Dissecting the Steam Hardware Survey

As a cross-platform gamer increasingly disenchanted with the PC, I absolutely love Steam and what Valve has done for the platform. Over the last five years, Steam has gone from a risky gamble by a small developer to a flag-bearer for the strengths of PC gaming. Valve had made lofty technology promises before (remember PowerPlay?), so launching a digital distribution service just when many gamers were transitioning to broadband was rather ambitious. What began as little more than a streamlined patching service and server browser has gone on to offer an integrated marketplace, voice chat, community organization, and a massive catalog of third-party titles.

Not content to let consoles catch up, Valve continues to be a pioneer, with Steam becoming a champion for indie games like Darwinia, Audiosurf, Aquaria, and others. But that's enough gushing about Steam; that's not what this post is about. No, today I'm here to talk about a less-well-known facet of Valve's service: the Steam Hardware Survey.

Creating games for the PC is a tricky endeavor, particularly due to the vast variety of hardware available. Developers I've spoken with have a hard time coming up with target configurations, especially in recent years. Marketers and the media have become obsessed with touting buzzwords like "64-bit," "multi-threaded," "DirectX 10," and "PhysX," but whenever I ask programmers why they didn't use those technologies, I get the same response: the market penetration just isn't there yet. Why invest a large amount of time and money into technologies that only a few customers can take advantage of? Ultimately, developers have to stay conservative and wait a few years for new technologies to mature.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the norm, with companies like Crytek and Blizzard providing good examples of opposite extremes. Crytek's Crysis was an exponent for high-end PC hardware, and though some would like to blame piracy, its sales were no doubt harmed by its smaller target audience. At the other end of the spectrum lies Blizzard, whose World of Warcraft has become one of the most successful PC games of all time. Sure, it helps that WoW is also one of the best-designed MMORPGs ever, but I attribute a large portion of its success to the low system requirements. WoW will practically run on a graphing calculator, an attribute that's been a hallmark of Blizzard's development style for some time. With the blockbuster status of the firm's Starcraft and Diablo series, I'd say that strategy has worked out pretty well so far. But what about developers aiming for a middle ground: not requiring a supercomputer to get playable frame rates, but not having a game look two years old the moment it comes out, either? How do you know what sort of system to shoot for?

If advertising reflected the PC gaming scene accurately, you'd think everyone has a quad-core setup with two video cards and a 1000W power supply—but that's just not the case. Thankfully, Valve aims to take the guesswork out of the process by leveraging the massive installed base of Steam and periodically surveying its users. With over 16 million accounts, Valve has access to data that few (if any) others do. If the company weren't so busy making money hand-over-fist from other revenue streams, it would likely try to sell this data to marketers and developers. Instead, Valve releases it for free, and the latest update (published just one week ago) even includes pretty graphs! Let's take a look at the some of the more interesting statistics:

  • Windows versions: Windows XP looks like the dominant operating system for PC gamers, with nearly 69% of Steam users holding on to it. However, its presence is on the decline (down 1.28% in November), while Windows Vista is up 1.36%. Vista runs almost exactly 30% of all surveyed Steam clients, though the 32-bit version continues to outpace its 64-bit sibling in terms of both installed base and adoption rate. Do gamers still not realize how cheap 4GB RAM kits are these days? Perhaps PC vendors are to blame for continuing to ship 32-bit systems despite the improved driver support for Vista x64.

    One final note of interest in the Windows data is that there's another OS with a growing gamer user base: Windows XP 64-bit, which was up a minuscule 0.03% over the previous month. Why gamers would be migrating to XP x64 instead of Vista x64 is anyone's guess, because in my experience, Vista actually has better driver and application support. The minds of gamers truly work in mysterious ways.

  • Video cards: Nvidia is dominating AMD (referred to as ATI in Valve's data), with over 65% of sampled Steam users packing Nvidia GPUs compared to just 27% for AMD. (Intel's integrated offerings hold on with 1.76% of the pie, and I can't help but feel sorry for their users.) Nvidia's success over the last two years is no surprise, because the hugely popular GeForce 8800 series made life somewhat difficult for AMD. In fact, GeForce 8800 graphics cards make up the largest single group of samples at 12.43%, even if that population is steadily on the decline.
  • AMD's most represented graphics offering is already the new Radeon 4800 series, which comes in fifth place with 3% of the sample. Although it still has a way to go before it can become top dog, the 4800 lineup does have the fastest adoption rate at 0.51% last month. With 4800-series GPUs now available for as little as $110, it'll be interesting to see how many Steam users make the switch over the coming months. The next most common AMD GPU is all the way down in thirteenth place, showing just how far behind AMD fell in the eyes of consumers over recent generations—1.73% of Steam users still cling to the now five-year-old Radeon 9600 series.

  • Processors: This might feel like deja vu for AMD, because Valve's CPU statistics look pretty similar to the GPU breakdown. This time, it's Intel beating up on them with almost 64% of the Steam user base. Like Nvidia's GeForce 8800 series, Intel's Core 2 offerings have outperformed the competition overall in the past couple years, and gamers have responded appropriately. AMD's presence has continued to decline these past few months, while Intel keeps slowly creeping higher and higher.
  • Perhaps the most interesting CPU-related statistic is the number of processor cores in respondents' PCs. The majority of Steam users are now running multi-core systems, with 49.27% toting dual-core configurations and 10.12% having made the jump to quad-core. If nearly 60% of these gamers have more than one CPU core under the hood, there's no excuse for PC developers not to exploit that as much as possible.

  • DirectX 10 systems: Nearly 46% of the PCs sampled contain DirectX 10-capable GPUs, but the majority of them (53.4%) are still running Windows XP. Gamers must not be sold on either Vista or DirectX 10 yet. Although only 21.43% of Steam users have fully DirectX 10-capable systems (with Vista and DX10 GPUs), developers may want to start investing more in the technology to give the stragglers a reason to upgrade their OSes. The hardware penetration is there, and we're seeing the results in games like Assassin's Creed, Far Cry 2, and Crysis: Warhead that contain DX10 code paths. Time will tell whether Microsoft can manage to convince the holdout XP gamers to upgrade or if those folks will wait for Windows 7 before making the jump en masse.

There's far more data that I can't go over in a simple blog post, so be sure to peruse the Steam Hardware Survey at your leisure. It really is a fascinating read, and some of the statistics might surprise you. In the future, I hope Valve will continue to enhance its presentation methods and perhaps tell us the sample size for the survey. My understanding is that every Steam user is solicited, but it's a safe bet that not all users complete the survey. I'd love to extrapolate some hard numbers, but for now percentages will have to do.

Before I leave you, two additional facts shocked me: Creative's minuscule share compared to integrated audio in a demographic where they should dominate, and the fact that the plurality of Steam users still run their primary displays at 1024x768. I didn't even know that you could still buy monitors that small.

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