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What is Steam: The popular gaming platform explained

Your guide to the popular online gaming service.

Published onOctober 17, 2023

Steam stock photo 2

Steam has been a big name in the gaming world for a while now, but what exactly is it, and how does it work? We’ll explain the details of this cloud gaming service and what you need to know.

What is Steam?

A screenshot of the Steam application showing the Library tab.

Steam is a platform and app for distributing video games online that also has social media features and community message boards. It was developed by Valve — the same Valve that created the Half-Life, Counter Strike, and Left4Dead games. It functions like an online shop and a community portal combined and is one of the most popular gaming platforms out there.

Steam is an app and platform that lets you buy and install games, interact with other players, live-stream, and more.

You can download the Steam application on Windows, Mac, and Linux; a beta version for ChromeOS is also available. The app lets you purchase games and organize your collection. Much like a media player app, you’ll see your collection of games and the ability to play them, along with links to social features and forums. You need an account to use Steam, and it’s free to sign up for one. You can also download the Steam mobile app for iOS and Android, which lets you use the social features of Steam and buy games on the go — more on those below.

Beyond what it can be for gamers, Steam is also useful for developers. Both large companies and small indie creators use the platform to distribute their games. Plus, they can push out updates and new features, interact with their audience, and communicate with players all through the Steam app.

A brief history of Steam

Steam stock photo 6

While it may be big news in gaming these days, Steam started off quite small. Back in 2003, Valve introduced Steam as a way to push automatic updates out for its games. Its primary purpose back then was to make it easier to install patches and upgrades to existing games. It was optional, and the first game Valve actually distributed digitally through Steam that required the app was Half-Life 2 in 2004. However, this release was rocky, with crashes and sluggishness plaguing users. Valve resolved this issue, and the service’s reputation and performance improved afterward.

By 2005, third-party developers started taking an interest, and they began offering their games through Steam, too. Steam was the big name in digital game distribution for a while after that. However, in 2012 EA launched Mass Effect 3 exclusively through its own Origin app due to disagreements over licensing requirements. Plus, other competitors started cropping up, including the Epic Games Store, Uplay, the Microsoft Store, and more. Still, Steam remains a major player in the online gaming world.

While Steam was originally only for Windows, a macOS version of the app launched in 2010, and 2013 saw the release of a Linux app. After that, Steam also developed SteamOS in 2015. This operating system saw use on the now-discontinued Steam Machines, which were dedicated pieces of hardware that ran SteamOS. These weren’t popular, but 2022 saw the release of Steam Deck, a handheld gaming computer that uses SteamOS and is similar to the Nintendo Switch. A sequel, which we refer to as the Steam Deck 2, is also poised to debut in the future.

How does Steam work?

Upon opening Steam, you’ll see your Steam Library, where you can view your collection of games, achievements, player statistics, and what your friends are up to. If you want to play a game, simply click on it and then click the Play button. You can also use Steam to install mods and expansion packs for your games if you want. At the bottom of your list of games, you can click the Add a Game button to add games you have purchased elsewhere. You may include non-Steam-supported games, too. They won’t have all the features of Steam available, but it’ll be easier to find and play all your games if you keep them in one list.

The Steam Store section is where you can purchase games, adds-on, and expansion packs. You may browse through various categories, or if you know what title you want, you can search for it. Clicking Add to cart adds the game to your shopping cart, and in your shopping cart, you can choose to buy the game yourself or give it as a gift. Some games are even free to play, with no upfront cost. They may charge you for extras, however.

If you’re on Linux and the game you want is only available for Windows, Steam offers a compatibility layer called Steam Play which uses a technology called Proton, in turn, based on a project called Wine. This feature is officially supported for certain titles, and you don’t have to do anything to take advantage of it. However, you can enable Steam Play for every currently unavailable game on your platform. Remember that this is not guaranteed to work, and your mileage will vary. To enable this option, open Settings > Steam Play. There’s currently no support for Steam Play of any sort on macOS, though.

