(I originally wrote this for the defunct Retro Retreat. It’s been edited, and updated.)
Since it’s inception in 2003, Valve’s Steam service has come a long way. Starting out as an inconvenient, buggy, necessary evil for Hal-Life 2, it grew into a huge storefront, and destination for the biggest PC games. It adapted to the concerns, and needs of a community going so far as to create it’s own. Eventually dwarfing online store services in the console market in terms of members. It became famous for week-long door buster deals during the summer, and winter months igniting sales on existing games during what have always been lull periods for releases. How many times have you been on a video game message board to see threads of boasting huge sales? How many times have you heard friends talk about getting some of your favorite games on their computer for a lot less than $60, and legitimately?
Yet for a variety of reasons good, or bad many out there still haven’t forayed into the world of Steam. This article is going to cover creating an account, utilizing the client, and showing a few things that some who have used the service may not yet know about. I chose to put out a Steam article because of the fact not a lot of blogs or outlets have really talked about it much other than mentioning when a major AAA release is coming to it or an indie darling is coming about. Despite having millions of subscribers, when I’m in public I still meet a lot of gamers who have yet to try Valve’s service out. I will be going through the service on a Windows machine, but the service is available to those on Apple Macintosh or any of the Linux distributions.
The first step to setting up a Steam account is really simple. From any computer with an internet connection go to the Steam website (Steampowered.com), and click Install Steam at the top right corner. A box will ask you if you want to save or open the installer. Click save, and once it’s downloaded then you can proceed to run the installer. Once you have Steam installed, you can run the client by clicking the shortcut if you chose to have it on your desktop or start screen (If you are on Windows 8). Otherwise simply go with the standard Start->All Programs->Steam->Steam path from your Start button.
When you first fire up the client it’s going to take you through a sign up process. This is generally straightforward, asking for typical info for business or security reasons most websites you use every day have probably asked for. All of this will be tied to an email address of your choosing.
The reason for this is so that you can get security checks, lost password information or email alerts from Valve should you ever need it. Once you have an email address selected, it will also ask you for an account name (Which will be different from your online name), and a password for you to log onto Steam. Some people like to check mark the software to remember their password. But generally this isn’t recommended, especially if you are using a laptop at a public hotspot. Remember that all of your game, and content purchases will be tied to your Steam account. So if the password is stolen, the thief has access to your digital library. Steam does have some safeguards in place in case this ever happens. But to better avoid such a scenario it’s recommended you memorize, and type in your password when you want to log onto the service.
You can also access your account from any computer with an internet connection, so do feel free to do so. For instance, if you are on a netbook in a coffee shop (or other place with a hotspot), and have the sudden urge to play Peggle, you can log on to Steam from there as well. Steam will build a list of trusted devices for your account with it’s Steam Guard feature. You will be emailed a code with every device that tries to log on, so if someone tries to do it on a system you don’t own they will be denied unless they also have access to your email account to get the specific code.
With all of that out-of-the-way, it’s time to customize your account. Here you can choose a screen name for your friends, and opponents in games to see you under. You can also upload a photo or other picture to your account to use as an avatar. You can also change this at any time. So if you become bored, or begin to worry it may offend someone it can be swapped. You can also post a website under your info so if you want someone to be able to visit it you can do so. Then when people see your profile they can visit your site if they wish.
Many people like to put a description or a list of likes, and dislikes here while others like to leave them blank. Just like Facebook, it’s entirely up to you how open or private you would like to be. Please use proper judgment though, as you don’t want to have your private phone number, or company secrets, or social security numbers or other stuff that should remain private floating around the internet. Once you have a profile set up it’s time to start adding friends if you have any, who are already on the service. Simply go to the top of the screen, and click the Friends tab. Under that, click Add Friend, and you will be able to search by screen name or email. Once you find them, click Add Friend, and an invitation will be sent to them. Once they get it, they can confirm they know you, and will be on your friends list. The friends list client is a lot more than just a, well list of people.
