When Half-Life creators Valve originally announced that they were planning to deliver the sequel to their seminal PC title over a home-made digital distribution system, it would be fair to say that the scheme had its fair share of skeptics. Prior to the launch of Half-Life 2, the digital distribution of content was very much in its infancy; even music distribution over the Internet had yet to take off, so it was inevitable that many would be dubious about Valve's ability to deliver game content, with its much larger file sizes, over the network.
On that front, Valve proved to have a solution - and although there were inevitable teething problems, a combination of intelligent pre-loading of content with peer to peer technologies meant that Steam turned out to be up to the task of distributing even full-sized PC titles. Indeed, it could be argued that it was the success of Steam that gave the rest of the videogame digital distribution market the kick it needed to start making real progress, as users who had never previously contemplated downloading content rather than buying it in a shop suddenly had their eyes opened to the potential of this new system.
However, a second, more long-term concern existed regarding the Steam service - and indeed regarding digital distribution as a whole. Rather than opting to team up with an existing digital distribution firm, Valve chose to build its own client, servers and technology to distribute Half-Life 2 - a move which led many to question whether we were facing a future in which every publisher and major developer would build their own download service, consequently cluttering up gamers' PCs with a mystifying variety of incompatible clients.
That possibility still remains, to some extent; lacking a central authority who can regulate such things (as the platform holders on consoles are), the PC platform does still sport a number of competing download services, and some publishers even continue to pursue the dead end idea of having their own client, servicing only their own games. Microsoft, presumably ever-mindful of the slippery slope back into the courtroom faced with further charges of monopoly, doesn't want to build, or even give its backing to, a default client for Windows. As such, it's left to competition either to select a single victor - or to leave users faced with a medley of incompatible software.
In recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that a victor is, in fact, emerging - and that Valve's enormous faith in the Steam concept is paying off. Since the launch of Half-Life 2, Valve has loaded Steam with a variety of excellent first-party content in the form of mods and new episodes of the game, as well as adding an interesting selection of content from third parties, such as Introversion's excellent Darwinia and Ritual's episodic follow-up to Sin. Now, however, the service appears to be moving to the next level - with the addition of content from top tier publishers to Steam. In recent weeks, both Activision and 2K Games have committed to supporting Steam, and where two publishers of such stature lead, others are bound to follow.
For a developer with only one previous title under its belt to create the service which looks like becoming the de facto distribution system for PC games is an astonishing feat, but all of the factors were right for Steam - a system that worked well enough for the majority of users to be relatively happy with it, a company well liked and trusted enough to avoid the normal allegations of spyware or malware which often dog such products, and crucially, a game - Half-Life 2 - so desirable that it formed an early killer app for the Steam platform. Valve, a creator of PC first person shooter games, now stands set to become one of the key gatekeepers to PC digitally distributed content, in an market sea-change not dissimilar to Apple - a maker of PC equipment - becoming one of the top music retailers in the world. It's a change few could have predicted - but traditional retailers will now struggle to catch up with the pioneers of the digital age.