Valve recaps a record 2020 for Steam and looks ahead to China launch this year

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Steam’s user community broke a lot of records during the socially-quarantined year of 2020. (Valve Software image)

Bellevue, Wash.-based Valve Software posted its latest year in review for Steam, its online gaming storefront. It provides a look back on 2020, as well as a roadmap for what’s coming for Steam in 2021. This includes the official debut of Steam in mainland China, more experiments in Valve’s Steam Labs program, and continuing Valve’s ongoing investment in gaming on Linux.

The big news here, at least as far as Valve is concerned, might be its plan to launch an official Chinese version of Steam later this year. Steam’s international version has technically been available on mainland China for years, primarily boosted by the international popularity of Valve’s Defense of the Ancients 2 as both a game and an esport. Some sources estimate that more than 40 million Chinese players regularly use the international version of Steam.

However, Steam is also in a unique position in China. Its government censors many international websites including Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube, but has left Steam relatively untouched so far. This means that Chinese customers can buy games off of the international Steam client that haven’t been officially approved for release in the country. That, in turn, has led to the creation of a growing but precarious indie gaming scene on the Chinese mainland, which is built around bringing their games to market via the international Steam client and skipping China’s regulatory process altogether.

Valve’s official Chinese Steam client, made in partnership with the Huzhou-based mega-developer Perfect World, is a segregated version of the service. Reportedly, it will launch with around 40 games, each of which is planned to be officially licensed, regulated, and localized for the Chinese market. Some of the first available titles are said to include Valve’s own DOTA2 and DOTA: Underlords, as well as the 2018 mountain-biking game Descenders. A trial run for the Chinese Steam client is reportedly set to run, via Perfect World, on Jan. 16.

For Valve, the creation of a specialized Chinese client opens some interesting doors. As we saw with the mobile gaming charts for 2020, it’s entirely possible to have a game on the market that makes hundreds of millions of dollars but never leaves the Chinese mainland. By building on its pre-existing foundation — since DOTA2 is so popular in China already — Valve is set to bring Steam, and a relative handful of games, to a big and hugely lucrative if extensively curated market.

On the other hand, many of the aforementioned indie developers in China have been worried about the Chinese Steam client since it was introduced. The concern is largely that the creation and launch of a segregated, government-approved Steam might lead China to shut down the international client, which in turn would take out much of the Chinese indie development scene before it’s had a real chance to come into its own. It’s a solid move for Valve overall, but there’s a high potential for collateral damage.

Steam’s Year in Review

Steam, like the rest of the games industry, had a banner year in 2020. We already knew that it had broken several of its records over the course of the year, such as its all-time high for concurrent player count, but Valve confirmed that it also reached major new milestones for hours played, games purchased, and new buyers per month.

The big takeaway here is the “new purchasers per month” metric. A lot of people picked up video games for the first time in 2020, since the rest of the entertainment industry got hobbled by lockdown measures. Other data reveals that the numbers were high, but an extra 2.6 million new users in a month is much bigger than expected.

It’s anyone’s guess whether that momentum will last, though. Early signs in 2021, such as the unceremonious pushback of the Harry Potter MMO Hogwarts’ Legacy, may indicate that the mainstream side of the games industry will suffer a similar content drought that other forms of media did in 2020 due to effects from the pandemic. But it’ll be a delayed reaction due to games’ lengthy development cycles.

Between the public’s newfound interest in video games and the launch of the hotly-anticipated Cyberpunk 2077, Steam delivered a massive 25.2 exabytes of data to its customers in 2020, which is a big spike in download traffic over 2019. This led the company to create several new features for the client based around managing bandwidth, including how Steam schedules its automatic updates. Now only games that a user has played within the previous three days will be updated immediately, as opposed to trying to choke down an update for every game on your hard drive simultaneously on launch.

(Valve Software image)

Steam, and Valve, also seem to remain as some of the last bastions of people who are bullish about virtual reality. The March release of Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx gave VR one of its first “AAA” experiences, in a 12-to-15-hour first-person shooter that was also the first Half-Life game in years.

Valve tracked 1.7 million new users of SteamVR, which added up to a 30% increase in total VR playtime and a 32% increase in VR game sales. It also confirmed that sales of its new “Cadillac” VR headset, the Valve Index, enjoyed demand that was “consistently high” over the course of the year; this may also have been fueled by the recent launch of other new headsets like the Oculus Quest 2.

Some analysts have been racing to be the first to toss dirt on VR’s grave, pointing to danger signs like Sony’s seeming abandonment of the PSVR project with the PlayStation 5. However, per Valve’s metrics, there does appear to be more life left in the scene than anyone outside of it realized. It may be that we’re finally reaching a point where the cost of entry for VR is cheap enough for the average consumer, at right around the same time that developers are getting more confident with the format.

Alyx did mark a big leap forward in the overall VR experience, which felt like it was doing a rapid speed run through the phases of games development (2018 seemed to be the “mid-’90s CD-ROM era”), and the next few games marked for release are working to reach that new bar.

Other planned updates for Steam in 2021 include more investment in the Steam Points program, where players who purchase games on Steam are gradually awarded with cosmetic upgrades for their profile; continued “filing down the rough edges” on the overall user experience; and more investment in time and technology in using Steam Play to make PC games simultaneously available for Windows, Apple, and Linux platforms.

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