The friends list works much like your list on Xbox Live, Playstation Network, or (For us old timers) X-Fire. You can talk to them via typing, or by talking on a headset. Right clicking on their names allows you to invite them to join a chat, or a group. Groups are nice for fans of certain games, or other fandoms to get together on Steam. You will find Steam groups for just about anything within reason. Groups will allow you to make other friends or at least players you can get along with.
Now that you have an account, and a friends list it’s time to navigate your layout. Steam has four main areas noted at the top: STORE. LIBRARY. COMMUNITY. followed by whatever screen name you went with. The store is usually the default screen for most people who sign into Steam. It is here you are greeted with a scrolling pane of the latest releases. Sometimes you may also get pop ups of the latest releases, or sales. You can either click next on each one if you’re interested or simply click close, and it won’t bother you again. The store tab allows you to shop for games. You can use the search function to find a particular title, or you can sort by price, or genre. You can even look by developer or publisher. On the side panel you can also find a button to sort for games under $10 or under $5 for those times when you want something new to play, but don’t have a lot of disposable income. Valve will often times do a special mid-week deal on Wednesdays to pique interest, and many times on Weekends have special two-day deals where you can play a full priced game for free, and then buy it at a discounted rate if you really enjoy it.
But the biggest hype in the Steam community is during the summer, and leading up to early winter a second time when Valve runs annual season sales. Particularly the summer sale. During this sale each day games will be slashed 50%-90% off. Before you go thinking it’s just to unload unwanted keys for drivel nobody wants to play there are a lot of great deals every year. Blockbuster games, indie games, and everything in between. Sometimes during these runs you will see publisher packs discounted too. These packs generally include every game the publisher has released on Steam. Other packs will be multiplayer packs, where a single user can buy a bundle of keys to be given away to friends. Games like Payday 2 really benefit from this as the discounted rate gets a sale from fans. But also legally, and affordably gets their on the fence friends to check out a game they might not normally buy on their own.
Season sales also involve the community by raffling off content for hitting metrics. Get an achievement in one title, get a card. Get a friend to play Co-Op with you, get a card. Write a comment or recommendation or commendation of a title you played, get a card. Collect so many cards, get a badge that boosts your Steam profile rating. These contests make an already great sale into something fun, and community driven. Plus a lot of the community driven things that occur during these periods don’t require buying things. So it’s just more of an incentive to log in, and play with your friends.
Buying games is pretty easy. Once you go to a game’s page you click on Add To Cart. Clicking on your cart then takes you to the checkout. Here you can choose to buy the title for yourself, or to gift the title to someone else. Electing to gift the title will let you either email a notification to someone, or you can simply pick someone from your friends list. You can also add the gift to your inventory to hang onto to be gifted later. This is a wonderful way to buy for birthdays or holidays that are a ways off.
Steam will even let you know if a friend already owns the title so you can back out of the transaction, and choose something else to gift. At this point whether you’re buying for yourself or someone else, Steam will ask for your billing information. Here is where you enter your address, and credit card information. Steam will then let you save the information for future purchases, or like your password, you can leave the box un-ticked.
It should also be noted that Steam features a buying option for those without a credit card: The Steam Wallet. Steam Wallet allows you to purchase gift cards at physical brick, and mortar stores to be used on Steam. They can be found at Best Buy, Target, 7 Eleven or GameStop, and they may turn up at other retailers as well. All of the cards have a code (Except at GameStop which we’ll get to in a moment.) that can be redeemed. Simply click under the Games tab, pick Redeem Steam Wallet Code, and type it in. In the case of GameStop, rather than print the code on the actual cards, wallet codes are printed on the receipt. Adding the wallet code works the same way. If you have any money in your Steam wallet, it becomes your default payment. So game purchases will come out of the wallet until empty. Once empty, Steam will then ask for credit card information again.
