Cheating on my CDs and DVDs with Steam

I’m sorry, discs. It’s not you, it’s me. You’ve treated me well all these years, and perhaps we can still be friends, but I think we need to take a break. I want a format that uses less physical storage space. I want a format that is only as far away as the nearest Internet connection. And, truth be told, I kinda want something a little less high-maintenance—something that is patched and updated from the get-go.

Recent experiences with moving have shed some light on the considerable amount of physical space required to house my game and movie collections. As a creature of habit, I’ve continued purchasing software the old-fashioned way, on optical disc, long after the titles became readily available online. The vast majority of my PC game collection, from the original Lemmings to Far Cry 2, is proudly displayed in a DVD rack near my desk. Only recently have I ventured out of my comfort zone and started purchasing games over download services like Steam. In short, I’m hooked.

Steam provides numerous benefits over traditional media. A huge assortment of titles is offered, including many indie games. There are no discs to lose, damage, or store. You don’t need an optical drive to play, and you can download your game collection almost anywhere. Anything you do download will update automatically or come pre-patched, so there’s no need to track down updates yourself.

Achievements are attached to your Steam profile, and titles that take advantage of the Steam Cloud can store your settings and game progress. All will be preserved if a reinstall is needed or you’re setting up a new system. Steam also offers Xfire-like friends lists and chat integration. The cherry on top: frequent sales and promotions often offer deep discounts on popular titles.

In fairness, there are a few drawbacks. If Steam (or a similar content provider) goes out of business, what happens to your game collection? Some cursory searching on the topic reveals that Valve may allow users to download all their games locally, but no official statement has been made on the subject.

If you don’t have Internet access, you won’t be able to acquire new games and will have to play existing ones in offline mode. Slow Internet connections can also make downloading new games painfully tedious. You won’t have physical evidence of your purchases, either—no box art, manuals, or "new game smell."

In a recent poll, we asked which back-alley dealers you use to get your PC gaming fix. An astounding two-thirds of you reportedly purchase your games from Steam already. Looks like I’m preaching to the choir. But, as a fresh convert, it is often customary to offer up a testimony to the congregation. Can I get an amen?

Like many of you, my first encounter with Steam occurred back in 2004, when Valve unleashed Half-Life 2 on the world. True to form, I purchased the DVD version at a local retailer. I was still required to install Steam to activate my new toy, though. Once the verification went through, I largely ignored Steam as just another unwanted piece of crapware cluttering up my system tray. It wasn’t until Valve offered the original Portal as a free download last year that I actually used Steam to nab my first game from the cloud. That one, small gateway game was all it took to get me hooked. Now, I’m constantly poking around Steam looking for more of the good stuff.

I’ve since downloaded quite a few game demos and Half-Life 2 episodes. Most recently, I picked up the time-vampire that is Left 4 Dead 2. Even more than Portal, L4D2 has shown me how valuable Steam can truly be. Anyone who has ever downloaded a large patch for a game only to discover that it won’t work until you’ve downloaded and installed several older patch versions first will understand my elation when Left 4 Dead 2 decided it was out of date and downloaded everything it needed on its own. Patcher’s purgatory is now a thing of the past. Valve has also rolled out several large updates to the game since my original purchase, and they have all automatically installed without issue or nuisance. I’ve also had the misfortune of a total system crash and OS reinstall during that time. Being able to point, click, install, and resume killing zombies where I left off is a valuable feature that makes my disc-bound games seem old and busted by comparison.

My experience hasn’t been all sunshine and third-gen SSDs, though. One thing that particularly frustrates me about Steam is its inability to add most of my retail-bought games to the library. Steam allows you to add shortcuts for any local application on your system, but it doesn’t fully integrate them into the Steam ecosystem. It would be nice to enjoy the full Steam experience for games I’ve already purchased without having to buy them again. Valve does allow this with some games, but it doesn’t cover most of what I already own. GRID and Call of Duty 4 are two of my favorite games, and they’re often offered for sale on Steam, but there’s no way to add my existing licenses to the library and enjoy the same benefits as those who purchase the games through the system. I understand that, because I didn’t buy those games from Valve, the company might see little incentive to coughing up the bandwidth required to maintain them. I also don’t pretend to know the intricacies of the licensing agreements involved. From the consumer’s perspective, however, any additional effort in this regard would be a welcome gesture. Allowing users to bring more of their existing games into Steam would surely promote future purchases using the service.

