What exactly is Steam? Isn't it DRM?

What can I do with it?

  • 4
    For me the most important definition is "That thing that lets me buy awesome PC games on sale for $5-$10 only 6-18 months after they're released". Mass Effect and Orange Box for $10. Bioshock for $5. Automatic updates, social/network play, I own it forever (can't "lose the CD") are just bonuses.
    – MGOwen
    Commented Oct 27, 2010 at 2:39
  • 3
    @IlariKajaste I'm going to disagee with you there. You don't own the game if you receive it on a disk either. All you're buying is a licence to play it.
    – user56
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 20:28
  • 1
    @Raven: this is not a forum, it is perfectly normal to act on old stuff as much as on new
    – o0'.
    Commented May 6, 2011 at 14:54
  • 1
    @Arda Xi Well, if we really go into the philosophy of "owning", things quickly become a confusing mess or rather vague and complex social contracts. (Much more complex that the society would like you to believe, in fact.) But as a rule of thumb, I would say having non-preventable access is a concept that is at least very closely associated with owning. So that's what I meant. If I buy a game on a disk, the seller cannot prevent my access to it (unless you go into the exception of subscription games like WoW). If I buy a game from Steam, Valve can prevent my access to it. Commented May 9, 2011 at 15:04
  • 1
    @IlariKajaste Not technically. You can both own a game you own on Steam on a disk, and Valve can't prevent you from playing it if you use it in offline mode.
    – user56
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 16:24

8 Answers 8


Steam is DRM. Steam is also DRM done right.

When you "own" a game through the service, you (normally) get to install it on all of your computers for no additional fee. No questions asked. No licenses. No CD keys. Zero click installs.

Steam does many offers and offers a number of free demos. Steam also brings an actually useful in-game overlay (which, e.g., even lets you open YouTube or this site without tabbing out!). Steam finally has important social features like notifying that your friend has joined a game (and for supported games, there's a feature to one-click-join them as well). etc.

Mind you, Steam does have some points where it doesn't shine. My main pet peeve is offline gaming does not work if the Steam client thinks there is an update it should download and install; typically you only find out when it's too late. A second point where Steam is less than great is that you need to own a non-free game to enable most of the social features, and they are a large part of the appeal.

  • 3
    One which which I really like about Steam is that I can download my games to any number of systems, any number of times. Commented Jul 15, 2010 at 14:08
  • 9
    However, it is important to note that you never actually "own" any game you bought via steam (or any other download service). You merly obtain the right to install and play as a service. If Steam will be shut down one day (say, e.g., an asteroid hits Steam headquarters) you won't have any right to continue installing and playing. This is a major difference towards actually owning a gaming cd/dvd you bought in a store.
    – MRA
    Commented Jul 15, 2010 at 14:15
  • 9
    @MRA - true, but if you read the license agreement that comes with all software (not just games) you'll probably find that you don't own that either. Licensing to use is a standard software model these days.
    – ChrisF
    Commented Jul 15, 2010 at 14:20
  • 2
    On the other hand, if you actually lose your gaming cd/dvd, or it becomes unreadable, you also have no more rights to continue installing the game... Yes, however -- as for every other "cloud" service, shut down is indeed a problem.
    – badp
    Commented Jul 15, 2010 at 14:20
  • 9
    @ChrisF: While you do not own the software (that is, as intelectual property or as copyright), you do in fact own the data device and, hence, your right to install and use the software cannot be revoked in the future. Also, you are allowed to sell the data device, and the right of using the software carries on to the buyer. Both is not true for downloaded software. (This is the situation in the EU. I wish I could give a source to this which is in English, but I only have one in German: gamestar.de/specials/reports/2316040/…)
    – MRA
    Commented Jul 15, 2010 at 17:26

Here's what Steam offers:

