Steam Is 10 Today. Remember When It Sucked?

Steam Is 10 Today. Remember When It Sucked?

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 10 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.


  • I sent gaben an email about this a few weeks ago to see if there was anything planned and never got a response πŸ™

    Day 1 SteamID here – I remember the horrid mess that it was 10 years ago today.

  • My only experience with Steam was Half-Life 2 related. Desperately annoying, given we were trying to activate a game at a house with no internet connection. Swore off Steam on that day, and have never used it since (except to gift two games to others).

      • Did he mention he used to walk around with an onion on his belt? A brown onion mind you because….

    • First experience with Steam was attempting to authenticate HL2 on Christmas Day 2004. Internet connection was fine, but the servers were not having a bar of it. I have, however, since forgiven it.

    • Really never used it since to play games? At all? What about Portal 1/2 and other Steamworks games? Do you just pass on them, or do the install and then promptly take Steam back offline or something? Do you still not use it because of the difficulties you experienced that day, or are you more of console gamer so it doesn’t really effect you? Do you use other DRM free digital retailers like GOG, or are you more of a boxed copy kind of person?

      edit: Sorry lots of questions. It’s just that Steam feels so central to PC gaming to me these days.

      • Boxed copies and console gaming have seen me through thus far. But I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid Steam for no logical reason other than past hurts πŸ˜›

      • I’d rather own the physical copy. That way I can carry it around and push it up against my screen at 12:01 every day when the Haitaku post goes live.

      • But the middle was sad too! Also I guess the start as well, because I never actually got to play HL2. πŸ˜›

        • Yeahbut… but I liked it because it sounded exactly like my story which has a happy ending, up until the point that you ruined it. Why’d you have to flip the script like that, whacky writer person? Now I have to flip tables!

          (β•―Β°β–‘Β°οΌ‰β•―οΈ΅ ┻━┻

  • I hated steam so much at first, until i noticed the sales. Now I have hundreds of games on there. I’ve only played about half and a quarter of those unplayed I have no intention of playing, they just came with other games I wanted.

    all in all me and steam had a rocky start but now it is a relationship that will no doubt last til one of us dies.

    also do we all still hate origin??
    Origin seems to hate me and wont let me start it. I like to think it knows im in a committed retail relationship and does not want to get in the way.

  • Why yes, I do remember yesterday πŸ˜›

    In 2004, the idea that a singleplayer experience had to be β€œunlocked” 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.
    I still see it that way in 2013. Old man me.

  • I remember being really annoyed when getting home with my boxed copy of HL2, only to find out I couldn’t play it due to our lack of Internet. Ended up asking our neighbour who was moving out at the time to bring the family computer over and hook up to his dialup connection. Found out that the computer actually had its own modem, so after I activated HL I krpt his dialup detaiks stored and snuck online at home a few times later. When my parents found out (and after explaining how little I used so I wouldn’t have a vengeful neighbour) we got our own connection.

    So I guess thanks Valve.

    • When my parents found out (and after explaining how little I used so I wouldn’t have a vengeful neighbour

      Sure, sure! πŸ˜›

      • I once borrowed my boss’ login and unbeknownst to me I racked up a $350 bill. Which I readily paid off because he didn’t tell me that he got the el’ cheapo plan with per MB cost. >:-(

        • I remember using the schools dialup account. They had the login details written on a sticky note stuck to the side of the library computer’s screen!

          Gawd, dialup internet, back when pictures loaded slowly from the top, and it took longer to download a song than to listen to it. To think we still use the same old copper wires to access the internet now… and will continue to for the foreseeable future!

          • Wow, I remember those days. When you would share ‘images’ with friends on floppy disks. All of about 15 images.

            My monitor could only support 256 colors, but with the magic of dithering it looked almost like 16 bit!