From a gamer’s perspective, Steam seems to offer the best blend of social features, cloud storage, automatic updates, and ease of use of any current distribution system. I’d like to see Valve work to integrate other commonly used third-party gamer tools into the package. For instance, the ability to merge my Xfire friends list and chat capabilities with Steam would be great. This would eliminate having to maintain duplicate lists and manage multiple IM programs.

Fragmentation worries me, as well. If every game studio decides it wants a piece of the pie, how many of these delivery platforms will we have to put up with? I’m certainly a proponent of healthy competition, but the danger of alienating gamers with too many sales channels and social networks is something that aspiring services need to consider.

Despite its shortcomings, I believe that cloud distribution is the future for mainstream games and applications whether we like it or not. Steam is but one of many solutions in this field. Modern consoles and smart phones have similar application distribution systems, and consoles in particular have picked up on the social side of things. Big boys like Microsoft and Apple are bringing similar services to Steam’s back yard, too. It’s only a matter of time before today’s optical discs go the way of the punch card.

Pinpointing the beginning of the digital distribution revolution is difficult, because hackers were sharing programs over ARPANET well before many of us were even born. Through the use of various Linux/Unix repositories, penguin huggers enjoyed the online distribution and update love for many years prior to Steam’s arrival. Some of the interfaces used to organize these repositories have helped shape the "app store" look and feel as we know it today. To whomever is responsible for getting the ball rolling, I’d like to say "Thank you!" Because of your foresight, we can finally stop using optical discs for the tedious task of data storage and focus on more exciting applications, like microwave lightning shows and cheap ninja stars.

Comments closed
    • RobbyBob
    • 8 years ago

    I remember a time when I hated Steam.

    The year was 2002, if I recall correctly (I was in middle school, that’s all I know). I was minding my own business, playing Counter-Strike 1.5, when I noticed someone talking about a new version of my beloved CS entering beta soon. Naturally, I went to check it out. I went to (dark times, those) and searched for “Counter-Strike 1.6.” I soon found myself downloading the game and this new client named after a water vapor of sorts. At first, I thought nothing of it, as it was being touted as a new way to patch games.

    I got the CS 1.6 beta up and running, and immediately commenced with the owning of distant noobs (or whatever I called that practice back then; I can’t quite recall). That’s what I thought I was going to do, anyway, but it didn’t work out that way. I had a noticeably lower frame-rate and higher ping.

    “Fair enough,” I thought, “it’s in beta.”

    So, I continued playing. It was still bearable, and although I had a lower kdr than was usual for me, I wasn’t too worried about it. A couple weeks later, things still hadn’t changed, so I decided to snoop around in my task manager. Steam was taking up a substantial amount of memory(!). After that, I figured that the Steam client wasn’t worth an upgrade right at this moment, so I went back to 1.5.

    As soon as 1.6 was officially released, I was pretty much forced to make the jump to 1.6, because 1.5’s player base was dwindling pretty fast. I just upgraded my computer, and while 1.6 performed better, steam was still hogging some network resources. Because of this, the ping issue still existed.

    I bit my lip and continued playing 1.6; after all, the frame-rate was still better than before my upgrade. Around this time, I had begun hearing substantial rumors of a second “Half-Life” game in the works. I was a huge Half-Life fan, so needless to say, I was excited. I checked around the net for all the info I could find on the game and then pushed it to the back of my mind. I then heard about the leak of HL2 and read about how beefy the requirements for playing that game were. I wasn’t quite ready to upgrade my computer yet, so I waited some more. I just remember hoping that Valve didn’t lock it to the Steam platform like they did with CS, because something that required such a beefy system without the steam client would be even worse [i<]with[/i<] the client. Time passed by, and I bought the game despite the fact that it was indeed locked to Steam. I played it for a while on low and still thought it looked mind-blowing. I upgraded my PC again, and was even more amazed when I almost maxed it out. I completely ignored Steam, other than playing my games. Fast-forward to about 2006 (built a whole new system), and I realize there are tons of games being sold on the platform at very reasonable prices. I start nosing around; I find a good deal after a while and buy some more games. It was about this time that I realized how convenient steam actually was. I went back to play a few older games and it was a nightmare to patch them, while steam did it automatically. I also realized that it wasn't as much of a hassle getting all my games going after a complete system build as it was before. Not to mention all the great deals that were soon starting to pop up. tl;dr version: I hated Steam when I was forced to use it for CS 1.6. I now love it for all the convenience and cash savings.