  • Access Anywhere - Access your game library from any computer with ease so setup of a new machine with all your games is simple.
  • Achievements - Track your progress in games.
  • Activity - Not only does Steam have a Friend's list through which you can easily chat and invite friends to play with you or trade with you, but it also has an activity stream so you can see what your friends or groups are up to. If you are in-game, your friends can see this so they'll know what you are playing and will know not to disturb you or they might get the idea to join you.
  • Automatic Updates - Steam will keep your game up to date if you let it.
  • Big Picture - Easy full-screen for you TV.
  • Central Library - All your games in one place for easy access.
  • Cloud Saves - When the game allows, your game saves are backed up to the cloud so that you can continue your game anywhere.
  • Community - Access to a player communities for games. These include discussions, guides, forums, fan-art, screen shots and other community content.
  • Cross-platform Ownership - buy it once and own it on all platforms that the game supports that can run Steam (Windows, Mac, Linux).
  • Day One Digital - Pre-orders are available to you immediately upon release.
  • Demos - There are demos on steam too.
  • Disk-free - Install and play without needing a disk in the disk drive. Save a tree, go disk-free. Likewise, manuals are also digital so you don't have clutter to haul with you wherever you go.
  • DLC Management - Purchasing and keeping track of your DLC is simple.
  • DRM - Steam is DRM, which means you don't often have to enter any serial codes or cd keys for any of your games. Your stuff just installs and runs.
  • Early Access - Start playing games that are still in development.
  • Exclusives - Some games are only on Steam.
  • File Management - Steam takes care of most of the game files and setup, including install dependencies, so you don't have to.
  • Friends - Steam has chat and a friends list. Moreover, it makes it easy to find people to play with.
  • Gifts - Simple and easy to buy games for your friends and family or for them to buy games for you. No shipping. Instant delivery.
  • Green Light - You have some say, however minor, on what indie games make it onto Steam.
  • Indie Games - Steam has Indie Games that you probably won't find on a Disk in a store.
  • Inventory - Steam has an inventory system for games that use it and for Steam itself so that you can manage, trade, and sell game assets and non-game assets alike without even having to start the game up.
  • Library - Steam has a huge library of games available for sale, including free-to-play and MMOs. There is even a selection of game development tools for sale. The items available are easily sortable and searchable based on a huge array of criteria.
  • Marketplace - Sell and trade things on Steam for Steam credit.
  • Metrics - Keep track of the time you've spent in your games and likewise view the metrics of others. Compare scores, achievements and general progress.
  • Mobile App - Do pretty much everything that Steam does, except play games, from the convenience of your portable device.
  • News - Keep up to date with what's happening with your games.
  • Overlay - Almost all of these ancillary features are quickly and easily accessible from an in-game dashboard.
  • Profile - Show off your information, achievements and activity to others, if you like, on your customizable profile.
  • Recommendations - Steam users write recommendations which you can use to evaluate whether you want the game or not.
  • Sales - Steam has amazing sales renowned for their remarkable discounts.
  • Screenshots - From the in-game interface, you can easily capture, manage and share screenshots of your games.
  • Support - Easy access to technical support for your games.
  • Tools - Get access not just to the games but several of their toolsets, including editors, server applications, and development kits.
  • Trading Cards - Steam has fun perks like trading cards that reward you for playing and if you don't want them, you can sell them to make some Steam credit on the marketplace and you can use that to buy more games.
  • Wishlist - Add any games you want to the wishlist. Be notified when things on your wishlist go on sale. Share your wishlist with others so that they can buy you the things on it. Order the wishlist however you like.
  • Workshop - Create and share custom content that you've created for your games and maybe even get a share of the profit (real money) for items that get sold. Likewise, buy custom community content for your games.

Certainly, many of these can be setup or accessed without Steam in some form or another. The biggest advantage is that it is all in one simple package.

The cost is:

  • Account bound - Once a game is associated with your account, it cannot be given away under most circumstances.
  • Bloat - Steam uses system resources to do all that stuff. Moreover, to do a lot of it requires a persistent internet connection.
  • Noise - With all the games, news, community activity and everything else, it is easy to miss stuff because there's so much of it, but that would still be a problem even without Steam.
  • Trust - You are trusting Steam with all of your stuff - you games, your information, etc. - and that is only as secure as your Steam account. There are security measures to protect your account, such as Steam Guard that make it much harder for unauthorized parties to access your stuff, but not impossible.
  • 4
    •DRM - Steam is DRM, which means you don't often have to enter any serial codes or cd keys for any of your games. Your stuff just installs and runs. Not necessarily true. Some games still require you to enter the CD key at launch. And I don't believe cloud saves is available for every game.
    – l I
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 13:45
  • 1
    and you might want to add the steam overlay to the list. On my laptop, with no second monitor, being able to pull up an overlay for a full screen game to get to a website can be quite handy.
    – l I
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 13:46
  • 1
    @spartacus I added the conditional on the cloud saves for you. I didn't say you never have to enter a serial code or cd key - I said you don't often have to enter them as in, sometimes you do, but those occasions are in the minority. I already had a point about the overlay, referring to it as "an in-game dashboard." I just didn't have it as one of the bullets.
    – skovacs1
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 13:54

It's a distribution system. It allows you to buy games once and then play them on any computer. It also keeps your games up-to-date without having to hunt for patches.

It also has a great community feature which allows you to socialise with friends even while playing, meet up with them and see what games they play.

To answer your other question, it can be a form of DRM, but it doesn't impede you in any way. You can put Steam in offline mode and you will be able to continue playing.

