Although consoles may have stolen the thunder in recent years, the PC has always been one of the best gaming experiences available. Something it lacked was a centralised location where players could buy and download games safely, play online together, and generally interact. That's something that Xbox 360, with its Live Gold service, has got down to a fine art.
This wasn’t lost on Valve software - the company responsible for such classics as Half Life, Counter Strike, Left for Dead and Portal - so it created Steam, which has quickly become one of the most popular PC gaming and retail sites online.
The way it works is simple. You visit the site: store.steampowered.com, download the software, then - once it’s installed on your PC - you can buy games, join in with online tournaments or multiplayer games, download the latest content (DLC), talk with friends using Steam’s voice over IP function, and even send them the gift of a game in a couple of clicks.
With over 2,000 titles including most big-name releases and lots of casual games there’s plenty of fun to be had. Thanks to the weekly deals and big seasonal sales it’s not difficult to build an impressive library of games for a very modest outlay. It certainly beats spending £60 on one Call of Duty Game for the Xbox 360.
Although there's the convenience of not having to leave home to get the latest games, it's worth bearing in mind that some games are over 10GB in size. That could use up your monthly broadband allowance in one fell swoop, as well as taking the best part of a day to download on a slower connection. However, many broadband providers lift the download limits in the small hours, so you can download games overnight without going over your limit.
To encourage publishers to sell their games through the service Valve uses a form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to protect against piracy. Essentially this means that you can’t make copies of the game and give it to friends or even play the game itself without first logging onto the Steam servers. It also means you can't resell a game once you've played it as you can with an Xbox 360 game. This might change in future, but it's something to bear in mind.
DRM has become something of a hot topic in recent years as user groups and some commentators see it as restrictive and heavy handed, but of all the DRM we’ve come across so far we think it’s safe to say that Valve has the fairest and least disruptive.
Your purchases are linked to your account and you can download the games on as many computers as you like, although you’ll only be able to play them on one at a time - which is fair, as fighting dragons in Skyrim should demand all of your attention anyway.
So, cheap games, a vibrant community, online play, no fees, and a soon to be released interface for your TV called Big Picture. There’s never been a better time to be a PC gamer.
How to get started with Steam
1. You can access the Store and interact with the community via a browser, but for the full Steam experience you’ll need to install the client. So browse to store.steampowered.com, click on the green ‘Install Steam’ icon in the top right corner of the screen, then double-click on the .msi file that downloads to install it.
2. The first menu you meet will give you the option to create a new account. Select the relevant option, accept the ubiquitous multi-page terms and conditions policies, create your account details, verify your email address, then it’s time to head over to the games store to look for something to play. It’s big, so pop the kettle on first.
3. Steam defaults to the Store screen. You’ll generally find new releases or pre-orders given centre stage, with details of the frequent sales or discounts also prominently displayed. Use the search bar to find a particular game, or click on a game to get more information, watch a trailer, check the system requirements, download a demo, or make a purchase.
4. Downloaded games are stored in the Library section and Steam keeps a record of them attached to your account. This means they can be deleted then download again later. Be careful though, only games with ‘Steam Cloud’ in their Store page descriptions (scroll down to the bottom and look at the green writing on the right) will back up your games saves online.
5. To access online features like chat, tournaments, and be recognisable to your friends, you’ll need to create a profile. To do this click on the Community tab, then Profile, and select Edit my profile. You can also link your Steam account to Facebook if you wish, so any friends that already use Steam can know you’ve arrived.
6. If you’re going to be away from an internet connection for a while then you can enable Steam’s Offline mode to play your already downloaded games. To do this click on Steam (top-left corner)>Settings, then make sure ‘Don’t Save Account Credentials On This computer’ is NOT checked. Then back to Steam>Go Offline>Restart in Offline Mode.
Multiplayer and other features
One of the best features on Steam is the multiplayer mode. If you and a friend want to play a game together then all you need to do is ensure that the game in question has a multiplayer mode (check the listing in the Store description) and that you both have a full copy of the game installed on your computers.
The options vary from game to game but in general one of you will select multiplayer then choose to create or host a game. Then the other player can click multiplayer, opt to join a game, then look for your user name in the servers list.
There's also the Steam Community Overlay, which is displayed by pressing Shift and Tab. If this doesn't work, make sure the option is enabled both in Steam's settings and in the individual game (right-click on game in your Steam library and choose Properties).
If you start running out of hard disk space - games can occupy many gigabytes of disk space - you can uninstall those you don't play. However, to save downloading them again, you can use a free utility called Steam Mover that allows you to copy the game files onto an external drive and then move them back at a later date to continue playing.