      • indeego
      • 8 years ago

      I was on the Steam beta also. It was buuuuuggy, but I knew at the time that this would be the future of game distribution.

      That Valve hasn’t screwed it up is somewhat of a miracle… Many other companies would have taken Steam in directions that many of us would consider unpalatable.

    • Beteljuice
    • 9 years ago

    You’re very late to the party David. I never viewed Steam as “crapware”. Valve has always been a reputable company and when “Rag Doll Kung Fu” became available through Steam in 2004, I immediately realized the platform’s potential. Beyond that, several apartment moves created an acute disdain of physical collections – books, music CDs, game CDs. I do not have any desire to own physical copies of the latter given the hassles created from their accrual over time. As for your problem of games that you have on physical CDs that you still actively play there’s a simple solution — keep an eye on deals and wait until their 75% to 80% off and buy a digital copy and give your old physical copy to a friend. I’ve seen GRID for $4 several times on Steam. I bought CoD4 on the cheap off Steam and gave away my physical copy. Yeah it sucks to pay “twice” but for the price of a Starbucks coffee it’s entirely worth it to me to eliminate clutter in my living space and make a friend a bit happier with some gaming tossed their way.

      • David_Morgan
      • 9 years ago

      You’re completely right. I do appreciate those two games enough to live with caffeine withdrawal for a few days 🙂 If I spot them on sale soon, I’ll probably snap them up again and share the love.

      Some of the other games in my collection, while I enjoy them occasionally, I doubt very much that I would purchase then again unless the deal was just too good to refuse.

        • Beteljuice
        • 8 years ago

        “Singularity” for 66% off today looks worthwhile:


    • plasticplate
    • 9 years ago

    Article woulda been 2007. I agree with it tho.

      • David_Morgan
      • 9 years ago

      Better late than never I suppose 🙂

      Stay tuned for my next post about how awesome DirectX 8.1 is going to be.

        • Beteljuice
        • 8 years ago

        Actually if you had said DirectX 10, that would have been funnier. That’s because DirectX 10 received so much hype with the introduction of Vista and in a nutshell gaming on Vista always sucked. Microsoft changed the driver model and code that went into vendors’ drivers that had been around for 10 years had to be thrown away and/or significantly reworked. Even as Windows 7 approached Vista users were still getting the shaft with subpar performance (frames per second) vs. Windows XP. I never upgraded to Vista because of its inferiority with respect to gaming (performance).

        Read the following post from the October 2007 issue of “MaximumPC”:


        I’ve experienced enough problems with Vista — and heard about plenty
        more — to justify keeping the new OS off my videocard test bed. But
        Will (that’s the editor) finally grew tired of my procrastination and
        laid down the law: “Test the latest videocards with Vista,” he
        commanded, “Or I’ll suspect your Friday bagel privileges.”

        I really like bagels, so I didn’t have much of a choice. Besides, I
        was curious to find out how well the folks at ATI and NVidia had
        learned to write Vista drivers (let’s just say that their first
        efforts were lacking). And there are finally a few games that use
        DirectX 10, so I wanted to see what developers had accomplished with
        Shader Model 4.0. I proceeded to set up a dual boot rig with XP and
        Vista and embarked on an eye-opening ride.

