-Strike version 1. Steam was an optional component for all other games. Between 80,—, players tested the system while it was in its beta period. The online features of games which required World Opponent Network ceased to work unless they were converted to Steam.
Around that time, Valve began negotiating contracts with several publishers and independent developers to release their products, including Rag Doll Kung Fu and Darwinia , on Steam. Canadian publisher Strategy First announced in December that it would partner with Valve for digital distribution of current and future titles.
This decision was met with concerns about software ownership, software requirements, and issues with overloaded servers demonstrated previously by the Counter-Strike rollout. Beginning with Rag Doll Kung Fu in October , third-party games became available for purchase and download on Steam,  and Valve announced that Steam had become profitable because of some highly successful Valve games.
Although digital distribution could not yet match retail volume, profit margins for Valve and developers were far larger on Steam. Steam's primary service is to allow its users to download games and other software that they have in their virtual software libraries to their local computers as game cache files GCFs. Prior to , most games released on Steam had traditional anti-piracy measures, including the assignment and distribution of product keys and support for digital rights management software tools such as SecuROM or non-malicious rootkits.
The CEG technology creates a unique, encrypted copy of the game's executable files for the given user which allows them to install it multiple times and on multiple devices, and make backup copies of their software. Normally this is done while connected to the Internet following the user's credential validation, but once they have logged into Steam once, a user can instruct Steam to launch in a special offline mode to be able to play their games without a network connection.
In September , Valve added support for Steam Cloud, a service that can automatically store saved game and related custom files on Valve's servers; users can access this data from any machine running the Steam client. Users can disable this feature on a per-game and per-account basis. Steam also offers a framework for selling and distributing downloadable content DLC for games.
In September , Steam introduced the ability to share most games with family members and close friends by authorizing machines to access one's library. Authorized players can install the game locally and play it separately from the owning account. Users can access their saved games and achievements providing the main owner is not playing.
When the main player initiates a game while a shared account is using it, the shared account user is allowed a few minutes to either save their progress and close the game or purchase the game for his or her own account. In accordance with its Acceptable Use Policy , Valve retains the right to block and unblock customers' access to their games and Steam services when Valve's Anti-Cheat VAC software determines that the user is cheating in multiplayer games, selling accounts to others or trading games to exploit regional price differences.
The Steam client includes a digital storefront called the Steam Store through which users can purchase computer games. Once the game is bought, a software license is permanently attached to the user's Steam account, allowing him or her to download the software on any compatible device. Game licenses can be given to other accounts under certain conditions. Content is delivered from an international network of servers using a proprietary file transfer protocol. Since , the Steam Translation Server project offers Steam users to assist with the translation of the Steam client, storefront, and a selected library of Steam games for twenty-seven languages.
In February , Steam began to open similar options for in-game item purchases for third-party games. Users of Steam's storefront can also purchase games and other software as gifts to be given to another Steam user. Prior to May , users could purchase these gifts to be held in their profile's inventory until they opted to gift them.
However, this feature enabled a gray market around some games, where a user in a country where the price of a game was substantially lower than elsewhere could stockpile giftable copies of games to sell to others, particularly in regions with much higher prices. The Steam store also enables users to redeem store product keys to add software from their library. The keys are sold by third-party providers such as Humble Bundle in which a portion of the sale is given back to the publisher or distributor , distributed as part of a physical release to redeem the game, or given to a user as part of promotions, often used to deliver Kickstarter and other crowd funding rewards.
A grey market exists around Steam keys, where less reputable buyers purchase a large number of Steam keys for a game when it is offered for a low cost, and then resell these keys to users or other third-party sites at a higher price, generating profit for themselves. In , Steam began to accept player reviews of games. Other users can subsequently rate these reviews as helpful, humorous, or otherwise unhelpful, which are then used to highlight the most useful reviews on the game's Steam store page.
Steam also aggregates these reviews and enables users to sort products based on this feedback while browsing the store. During mid, Valve began to offer free-to-play games, such as Global Agenda , Spiral Knights and Champions Online ; this offer was linked to the company's move to make Team Fortress 2 a free-to-play title. Later that year, Valve added the ability to trade in-game items and "unopened" game gifts between users. Steam Coupons can be provided to users by developers and publishers; users can trade these coupons between friends in a similar fashion to gifts and in-game items.
For example, Team Fortress 2 —the first game supported at the beta phase—incurred both fees. Full support for other games was expected to be available in early In October , Steam introduced non-gaming applications, which are sold through the service in the same manner as games. Entertainment offering the Mad Max films alongside the September release of the game based on the series ,  Lionsgate entered into agreement with Valve to rent over one hundred feature films from its catalog through Steam starting in April , with more films following later.
In conjunction with developers and publishers, Valve frequently provides discounted sales on games on a daily and weekly basis, sometimes oriented around a publisher, genre, or holiday theme, and sometimes allow games to be tried for free during the days of these sales. The site normally offers a large selection of games at discount during its annual Summer and Holiday sales, including gamification of these sales to incentive users to purchase more games.
The popularity of Steam has led to the service's being attacked by hackers in the past. An attempt occurred in November , when Valve temporarily closed the community forums, citing potential hacking threats to the service. Days later, Valve reported that the hack had compromised one of its customer databases, potentially allowing the perpetrators to access customer information—including encrypted password and credit card details.
