Over the past 12 years the Steam gaming service has transformed from a digital distribution hub primarily used by Valve’s own games into a colossus that stands astride the entire PC gaming industry. While competitor services like GOG and publisher-specific services like uPlay and Origin exist, Steam is still the 800-lb gorilla in the room. Now, Facebook has announced that it intends to challenge Valve’s dominance of the PC gaming industry — as well as taking on iOS and Android at the same time.
Facebook has announced a significant partnership with Unity Technologies, the company behind the Unity engine. The company’s goal is to create a new gaming platform explicitly tied to Facebook that would run across Android, iOS, Mac, and Windows PCs. This is an interesting concept in and of itself, since gaming is almost always sandboxed by operating system. Facebook claims Unity will help develop new game developer tools, services, and integrate support for the Facebook platform directly into the Unity engine itself.
When Facebook started becoming popular, it built much of that early popularity on hit games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. Social gaming hasn’t been as critical to FB’s growth and revenue as it used to be, but as the above slide from TechCrunch makes clear, the company still pays huge amounts of money to developers and it claims 650 million gamers among its user base.
Valve’s domination of PC gaming has always seemed due to luck at least as much as skill. When Steam launched, gamers were fiercely, loudly, and vocally opposed to the service. It didn’t help matters that Valve tied the platform to Half Life 2’s debut and required even the boxed version of the game to authenticate to its own online servers before unlocking it for play. The authentication servers died under load and many people were left unable to play the game for days before Valve sorted things out. Steam wasn’t some brilliant idea that snuck past the industry; many gamers hated the platform and wanted it to die.
But Steam didn’t die — and as brick-and-mortar shops dedicated less and less space to PC titles, preferring console games with larger audiences and better resale value, it transformed itself into a service virtually synonymous with PC gaming today. Steam OS exists because Gabe Newell was afraid Microsoft would try to muscle in its turf. (Steam OS continues to bumble along, but the platform hasn’t received much attention or discussion from Valve of late, and the much-ballyhooed launch of Steam Machines has more-or-less fizzled.)
Having embedded itself at the center of PC gaming, Steam isn’t going anywhere without a fight — and Facebook’s policies and practices don’t exactly endear it to those in the gaming community who don’t like the idea of always-online games where your every action can be tracked, aggregated, and sold to advertisers. Cross-platform support built around Facebook (as opposed to the iOS, Android, and Windows ecosystems) could theoretically appeal, but whether that’s enough to draw gamers in remains to be seen. Facebook’s ownership of Oculus has yielded few positive dividends for gamers and it’s not clear what kind of value the company would even theoretically provide.