If your kids have even a fleeting interest in PC gaming, then chances are good you have come across Steam on your travels. Founded in 2003 by Valve (of Half-Life and Portal fame), Steam has become the Monopoly in PC digital game distribution, with an estimated 75% market share. This guide gives you an overview of what Steam is, and whether it is an appropriate choice for your family.
1) What is Steam?
Steam is a Digital Storefront, and library, for PC games. To get started, you download the Steam software (available for PC, Linux and MAC) for free from their website, and create an account. This then acts as a hub for making purchases (very similar to phone app stores).
There is a Store Tab, for purchasing games and other media, a Library Tab, for accessing purchased content, a Community section to discuss your favourite games and a Profile area. Your profile is your public record of achievement on the platform (which can be set to Private, or only viewable by friends)
(Detailed guides for Steam installation and account creation are coming soon)
2) Are only games available?
As well as an ever-expanding game store, Steam also offers software (e.g. Game making software, Photo and Video Editors), and Videos for sale or rent. All of these are still accessed through the Steam Client Library.
3) How old do you need to be to have an account?
To accept the Terms and Conditions of Steam and have your own account, you need to be 13 years of age. However, there is no reason why you cannot set up an account in your name for your child and restrict what they can access using the “Steam Family View” feature. Games can also be shared between accounts using the “Steam Family Sharing” feature – this allows a game purchased on one account to be played on another, cutting down on needless rebuying.
4) How much does it cost?
Steam, as a platform, is free. However, content prices are variable as they are set by the game developers themselves (with Steam taking a 30% cut of the sales). If you want to support a game developer directly, it can be a better option to purchase the game through the developer’s own website. This is usually of equal cost to purchasing through Steam and often gives you a Steam key to redeem (i.e. adds the game to your library). There are often mega sales during the year (such as the holiday sale and the summer sale) where the majority of the games catalogue goes on sale. Adding games to a Wishlist will send you email notifications when these items go on sale.
5) What payment options do I have?
Steam as a site is secure, and like most other storefronts will allow you to link a payment card to your account (such as a credit or debit card). They also offer other purchase options such as PayPal (good choice for those of you who don’t want to give out your payment details directly). Game purchases on Steam can be added to your own library or sent as a gift to another user. It is also possible to gift steam credit to a friend (effectively, sending a digital Gift Voucher) instead of a specific game.
Vouchers can be bought in shops and redeemed as store credit on your account. This is a great way to send a gift to the PC gamer in your life, or for younger gamers without bank cards to still be in control of their purchases.
6) Are games tied to one account?
Purchases redeemed to your library (either through redeeming a voucher code, accepting a gift or directly purchasing on the Steam Storefront) can only be accessed through one account. However, if family sharing is enabled, you can access the game from another account (note: only one person can access a game library at a time, so if you had a game in your library, you would have to log out for the other to play it through family sharing).
7) Why does Steam need my personal information?
Even though you aren’t physically mailed your purchases (well, unless you buy a controller or Steam Link from the store), you are required to provide your mailing address. This is simply to allow verification of your payment method (I.e. to reduce fraudulent purchases). It’s also designed to stop people buying games at a cheaper rate from another region for their account, and for American accounts, allows the correct amount of sales tax to be applied.
8) Do I need an internet connection to play my games?
You will need an internet connection to download the game. Once this is downloaded to your PC, there are options to set Steam into an “Offline” Mode, which does not require internet usage.
However, internet usage is variable from game to game. If you are playing an Online Competitive game (such as a MOBA or a Shooter), you will obviously need the internet for the game to work. Some games also have their own Digital Rights Management in place (DRM), which need the internet to work.
9) Do I own the games I purchase on Steam?
Technically, you do NOT own the games you purchase on Steam; you own a licence to play the game. This means you are restricted in what you can do with your purchases (I.e. you cannot freely give out copies of the games, and you have to download and play them through the Steam client).
10) What are the social features of Steam?
Friends can be added to your Steam Account. As well as being able to view their game library, achievements earned, badges etc, you can use the Steam Client to chat with them both in and out of a game. Your profile can be set to public or private.
11) Are there any parental controls?
“Family View” is a mode within Steam that allows you to restrict features of an account behind a PIN. For example, you can restrict access to particular games (great if you have a library shared by a range of ages), the community chat boards, contents displayed by friends and what games can be accessed by that user.
12) Can I redeem games purchased elsewhere on Steam?
Many other storefronts on the internet will sell “Steam Keys” to games, which can be added your account like a gift voucher. However, not all games purchased on disc (i.e. at retail) will be redeemable on Steam, but shortcuts to any game installed on your PC can be added to your Steam library (ideal if you want all of your PC games to be accessible from one place).
13) Are the games subject to quality control?
Yes… and no. All games on the store have to be approved by Valve, but there is no evidence of quality testing (no-one is explicitly hired as a QA tester to review content before it is uploaded). On almost a daily basis, tens of low effort content find their way onto the storefront (barely functioning mobile ports, games using stolen art assets and music to flip a quick buck).
The good news is you can request a refund on any game with a playtime of under 2 hours, so if you fall victim to a low-quality title you can get your money back.
14) Are there any accessories available?
Steam has entered the hardware market, offering Steam Machines for sale (PCs that load into Steam automatically, allowing you to play on a TV). It is also possible to stream the games from your PC to TV using the “Steam Link” box* – this works with a multitude of existing controllers (such as the Dual Shock 4*, Xbox One*, Switch Pro*, Xbox 360* controllers) as well as with Valve’s own “Steam Controller”. For those on a high budget, the HTC Vive* (VR headset and controllers) can be purchased through the Steam store, but the system requirements (how good your PC is) need to be very high to be able to use this.