Video games, and other content purchased from Steam are forever tied to your account. As mentioned earlier, you can access your content from any system Steam is installed on. Steam also has an offline mode. So if you have a spotty connection, or simply want to play a single player game on your laptop while camping you can choose to. All you have to do is click Go Offline under the Steam tab before going out, and about. It should also be noted that any physical retail disc version of a game also sold on Steam will be added to your account. Simply choose Activate A Product On Steam, punch in the Key, and the service will authenticate it. Once authenticated you can either download the title or install it from your physical disc.
Now that you have some titles under your belt it’s time to customize your library. When you click your Library tab you will notice a few symbols toward the upper right. These allow you to change the layout of your library. You can choose (Left to right) a simplified list version (With descriptions on the right for each title), a modified list version, or Steam Grid version. (Pictured). Going with Steam Grid gives your library a look similar to those found on Xbox Live, or Apple iTunes. This layout is by far the most popular one, and is recommended for anyone other than those running on fairly underpowered computers. There is also a fourth layout called Big Picture mode.
Steam Big Picture mode is intended for gamers using a Home Theatre PC. What’s a Home Theatre PC some of you may ask? A HTPC is a computer used in lieu of typical media players, and set-top boxes with a TV set. Not only are they popular with some of the do it yourself crowd, who like to buy parts, and assemble their own computer. But some manufacturers actually sell pre built ones along with their regular desktop lines. HTPC’s typically have midrange to top-tier hardware. Great processors, graphics cards, and fast storage. Some even include Blu-Ray drives. HTPC’s also come mostly in cases that resemble rack mount stereo equipment, or set-top boxes. Some of the Steam boxes take this route as well. With a HTPC hooked up to a HDTV, Big Picture mode allows players to navigate Steam with an Xbox 360 (or comparable) gamepad.
Steam Big Picture mode changes the entire look of Steam. You can browse not only the store or your library or friends list with the twin sticks, but the mode also features a web browser too. The web browser controls well, and displays most websites with little to no trouble. Typing in web addresses or chatting with friends is also seamless. Rather than pull up an onscreen keyboard the way every console since the NES has, Steam Big Picture has a wheel like display. It can look daunting at first, but the color coded letters are fairly easy to follow, especially if using an Xbox 360 pad. To exit the mode, Steam entirely, or even restart or shut off your computer, you can highlight the power button, and pull up a shutdown menu.
Steam also allows gamers to run titles not originally intended for release on Steam. Doing this is very simple. Under the Games tab select Add Non Steam Game To My Library. From here you will see a list box of everything installed on your computer, much like the one featured in Windows’ Add Or Remove Programs option under it’s control panel. Once you check mark, and apply the title you want to add it will appear on your list or grid of titles. But it doesn’t end there! If you are using the Grid mode, you can then right-click on the new, but bland icon, and pick your own custom artwork for the button! All you have to do is make sure you have the custom button made up to be applied. Simply pick Set Custom Image after right clicking the icon, and then browse for your custom button. JPEG, PNG, or TGA formats can be used at a resolution of 460×215.
The other major area of Steam of importance is the Steam Community tab. This is where you can visit the latest news that outlets are bringing up, as well as game hubs. Game hubs allow users to share screenshots, files, and discuss the titles they love. Every title available for download on Steam has it’s own community hub. There is also a Steam Community Market where users can trade custom content for Steam Wallet credit. It’s an entire sub economy for enthusiasts. Many games support this area most notably Team Fortress 2, and it’s hat crafting. The most successful people in the community have actually been able to make a living at it.
Steam Trading Cards are also a big component of the market. Most of the new releases on the service over the last two years support them. As you play these titles, over time they drop cards you can use for profile or community uses. Each card belongs to a set. Half of which are generally dropped off to you by playing the game they are associated with. To get the remaining cards in the set you can trade with friends, or buy them in the Steam Marketplace. Completing sets allows you to craft badges, that in turn boost your Steam Level which is kind of like Xbox Gamerscore. It gives you bragging rights amongst your friends. But it can also get you custom game themed backgrounds for your profile, along with emoticons for use while instant messaging friends.