        I tested an EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS with a 640MB frame buffer first.
        Relic released a DX10 patch for one of my favorite RTS games, “Company
        of Heroes,” back in May, so I thought the game would provide a good
        real-world test. Running on XP (with the game at 1920×1200 resolution
        and all the other settings at their maximum values), I achieved a
        playable frame rate of 42. 3 frames per second — just about what I
        expected. I then rebooted and launched the game on Vista and DX10.
        Frame rates plummeted to a creaky 20.2 frames per second: a 48-percent
        dive. But the kicker is that the game looked nearly identical running
        on DX10 as it did on DX9! Where’s all the eye candy? Where’s the smoke
        and fog that reacts to the movement of characters and objects in the
        game? Where are the realistic shadows? Not only did I not see much
        benefit to running the games on Vista, but performance dropped. What’s
        up with that?

        OK, let’s not get too excited. Relic has been busy working on the
        game’s stand alone expansion pack, “Opposing Fronts” – maybe the
        company couldn’t afford to put too much effort into a patch for
        “Company of Heroes.” Preferring not to believe that I’d been wrong
        about DX10, I turned to a game so new it was still in beta when I
        benchmarked it: Massive Entertainment’s “World in Conflict.” This game
        looks absolutely stunning on DX9, but those looks are costly in terms
        of frame rate: Asus’ might GeForce 8800 GTX squeezed out just 31fps at
        1920×1200 running on XP. When I switched over to DX10 on Vista, frame
        rates dropped to 22fps. The minor visual improvements – a few more
        particles, slightly better-looking smoke – are absolutely not worth a
        30 percent hit in performance.

        As disappointed as I was with Nvidia’s Vista performance, nothing
        could have prepared me for what happened after I wiped the drive clean
        and installed ATI’s Vista drivers: the system would not boot, period.
        Print deadlines being what they are, I didn’t have the time to call
        ATI’s tech support for help, so I can’t explain why I encountered such
        a disastrous problem. It also wouldn’t be fair for me to assign blame
        without further investigation, so I’ll report my findings on my blog

        [url<][/url<] To date, my DX10 videocard reviews have concluded that the cards are damn good with DX9 but that we can only guess at their DX10 performance. Now we know it sucks. I know also know that I'm guilty of hyping the need for consumers to future proof their videocard investment by ensuring that they buy a card that's DX10 compatible. I fell into the trap of believing in the stunningly beautiful demos that Nvidia and ATI had shown me, and I took faith Microsoft's explanations as to why DX10 was so superior to DX9. Based on what I've seen of real world DX10 so far, my convictions were out of order.

    • odizzido
    • 9 years ago

    While steam is convenient and nice is a number of ways, it has a massive flaw. Phone home DRM. It may offer offline mode, and it works fairly well, but if steam tanked all the games would be locked.

    For that reason I cannot see steam as anything but a game rental store, and my purchase prices reflect that.

      • travbrad
      • 9 years ago

      It’s a VERY long-term ‘rental’ though. I bought HL2/CS:S almost 6 years ago, and have gotten hundreds of hours of play out of them. L4D2, I’m up to almost 500 hours. I feel I got my moneys worth even if I do lose access to them someday (which seems extremely unlikely in the near/mid-term given how successful Steam has been).

      How often do you actually play 10-15+ year old games anyway? It’s probably more likely that Windows will break compatibility with games that old, than Valve/Steam folding.

    • KoolAidMan
    • 9 years ago

    I felt this way years ago, so much so that I sold games I had a physical copy of like Company Of Heroes and bought it again on Steam. This was for a net loss, but the convenience of autopatching (Relic games are patch nightmares btw) and not having to manage CD keys made it all worth it. Things like their holiday sales have made it so that I slowly replaced almost my entire physical PC game collection on Steam.

    Either way, I haven’t bought a physical copy of a PC game since 2007. If I could do the same with my consoles I’d buy all digitally there too. Anything to reduce physical clutter.

      • HisDivineOrder
      • 8 years ago

      This is the same reason I re-purchased Company of Heroes on Steam. It was a patching nightmare. Same reason I did The Witcher Enhanced (which I originally purchased as The Witcher). Figuring out the patching headaches for said games makes a $5 purchase from Steam totally make sense.

      The holiday sales are slick.

    • Unckmania
    • 9 years ago

    I’ll tell you another way Steam is great.