(Review of Steam Controller coming soon)
15) What are the alternatives to Steam?
- GOG focus on DRM free games – they believe that you should not be restricted in what you do with the games you purchase; you are free to download the games you buy and there is no “online” requirement to verify the games as you play them. They also have an extensive back catalogue of “older” games, such as early 90s DOS games, that are not always available on Steam.
- Origin is EA’s marketplace, with titles on offer including The Sims 4, FIFA and Battlefront. Typically, the new releases are not available on Steam, only through Origin.
- Uplay is the Ubisoft dedicated marketplace (famous for titles such as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry).
Humble Bundle* is another great store, with a % of each purchase made going to charity. They run weekly bundles where you can purchase heavily discounted games on a tier basis, and most of the games on offer are available as a DRM free download.
(Watch this space for in–depth articles on each of the above Steam Alternatives)
16) What are Trading Cards?
Trading cards are like Panini stickers; they’re tradable (virtual) cards that can be swapped for other cards with friends, for gems (virtual currency) or for steam credit. They are generated by playtime within a game; the number of cards dropped per game is down to the developer. Like all good collectables, there is also “foil” (shiny) versions of every card which are rarer (therefore more expensive). Instead of selling, they can also be crafted into “badges” once a full deck of cards for a game is obtained. Badges raise your steam level, which has a variety of perks including the ability to add more friends to your account, increasing your chance of receiving a trading card booster pack and additional customisation options for your profile page (for example, adding a box to show your favourite game). Crafting badges also give you more backgrounds for your profile and emojis that can be used in the chat (like trading cards, these can be exchanged for store credit on the marketplace).
Ultimately, participation in trading cards is 100% optional and can be easily ignored if so required.
17) What is the Refund Policy?
Games are automatically eligible for a refund if they meet the following criteria:
1) They have been purchased within the last 14 days and
2) They have had less than 2 hours of playtime
This allows you to refund games that are not able to run on your system. If your refund request doesn’t meet the above list, you can still request a refund using Steam Support, and your case will be manually reviewed by an actual human.
Steam’s full refund policy can be found here.
18) How do I access my games?
Games are accessed through the library tab on the Steam Software. Purchases are stored in the cloud; therefore, you don’t have to have all of your games installed at the same time (if you uninstall a game, it is still under your library tab, waiting to be reinstalled).
19) Can my child get scammed out of money using Steam?
Like with any large online space, Trading Scammers do operate on Steam. This typically happens using the chat feature – a scammer may convince someone to make a trade, gift or market transaction which is not beneficial to the user. The easiest way to avoid scammers is to not trade at all. If you still want to use the marketplace, make sure the trading only occurs using the community market. Avoid dealing with the person directly outside of Steam (e.g. PayPal) do not make a trade for game keys, as these are often falsified.
It is also possible for viruses and account hacks to be used (again, sent through Steam Chat). Often a hacker will send a link to a site that looks like Steam, in the hope the receiver tries and logs in to the fake page without noticing (thus learning their username and password). Again, restricting access to the chat limits your chances of falling victim to this – always look for the padlock to show the site is secure and genuine.
20) How can I secure my account?
Steam Guard is a free downloadable app for your phone, that acts as an authenticator to actions you are carrying out on Steam (I.e. a double check). For instance, you can set the app so that you cannot log in to Steam on a browser or PC without inputting a code that appears on your phone screen. This is really great at deterring account theft, as without your phone as well as your account username and password, thieves cannot gain access to your library.
21) Am I at risk of losing access to my games?
As mentioned, you are not buying copies of games directly; you are buying licences to play those games. As there is no way of saving your own copies of the games DRM free, there is a chance that if Steam went under or ceased trading, you could lose access to everything. Given their stronghold in the market, this seems unlikely but is something to consider whilst competitors offer the same games at the same prices that you can download and keep.
Gabe Newell (founder of Valve) has reportedly stated that if Steam does disappear, measures are in place to allow continued access to your library, but it has never been stated what these measures are.
22) Is there Cloud Saving?
Select games will keep a copy of your save “in the cloud”, meaning you can get to your save game from other computers (or recover a lost save if the PC gets broken).
Hopefully, this guide has helped fill in some of the blanks as to what Steam is, and why it is necessary to install the client to play games online. If you have any questions, please pop them in the comments below and we’ll get back to you. There are 1900 games in my library at the time of writing this article which goes to show the diverse range of titles on offer and the value offered by Steam (now, if only I had time to play them all…).
*Disclosure: As per all content on our site, this guide is 100% unbiased. All views, both positive and negative, are explicit of gamermum.com and we will never be “bought” into making a judgement. Hyperlinks to external sites marked by an asterisk earn us commission if a purchase is made (at no extra cost to you); it’s like you are buying us a coffee.
Gamermum.com was founded in 2018 by Charlotte Cook, a Mother and qualified Mechanical Engineer with a passion for all things gaming and technology. Charlotte has been collecting video games all of her life and loves nothing more than curling up on the sofa to try out a new title. When not running her blog, Charlotte can be found engaging in photography, baking something tasty in the kitchen and learning a new crafty hobby (current challenge: learning to knit).
Charlotte also runs mamamakesdo.com, a site focused on money saving tips, recipes and crafts.