The Inner Workings of Valve Part I

So we’re pretty much at the end of summer. It’s been good while it lasted. See you next time.

So I’ve been talking about Steam for some time, discussing what it is and how it generally works. One thing we haven’t talked much on is the history of Steam. More specifically, what was it that made Valve decide to create the system? There must have been a reason. So make yourself a cup of tea, and sit comfortably.

‘One of the things that the internet represents is an enormous broadening of distribution channels…opens the door to titles that would have difficulty finding and developing an audience otherwise’ – Gabe Newell on Steam, 2009.

It’s early in the new millennium, something like 2002/3. Households across the world were beginning to have access to broadband, and by extension, the internet. Yes, broadband back in the day weren’t especially fast; nothing like 2013’s fiber optic cables sponsored by Usian Bolt and co. Anyone remember dial up, the precursor to broadband? I do. Oh man, the memories.

In terms of online gaming, in the 90s was arguably the decade where it started to kickoff. We had the rise of first-person shooters such as Doom, Unreal Tournament, Quake, Counter-Strike, and that’s the popular ones. Multilayer was beginning to become a staple in videogames we know today.

Because internet connection back then was sketchy, fixing a game problem proved to be extremely problematic. For Valve, Counter-Strike was proving to be extremely popular with the online community (was also played in dedicated internet cafes), but it was always prone to the odd bug. A patch to fix this, back in the day, would have resulted in a large part of the community being disconnected. People were getting cut off and it would take some time before they could be reconnected. Understandably, not everyone was best pleased.

It was this that caused Valve to come up with the idea of developing a single platform that would automatically update all their games without this issue. Going under the early names of ‘Grid’ and ‘Gazelle’, Valve got to work on this single client.

What was shown to the public in 2002 at the Games Developers Conference was an early build of a distribution network – a network that would allow easier dispersing over the internet. Steam would allow users to install and play applications faster than if installing from the physical disc. ‘The technology will also let users access their applications from their PC by logging into their Steam accounts. In addition to streamlining the installation process, Steam will eliminate the hassle of dealing with downloadable patches and updates. Another advantage of the new distribution technology is that it eliminates the overhead costs of traditional physical distribution’ (Walker, 2002).

Essentially what we have then is a system that does a lot of the physical work for us. It did what it was proposed to do, which was make updating games more stable and user-friendly. Additionally, Valve has also made it so that many of the processes work through their system. For example, installing, playing and buying games/applications now are on Steam. This eliminated the need to necessarily buy from the shops, containing it online.

This latter point was important as at the same time, people were wise to the fact that Valve were developing the sequel to their acclaimed Half Life, simple called Half Life 2. This presented the perfect opportunity to showcase Steam, in which Half Life 2 would run from. It’s anticipation would draw in a large audience.

During the beta testing for Counter Strike 1.6, the early Steam was made downloadable. Valve had hoped to test Steam’s ability to streamline patches and updates for online games. Approximately 80,000 – 300,000 gamers tested the system. The good news was that a large testing base was present. The very bad news was that it was a learning curve for Valve. The amount of traffic caused a massive strain on Steam and it struggled to breath underneath the weight of thousands of people playing the game at once.

‘This issue scars the pants off of us. Every time we think we understand the aggregate demand that can be created by the community, we find that we have underestimated it catastrophically’ – Gabe Newell, 2003.

The early days of Steam were marred by buggy software, bandwidth chokes and performance issues. Definitely not what Valve wanted. It got worse for them as thousands of frustrated gamers took to the forums or newsgroups to make their voices heard. Valve’s vision of Steam was quickly killing them.

Those lucky enough to get the software to fire up was hit in the face with a lengthy wait for patching. Sometimes they could be as much as 350MB’s worth, and in those days that was an eternity to download. The servers used where under pressure, resulting in many of these being down. This was of course ironic. Steam’s purpose was to smooth out this problem; instead it led to a disruptive distribution method that angered a lot of people.

I think we can forgive Valve here. Internet back then was not the super-fast broadband we have now, so the capabilities were not as steady.. What is an advantage for them is that Steam is free, which at least cushions the blow. But with Half Life 2 due soon on Steam, they really did need to get this sorted out as quickly as possible.


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