    I used to be all Yarrrr for getting my pc games, mainly because in my country(Mexico) original PC games are extremely rare and timely arrivals were scarce and very often you can’t find the games you’re searching for.
    When you do find the games you’re looking for they are often very expensive compared to the american price(Around 30% more)

    I became addicted to Steam a year and a half ago, and i have not played a single game that i had not bought in Steam. It is terribly convenient, and has amazing prices.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 9 years ago

    Steam is good not because of convenience or inconvenience.

    Steam is good because of price. They are very aggressive in trying out many different price points, and if you are patient you can get all the games you want at $10 or less. This leaves you free to experiment with games you otherwise might be shy to buy.

    • GenuineSmile29
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve only got one problem with Steam: there is no mechanism for transferring a games license to another Steam account and it is a violation of the EULA to sell access credentials to your Steam account. With physical media you can pack it back in it’s box, slap a sticker on it, and have a garage sale. Technically you cannot buy games on Steam. You are paying for a lease. Since you never “own” it, you cannot resell it. Lame.

      • pikaporeon
      • 9 years ago

      According to most software EULAs, thats the case with physical copies too in most cases – if you “owned” it you’d be able to tweak or share it as you pleased – you paid for it.

      • Suspenders
      • 9 years ago

      For this reason, I almost never buy games for full price on Steam. Not being able to resell is mitigated by getting the games for a lower price to begin with.

      • vince
      • 9 years ago

      It’s been a while since I bought a game off the shelf, but isn’t it becoming harder to resell a game nowadays anyway? With all the install limits and the like…

      My last [bad] experience was with Spore. I had to contact EA two times to have them increase the allowed number of installs. That’s not to mention the time and e-mail exchanges it took to get there…

      • HisDivineOrder
      • 8 years ago

      It’s true you lose the ability to resell the title. It’s also true that the Steam sales–which is the only time you should be buying Steam titles btw–can more than make up for the lost income from a resell.

      You have to stop buying games new/recent on Steam and you have to start waiting for the sale. Summertime, Falltime, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Years, plus MOST mid-week and weekends, and now daily deals. Be patient. Stock up during the sales. Build up a backlog. When a new game comes out, you just shrug and say, “I’ll get it during the next sale when it’s $5” and suddenly that $60 MSRP for the latest Assassin’s Creed looks obscenely high. And insane. So you go play your $7.50 copy of last year’s Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell or Prince of Persia or your $10 copy of Just Cause 2 and you know you’ll catch that “new game” when it’s not as new and it’s 1/10th the price.

      And if you think the sales will go away, remember that Steam’s dominance has driven D2D/IGN to start doing crazy sales (and pricematching) and caused Gamestop to buy Impulse to keep up. Throw in MS with GfWL, EA with an actually pretty decent EA DM, Activision upcoming with, and the 80lb gorilla, Amazon, showing up in force now (and matching everything Steam/D2D/Impulse are doing within an hour of their doing it)…

      The deals are coming fast and furious and competition keeps them from slowing. People who buy games new for MSRP are doing themselves a disservice.

      • TurtlePerson2
      • 8 years ago

      People love the low prices on Steam, but the price of used PC games was a lot cheaper.

      • indeego
      • 8 years ago

      The laptop I’m on now has almost all my games loaded on it that I play regularly, but it’s always in offline mode. Steam never complains and the games work great.

      I play at work and home back and forth, given idle moments.

      All of this would be quite difficult to do with physical media, certainly time consuming. The best part of steam is the simplicity of installing games, there aren’t hundreds of prompts like there used to be.

    • burntham77
    • 9 years ago

    I was highly skeptical of Steam when Half-Life 2 came out. However, in the last couple of years I have turned completely around. I really like having all of my games as digital downloads.

    Auto-patching, not having to lug discs around, quick access to my whole library after a system reinstall… all of these are great. Being able to carry around my games on a laptop without worrying about discs is a nice feature. Not having to lug discs around when I move (which I will later this year) will be very handy.

    A friend of mine just got into PC gaming for the first time in his life, and I sent him immediately to Steam. Steam, more than anything else out there, is the one thing that could get more people into PC gaming and turn PC gaming into a very “console-like” experience. Granted, in that regard it is not perfect, but it’s pretty close.