            And what about Freenet? I’m sure everyone must have used Freenet at one point or another. πŸ˜€

          • Didn’t use Freenet……. but I did use FidoNet, which was effectively Freenet with BBS technology….. I’d say I feel “old”, but then people older than me feel even worse :p

          • Just reminded me of the network infrastructure of my secondary school. They ran winNT on all of the workstations, but with basically no security on the backend. To mount each user’s “private” directory, they just had a batch file run at startup which took an argument from the students login name. Didn’t take us long to figure out we could map any persons drive we wanted simply by knowing their username, which was simply their surname followed by their first initial. Rocket science I know….. What’s amazing is this wasn’t just students…. the teachers were in the same directory space!

            I literally get chills down my spine when I think what would happen if we did this today…… we’d probably get kicked out of school and charged with some sort of digital-criminal conduct.

            There’s a tonne of more things we did when I think about it. But I guess it’s what happens when you’ve got a bunch of bored computer nerds on a pre-reddit internet :p

            I dunno….. boring story I guess. But you just brought it into my mind again, lol.

  • I don’t remember Steam ever being horrible.. I have had those brief times when Steam was overloaded during a sale or whatever… but never anything that last more than a couple of days and in line with expectations…

    So what this article is really saying is that this sense of entitlement that gamers have has been around for a very long time πŸ™‚

    • Buying the brand new hotness and not being able to play it even though you had it RIGHT THERE IN YOUR HANDS was definitely a new and horrible, horrible thing at the time.

  • “We accept server issues at a game’s launch as an unfortunate standard today”

    Aehm, no… it happens, but we don’t accept it.

      • its too early to make that call. If diablo 4 and the next SimCity are ‘always online’, and still sell millions of pre-orders, then you will have been proved right.

  • It still sucks, no support for touch screens and they’re too busy rage hating windows 8 to improve it.

  • I remember when this first started, with HL2. I thought it would mean the end of PC gaming, no one would put up with this online activation shit! Now look at us, with Steam the beacon for DRM done well and properly. How times have changed. It hasn’t meant the death of PC< quite the reverse. IT is a lot better than the early days however, it was kind of like how Origin is now. Bland and useless.

  • my steam username is an email address… thats how long i’ve been using it… lol shame it can’t be changed πŸ™

    around 1200 games on my account now too πŸ™‚

  • Man, I love steam!

    I guess I can say that being that I was never really interested in Half life since I was already deeply into Counter Strike.

    I have countless games on steam and it’s nice knowing that I can always have that collection with me for life. I also like how I am able to download games via steam at 2mbps speeds and since i’m on westnet it does not take up any of my bandwidth.

  • And to think its been 10 years and its hardly improved. Still same old same old, the interface still looks like its from the early 2000’s its slow its clunky it has alot of features missing from competing programs (invisible mode that still lets you play with other people, can’t block people without them still being able to see you) I know I’m an anti social sod. its amazing to think of all the improvements steam could have made over 10 years and the most recent thig is not to make it better or faster but to give it trading cards of all the most rediculous things.

    Now! Origin. Its at least half decent. and in no way am I a fanboi of EA I utterly detest their souls for what they did to my favourite gaming companes RIP Origin Systems and Westwood Studios, but you know what? they made a half decent gaming platform with Origin that works alot better than steam for me.

    Steams great with the sales but thats about all I can give it credit for.

  • I remember first installing Steam as a teenager to play CS on our family PC. Let me tell you, having an icon called “Steam” on the desktop caused one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever had with my mum! “It’s for video games, I swear!”

  • My 9 years of service pin is a bitter reminder that I lost my primary account from the launch day πŸ™

  • Took me years to get Steam, solely because of the horror it was at launch. It wasn’t until I wanted to play Portal that I finally bit the bullet.

    It’s good now of course, although I use my browser over the actual client as much as possible – it’s still a lagfest. At least it’s a high standard for competitors to measure themselves against in general though.

  • Steam still sucks, it’s just better than the alternatives. Don’t get me wrong I love the sales and everything but Steam has got a lot of issues. It crashes more than any other application I use, no matter what OS I run it in. It’s well and truly overdue for a major overhaul. What’s the deal with the damn muted videos? It doesn’t even properly support background updating (yes I know the work around). They help publishers to enforce an Australia tax on some of their games. I think at this stage Valve needs to release a major update or risk making their competitors look good.

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