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I want to start using Steam. I have heard that if you buy a physical copy of a game that uses Steam, you still have to download the game, and that can take a long time. Is that true?

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For some games this is true, for some it isn't. With just the Steam tag, this is too broad. With a specific game tag, it's too narrow. – SaintWacko Oct 12 '13 at 6:18
Basically if it sais steam on the box, it will install it for steam. If it doesn't but it is a game on steam you can just add the key to steam if you are lucky. – Lyrion Oct 14 '13 at 6:43

If you buy a physical copy of a Steam game, you have the activation code that will be bound to your steam account, and you can use the provided DVD to install the game (into Steam), but steam will afterwards download the additional materials/updates/DLCs/etc.

So depending on your internet connection, having a physical copy is a good thing since it can save some time.

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