    While I love Steam, I am tired of companies like EA tacking on their own services that force player to get DLC from the EA website instead of just having it all in Steam.

      • eofpi
      • 8 years ago

      [quote<]While I love Steam, I am tired of companies like EA tacking on their own services that force player to get DLC from the EA website instead of just having it all in Steam.[/quote<] I'm getting tired of having to keep track of a separate login to play EA games online. And I'm really getting tired of those same games, purchased via Steam, needing me to feed them a CD key that Steam provides.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 9 years ago

    Its taken over 2 format changes I’ve given up on collecting physical copies of media (music/movies/games)

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 9 years ago

    I hope we see steam integrate Movie, music and TV. It could be a complete media service!

    • quarantined
    • 9 years ago

    I bought HL2 over Steam on release day and was convinced then and there that online distribution was the way of the future. I honestly buy way more games on Steam than what I would have with only the physical option available. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something really awkward about a 30 year old man buying games from a store. Steam alleviates this awkwardness and let’s me keep my dirty little secret in total anonymity.

      • TaBoVilla
      • 9 years ago

      not any more! muahahahah

    • thesmileman
    • 9 years ago

    I love how steam lets you activate some of your games bought elsewhere directly in steam.

    I have got a couple of games for 50-75% off what Steam charged from other services gamersgate and getgames and I just entered the codes into steam and it downloaded them instantly.

    • wiak
    • 9 years ago

    steam support backup of games, something that retail dvd/cd games do not

    • sonofsanta
    • 9 years ago

    Wait until your first summer sale…! Last time round (the Xmas sale) I think I got around 15 games for £35 ($50 ish), which at normal Steam prices would have been around £135. I’m still playing through what I got now.

    I think the retail-key-being-added is other publishers more than Valve as well – certainly I’ve bought games from D2D when they were cheap and just added the serial to Steam to download & manage it.

    • TaBoVilla
    • 9 years ago

    My story is very much similar to yours, purchased retail HL2 in 2005, only used steam to activate and play. Later purchased episode 1, also retail, and added it onto steam. At the same time I only played offline stuff, so my deathmatch and counterstrike copies remained untouched for years.

    My personal “moment of enlightenment” came when I had to reformat/reinstall windows, and I loaded up steam in advance to loading everything back again through dvds. I was amazed when I found steam automatically downloading my games and content on my machine, without the optical media hassle. Then I discovered how easy it was to play on online servers, new game offers, etc.

    Thing is, I haven’t purchased retail since. It truly is the future of software distribution; others should follow suit, make things easier and cheaper for customers.

    • drakule
    • 9 years ago

    I have loved using steam for a while and dont even consider purchasing games on disc much anymore. except when they allow you to buy the PS3 version of Portal 2 and you can register it and play it on the PC also just freakin rocks. I remember when EA decided to offer their games thru Steam and I tried to register my copy of Battlefield 2 which didnt work, the Steam support person said it was because they had not received the Key database files from EA to allow previous copies to be registered.

    • Ngazi
    • 9 years ago

    And then the choir preached back.

    • moshpit
    • 9 years ago

    Amen, brother!

    You said “old and busted”, LOL!

    • Vasilyfav
    • 9 years ago

    Steam is just another reason optical media is dead for me.

    I don’t want to deal with multiple scratch prone DVDs/CDs that may get lost and then to search somewhere on the internet for patches and savegames from my last playthrough.

    There’s so much that steam offers in the way of organizing and consolidating a game library that I don’t see other ways ever winning it back for me.

    • DeadOfKnight
    • 9 years ago

    I have worried much about “what will happen if Steam dies?” before taking the plunge.

    And then I thought about it, “what will happen if my house goes up in flames?”

    I’d rather Steam died with all the games I got for 75% off. The deals are worth it.

    Besides, how many games do you own that have actual replay value today?

    • JoJoBoy
    • 9 years ago

    Steam is GREAT these days. Valve has made the service pain free and well organized. The reasons you listed are all good but the sales are fantastic and happen most every week. The sales keep bringing me back every week even if I don’t have time to play, just to see if a game I might want to play is on sale.

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