The 13-year evolution of Steam

Steam might be the face of PC gaming now, but it didn't shoot to success overnight. The digital storefront has changed dramatically over the years, evolving from a simple portal for Counter-Strike 1.6 to a hub where you can buy games, review them, and even participate in their development—if you're not too busy selling hats, cards, and $400 knives in the community marketplace. Let's turn back the clock and look at how far the ubiquitous platform has come.

Click for a full-size version. Steam's narrow focus is immediately evident in the austerity of the Steam landing page: the only games mentioned are Valve's own, and there is no way to purchase them from the site. The Steam client itself lacks a storefront, focusing entirely on connecting players rather than getting them spending.


On September 12, Steam began life as a way for Valve to control the patching process for games like Counter-Strike, as well as curb cheating and provide easier access to any content the developer produced. All was not hunky-dory, though; many gamers saw Steam as a threat to PC gaming, requiring a constant internet connection at a time when only 20 percent of American households had access to broadband internet. It didn't help that Steam's authentication servers struggled to cope with user demand, regularly locking players out of the games they had purchased. Add to that the slow download speeds, the clunky interface, and the frequent patching, and a lot of gamers were left with a sour taste in their mouths.

Click for a full view of Steam's front page.


The release of Half-Life 2 is arguably the reason Steam is what it is today, and the game's dominance of the storefront reflects that. Valve didn't want you to forget: to play the universally-acclaimed shooter, you had to sign up for Steam, too. 


Ragdoll Kung Fu and Darwinia become the first non-Valve games to hit Steam. This is big news, marking the platform's shift from being essentially a downloader and server browser to a fully-fledged store. 


Now we see Steam really starting to take shape. The then-novel concept of digital sales is born, hinting at what was to come. Free demos and HD videos join the catalogue. With almost 100 games available, the issue of visibility starts to rear its head.


A proper search functionality, integration of MetaCritic ratings, and filters like Top Sellers and New Releases make the storefront a whole lot more usable. The addition of community forums is Steam recognizing its user base as an asset like any other.

Within the Steam client itself, the debut of the Steam Community platform brings with it many crucial features, including stat-tracking, friends lists, community groups, and voice chat. 


Browse-by-genre links and a greater focus on the New Releases list make keeping track of Steam's ever-expanding catalogue slightly easier. Meanwhile, the Spotlight feature, the image slideshow, and the large banner ad grant select games prime exposure to Steam's 20-million-strong user base

On the software front, the rollout of Steam Cloud makes it significantly easier to play the same game across multiple computers, providing automatic synchronization of game saves, key bindings, and configuration settings.


The addition of the Under $5 and Under $10 categories signal the beginning of Steam framing games as impulse buys, forming the basis for the notorious Steam backlog of cheap games you'll probably never end up playing.


Discounts are now presented as percentages, making it significantly easier to spot a bargain. The Steam Stats activity graph reminds visitors just how big Steam is getting, while the addition of Mac games marks Steam's first push to expand beyond the Windows PC market.

On the next page: all the other years you know and love.