You can tell a lot from a gamer’s hardware. And in the gaming world, nobody knows more about the platforms on which PC gamers run their games than the Steam game distribution network. In 2000, Half-Life was one of the best-rated, best-selling games of all time. Created by Valve, it was distributed through traditional retail channels. When it came time to release the sequel, however, Valve went direct. Using the Steam platform — Steam’s desktop software handles game registration, purchasing and patching, sort of like an iTunes for gamers — Valve distributed its game directly to consumers.
Traditional game publishers weren’t happy. But the resulting legal battle between Valve and Vivendi was ultimately won in Valve’s favor. Today, the Steam network lists 259 titles, and delivers games to roughly 1.3 million users. The distribution model has also revitalized veteran games like Deus Ex, as well as breakout indie titles such as Portal, Ragdoll Kungfu and Audiosurf. In January, the company launched Steamworks, a set of publishing and development tools with gameplay and sales analytics built in. And on March 17, Epic announced that it would distribute its Unreal series on the Steampowered network.
One of the things the Steam agent does is collect data on gamers’ systems. Since 2004, Valve has published these statistics periodically. They represent a snapshot of the world’s gaming desktops, detailing everything from language to video cards to storage space.
We’ve crunched the results of the last four years’ surveys in GigaOM’s supercomputers (at least by 1960s standards), and with the help of the Internet Way-Back Machine, here’s what we learned:
- AMD (and ATI, the video card company it acquired) is struggling, losing market and mind share to Intel and video card maker Nvidia. The current top six video cards reported by Steam all belong to Nvidia.
- Thanks to the explosion in broadband adoption, gaming has grown worldwide. In the last four years, the number of non-English Steam users grew to over 40 percent from 10 percent, with German and French desktops comprising the largest share.
- Gamers have said “No thanks” to Windows Vista; Windows XP is the gamer’s platform of choice. Hackers have been hard at work trying to make best-selling titles like Halo 2 and Shadowrun work with Windows XP instead of Vista.
- Traditional 4:3 ratio screens are gradually being replaced by widescreen (16:9) displays, but this growth comes from large-sized displays. We can conclude that the growth is less because of small-screen notebooks and more because of desktop flatscreen displays — suggesting that game-grade notebooks like those from Alienware are still the exception.
- Multiple monitors remain a relatively uncommon phenomenon. Valve has only been collecting data on dual-display systems since its April, 2006, survey, and in that time the number has risen to 3.6 percent from 2.4 percent.
For more details, charts, and graphs on the survey’s results and supporting graphs, check out the accompanying research report put together by GigaOM.
* Part 1: Part 1: Valve’s Steam Survey of 1M+ Desktops & Their Components
* Part 2: The Valve Survey: Steam Goes Global
* Part 3: The Steam Survey: How Much Storage Is Out There?
* Part 4: The Steam Survey: Our Changing Screens
Disclaimer: The components of gaming systems have changed greatly in four years. In 2004, for example, many video cards and drivers simply didn’t exist; while today, 4-year-old cards are obsolete. Valve also surveys different things over time, and the number of respondents varies from survey to survey. So while we’ve made an effort to normalize the data here, it may not be entirely statistically accurate.