However, if you’re a player who doesn’t care about that aspect of the service, you can sell your cards on the marketplace. Most of the cards will be nickel, and dime pricing. But occasionally you may get a rarer foil version of a card that goes for more. Sale events can also drop special cards. Selling these on the marketplace for change adds up. So many players will sell the cards for wallet credit, and use the money on new games instead of crafting badges with the trading cards.
t your thing, you may want to look at Steam Greenlight. Greenlight is something everyone should look at once in a while, because it allows community input as to what titles may eventually find their way to the Steam store for actual purchase. One of the best examples of Greenlight bringing a wonderful title to Steam is Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. This excellent platformer was green lit after a very successful Kickstarter. Steam users can vote on what upcoming titles they want to see hit the store. There are thousands of titles to vote for, from independent creators to studios with a product publishers may have rejected. If enough folks vote for a title, Valve puts it into their pipeline, and begins the process of working with the creators on how to get it on the Steam store.
Eventually this portion of Steam is supposed to be retired. But for now players can use it to try to keep good games in the store, and bad games out. Sadly, it’s really about the only thing you can do aside from posting reviews. Fortunately, Steam does allow you to do so on every game’s store page. So if you have played a title you loved, and want to implore people to buy it you can do that. You can also tell people to stay away from stinkers you’ve played as well.
Finally, it’s time to go back to the first option a second. Click on Steam, and pick Settings.
This will bring up a box with several tabs. We’ll briefly cover each of these. The first tab is called Account. This is where you should go if your email address ever needs to change or you want to change your password. You can also manage Steam Guard protection as well as choose any Beta participation with the Steam client. If you choose to opt in, you will get any updates to the client that aren’t finalized. You can always change this on or off, but participating in betas does let you get a peek at what may be coming down the pike.
The second tab is the Friends tab. This tab goes further than the friend option on the top of the mainline Steam screen. It gives you the option to change sound tones, let you know if someone logs on, lets you post time stamps during conversations, as well as notifications, and sounds options.
Third on the list is the Interface tab. This tab lets you change language settings in addition to whether or not you want Steam in your startup menu, what custom skins (If any) you would like to use with the client, and what screen you see first upon logging on. You can even choose to default into Big Picture mode if you wish.
The In-Game tab features options for the Steam overlay. The overlay is a feature all of the Steam purchased software titles, and some non Steam titles allow players to use. Basically, it covers the game or program being used for quick access to the Steam community, or friends tabs. It’s handy when you’re gaming, and a friend needs to talk to you at the same time. You can also choose a Steam Browser homepage here.
The Downloads + Cloud tab is where your bandwidth options go. Here you can change the speed if you ever upgrade/downgrade your internet service, and you can also alter where your Steam games are installed. Honestly it’s best if you use the default locations for your Steam installs as to keep everything running smoothly. But if you ever do change from Cable service to DSL service for instance, changing that here can better optimize Steam.
The final tab is the Voice tab. This controls the Voice over IP settings in Steam. If you find yourself playing a lot of games with friends, and don’t want to go through the setup process of third-party VOIP clients like Ventrillo, Mumble, or C3 it’s a great feature. For non Steam games however you still may want to use one of those third-party clients, as not every non Steam title works with the Steam VOIP or overlay.
So that’s the basics for Steam. Feel free to tweak, or poke deeper into the service. Some of the things covered here may change in later updates, but not so much it renders this guide unusable. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading through this, and found it a great resource for your first foray into the #1 digital storefront in PC gaming. Keep an eye out for the mega bargains during the seasonal sales, make some friends, and enjoy all of the great stuff Valve’s service has to offer.