At that time, Valve was not aware whether the intruders actually accessed this information or discovered the encryption method, but nevertheless warned users to be alert for fraudulent activity.
Valve added Steam Guard functionality to the Steam client in March to protect against the hijacking of accounts via phishing schemes, one of the largest support issues Valve had at the time. Once locked, activity by that account on other computers must first be approved by the user on the locked computer. In , between Steam-based game inventories, trading cards, and other virtual goods attached to a user's account, Valve stated that the potential monetary value had drawn hackers to try to access user accounts for financial benefit, and continue to encourage users to secure accounts with Steam Guard; when trading was introduced in To improve security, the company announced that new restrictions would be added in March , under which day holds are placed on traded items unless they activate, and authenticate with Steam Guard Mobile Authenticator.
ReVuln, a commercial vulnerability research firm, published a paper in October that said the Steam browser protocol was posing a security risk by enabling malicious exploits through a simple user click on a maliciously crafted steam: In July , a bug in the software allowed anyone to reset the password to any account by using the "forgot password" function of the client.
High-profile professional gamers and streamers lost access to their accounts. In April , Valve added new privacy settings for Steam users, who are able to set if their current activity status is private, visible to friends only, or public; in addition to being able to hide their game lists, inventory, and other profile elements in a similar manner. While these changes brought Steam's privacy settings inline with approaches used by game console services, it also impacted third-party services such as Steam Spy which relied on the public data to estimate Steam sales count.
Since November , Steam allows for users to review their purchased titles and organize them into categories set by the user and add to favorite lists for quick access. The Steam interface allows for user-defined shortcuts to be added. In this way, third-party modifications and games not purchased through the Steam Store can use Steam features.
Valve sponsors and distributes some modifications free-of-charge;  and modifications that use Steamworks can also use VAC, Friends, the server browser, and any Steam features supported by their parent game. For most games launched from Steam, the client provides an in-game overlay that can be accessed by a keystroke. From the overlay, the user can access his or her Steam Community lists and participate in chat, manage selected Steam settings, and access a built-in web browser without having to exit the game.
As a full version on February 24, , this feature was reimplemented so that users could share screenshots on websites of Facebook , Twitter , and Reddit straight from a user's screenshot manager. Steam's "Big Picture" mode was announced in ;  public betas started in September and were integrated into the software in December Newell stated that Big Picture mode was a step towards a dedicated Steam entertainment hardware unit.
The SteamVR mode enables the user to operate the Big Picture mode and play any game in their Steam library with a virtual theater displayed through the VR headset, the equivalent of looking at a inch television screen, according to Valve. The Steam client, as part of a social network service , allows users to identify friends and join groups using the Steam Community feature. Users can participate in forums hosted by Valve to discuss Steam games.
Each user has a unique page that shows his or her groups and friends, game library including earned achievements, game wishlists, and other social features; users can choose to keep this information private. Using them, players can trade with other Steam users on the Steam Marketplace and use them to craft "Badges", which grant rewards such as game discount coupons, emoticons, and the ability to customize their user profile page.
This requirement can be fulfilled by making any purchase of five dollars or more on Steam, or by adding at the same amount to their wallet. Through Steamworks, Steam provides a means of server browsing for multiplayer games that use the Steam Community features, allowing users to create lobbies with friends or members of common groups.
Steamworks also provides Valve Anti-Cheat VAC , Valve's proprietary anti-cheat system; game servers automatically detect and report users who are using cheats in online, multiplayer games. In September , Steam Music, a built-in music player , was added to the Steam client, allowing users to play through music stored on their computer or to stream from a locally networked computer.
Valve offers Steamworks, an application programming interface API that provides development and publishing tools to take advantage of Steam client's features, free-of-charge to game and software developers. The API also provides anti-cheating devices and digital copy management. In February , Valve announced that it would begin to allow developers to set up their own sales for their games independent of any sales that Valve may set.
This program allows developers to release functional but yet-incomplete products such as beta versions to the service to allow users to buy the titles and help provide testing and feedback towards the final production. Early access also helps to provide funding to the developers to help complete their titles.
Developers are able to request Steam keys of their products to use as they see fit, such as to give away in promotions, to provide to selected users for review, or to give to key resellers for different profitization. Valve generally honors all such requests, but clarified that they would evaluate some requests to avoid giving keys to games or other offerings that are designed to manipulate the Steam storefront and other features.
For example, Valve said that a request for , keys for a game that has significantly negative reviews and 1, sales on Steam is unlikely to be granted. The Steam Workshop is a Steam account-based hosting service for videogame user-created content.
Depending on the title, new levels, art assets, gameplay modifications, or other content may be published to or installed from the Steam Workshop through an automated, online account-based process.
The Workshop was originally used for distribution of new items for Team Fortress 2 ;  it was redesigned to extend support for any game in early , including modifications for The Elder Scrolls V: Steam for Schools is a function-limited version of the Steam client that is available free-of-charge for use in schools.
It is part of Valve's initiative to support gamification of learning for classroom instruction; it was released alongside free versions of Portal 2 and a standalone program called "Puzzle Maker" that allows teachers and students to create and manipulate levels.