If you want to use Steam on a computer connected to a TV or other large display, you can enable Big Picture Mode in the upper right-hand corner. This fills the entire screen with the Steam window and makes it easier to see and click on everything from a distance.

Social features

The Community tab is where the social features of Steam come to life. There, you’ll find forums to discuss Steam itself, various games, and more. If you want, you can use the “Steam workshop” here to get mods, skins, and other forms of user-created content. You can even start making your own. The Community market lets you buy and sell content with other gamers. This is a great way of snagging things you might have missed.

Beyond organizing and launching games, you can use Steam to interact with other players and take advantage of a wealth of social features.

You can add friends on Steam by clicking the Friends menu > Add a Friend. Here, you can also view your friends list, block users, and see your “Friend Code.” Send this code to others, and they can add you as a friend, or enter their code here to add them as a friend. Alternatively, you can send your Quick Invite link to people to become friends with them. You can only use a link once per person, so you’ll have to generate a new one each time. Or, you can search for a profile name and add them as a friend, too. Additionally, you can follow fellow gamers to keep up with their progress or entire games. Groups let you stay in touch with multiple people at once if you wish and discuss a certain topic or game. You can search for groups related to your interests and pick the ones you like.

The Broadcasts category is where you’ll go for live-streaming updates about various games. If you want to show off your gaming skills, you can even use Broadcast to live-stream your play sessions or watch other people’s streams. The Community tab also lets you look at reviews, how-tos and guides, videos, artwork, and much more, all created by fellow gamers. You may upload your own contributions, too.

You can also use the Steam Community Overlay. This feature puts the Steam interface on top of your screen when gaming and lets you buy in-game purchases, take screenshots, interact with friends and the community, trade and interact with other players with certain in-game markets, and much more. If you want in-game voice chat, this feature can do that, too. Overlay mode can be enabled in Steam > Settings > In game > Enable the Steam Overlay while in-game. Note that this feature requires additional bandwidth and system resources and may automatically disable itself if your system gets too bogged down.

How to sign up for Steam to buy and play games

A screenshot of the Steam "Store" tab.

To use Steam and start gaming, you must download the app and create an account. You’ll be prompted to make an account the first time you open the app. You can also sign up for Steam online. Here’s how:

  1. Open in a web browser and click Login.
  2. Click on Join Steam.
  3. Enter your email address and country of residence, complete the captcha, then agree to the terms and conditions and privacy policy.
  4. Click Continue.
  5. You’ll be asked to verify your email. Leave this page open. In a new tab, open the email sent to your account to verify it and click on the link inside of it.
  6. After you verify your email, you can choose a Steam Account Name and password.
  7. Click on Done.

Once you have an account set up, you can start purchasing games and participating in social features. Note that you must be 13 or older to sign up for Steam and have an active high-speed internet connection.

If you want to start buying games, you’ll be prompted to add funds to your Steam Wallet. You must add a minimum of $5.00 and can add more in pre-determined amounts. You may use Visa or MasterCard, PayPal, Steam gift cards, or PaySafeCard to add funds. Afterward, you may browse the Steam Store, add games to your cart, and pay for them.

To play a game you’ve purchased, wait for the download to finish. Then click on it in your Library and click the Play button. Remember that games can be quite large, and it may take a while for downloads to finish. If you want to see your downloads, click on the Downloading option at the bottom of the Steam window. You can also pause and restart downloads here.

If you purchased a game separately and it supports Steam, you can add it to your library by clicking on the Add a Game option on the Library page. Then click on Activate a Product on Steam. If you want to add a non-Steam game, click the Add a Non-Steam Game option. Doing this adds the game to your list of available games so that you can keep track of everything in one place, but it will launch separately and won’t integrate with Steam’s features.

Frequently asked questions about Steam

No, but you will have to pay for many games, expansion packs, and other add-ons.

It depends. Some games let you play without opening Steam, while others require the app to be open.

Yes, Steam requires an internet connection to work.