For more information, see its Wikipedia page or the official site.

  • You forgot the most important part. They keep track of your games for you, so you don't have to keep them on your computer if you don't want to. Also, they have a built-in kill-switch which means that they can remotely strip DRM if they ever go out of business. Commented Jul 16, 2010 at 0:53
  • 1
    Where did you get this information? I can keep my games all on a PC not connected to Steam and play my games for eternity.
    – user56
    Commented Jul 16, 2010 at 12:45
  • Sales. Steam Sales are legendary in their discounts.
  • Quick. For me, it's quicker to download a game through steam than to get to the nearest store that sells the game, get home, install it, then play (well, in most cases, anyhow).
  • Large collection of games. Feeling nostalgic? Steam will likely have it.
  • Steam Cloud - game saves on different machines. Play at a friend's, come home, carry on where you left off.
  • No CDs. This is the big one for me. I don't have to worry about losing my CD or CD keys.
  • Chat/friends list/social ability - if you like playing with people, Steam's buddy list makes it easy to see what games your friends are in.

Course, there's cons too. Mainly the fact you can't sell games in your Steam account.

  • Isn't there a way to trade or gift games within Steam? I see people talking about it on forums and such but I've never looked into it for myself. If indeed possible, this provides some relief against the only con you mentioned.
    – bpcookson
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 11:35
  • 5
    @bpcookson You can buy games on Steam as a gift, and give them away, but once a game is attached to your account, you can't undo it to give the game away. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 11:39
  • @BillyMailman Thanks for clearing that up. I had always wondered.
    – bpcookson
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 14:11

In term of pros, steam offers you :

  • A great centralization of your Games
  • The possiblity to download your game on any computer without having to have all your CDs with you all the time
  • Access to the steam community which offer original and new content all the time.
  • Access to greenlight in order to discover independant and fun games
  • A great gestion of your friendlist from different games at the same time.
  • The Steam sale (because you wont ever find -70% on a recent game in any shop)
  • If you feel like playing with a controller (such as an xbox controller), Steam offer BigPicture which is a really neat interface designed for console controllers on PC.
  • Some lesser known fact is that Steam patch a lot of old games in order to make them work on windows vista and 7 (such as the Old Star Wars jedi knights, or RedFaction)

Inside the game you won't really feel any difference from a CD version of your game, except that you can keep on chatting with your friends through steam chat. Of course if you use Skype, Teamspeak or any other chat service like this, there is no real difference.

In term on Cons, you could mention that :

  • Steam is kind of "heavy machinery", it uses a lot of ressource from your computer
  • Despite all the security deployed to protect your account, your are never trully protected from a security flaw
  • You can't sell your steam game and the money you would earn from selling on the steam market is "locked" on your steam account.
  • "it uses a lot of resource from your computer" -- I don't think it does.
    – TZHX
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 12:06
  • 3
    @TZHX well on my previous computer I couldnt have steam and chrome started at the same time. But I guess I'm old fashioned on this one, new computer have a lot more RAM than they used to have.
    – WizLiz
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 12:09
  • 4
    @TZHX lately it does use a lot of resources, especially during startup when it validates it self EVERY SINGLE DAY.
    – Mike
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 12:31

Steam is a PITA when you want to play games over a lan without an internet connection.

  • 1
    Updating Steam...
    – badp
    Commented Jul 15, 2010 at 20:50
  • 1
    Depends on whether the client is running at the time. Offline mode has never given me trouble before.
    – user56
    Commented Jul 17, 2010 at 10:08
  • some games disable all multiplayer in offline mode eg. supcom2
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Jul 17, 2010 at 19:41
  • They don't disable it per se, you disabled the system it uses for multiplayer.
    – user56
    Commented Jul 18, 2010 at 10:24

Steam is basically an online delivery system and market place for Valve Games. Good or Bad is very subjective, so I'm not going to speak to that, but I'll say that I think it's a cool idea because it makes managing the titles you own easier.

It's also probably good for Valve since it makes it easier for consumers to buy, hence more revenue.

  • 2
    Patently wrong answer, who upvoted? O_o
    – o0'.
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 20:25
  • 1
    @Lo'oris - Yeah, this might have been the case for the first year or two when the only thing of substance on Steam was Half-Life 2, but no longer the case.
    – Shinrai
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 21:19

On steam, you can buy games (mostly Valve) and store them there. There are demos, dedicated servers and etc. It's easy for finding your games.

  • 8
    Mostly Valve would've been true a couple years ago. Now Valve's games make up a small portion of the Steam catalogue.
    – user56
    Commented Jul 17, 2010 at 10:08

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