Steam was originally developed by Valve Corporation as a digital rights management platform for the company’s games. The platform benefits consumers by facilitating efficient and automatic product updates. Another benefit of such online services is that the consumer has access to purchased products without the need to maintain a collection of physical media. Valve has continued to expand the service by offering a wide variety of third party games. Steam has a few competitors, but at 75 million registered users, it is the industry leader for digitally marketed media for the PC gaming industry. As many retailers no longer dedicate shelf space to boxed PC games, Steam is quickly approaching near monopoly status with its dominant position.
The advantages of digital delivery are realized by the industry as well. There is no need for publishers to risk the front-loaded cost of producing physical media that may not sell.
However, not all current trends are beneficial to the consumer. When retail boxes were the norm, games needed to be released in a well tested and bug-free state, because patching was rarely an option. The bad press from the release of poorly optimized software could dampen sales. In the digital era, the rushed release of bug-plagued, poorly optimized product has become the industry standard rather than the rare exception. Steam’s decision to broadly market pre-release product has exacerbated this trend.
Micro-transactions have also become common throughout the industry. In the era of the retail box, a popular title would probably get an expansion pack, which added a substantial amount of new content for a one-time expense. The new trend is to give the consumer a less than complete experience in the release product only to nickel and dime them with a constant stream of small content updates. The cost of purchasing a complete experience has increased dramatically in many cases. This marketing approach would not have been viable in the pre-digital age.
Digital marketing has also become more prevalent and intrusive, and Steam is also a leader in this trend. Like many online retailers, Steam uses past purchases to make product recommendations. However, the system they employ is not particularly accurate, and there are few options for the consumer to turn off or fine tune the recommendations.
The digital age has brought many advantages to the PC gaming industry, but it has also brought the decline of the relationship between the publisher and the consumer. PC gamers have almost come to expect products to be released unfinished, and with content hidden behind paywalls. Steam is not the only platform responsible for this trend, but they are notable facilitators of it. The rise of digital content delivery has brought with it the need for a more savvy and demanding consumer.