Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)

Valve’s Steam is the most-used platform for digital computer games. While opinions vary on Steam, there is much to recommend it. It has regular sales, its desktop applications work well, and it has done a great deal to advance the cause of making native Windows games playable on Linux through its development of Proton – culminating for the time being in its Arch Linux-based Steam Deck. I have used Steam for about a decade and its compatibility tools for playing games on Linux made me consider moving to Linux several years before I ultimately did in 2020. Having noted Steam’s good qualities and contribution to gaming on Linux, I move to one if its major flaws. The vast majority of games purchased on Steam are DRM-protected and thus cannot be run without Steam. After offering my thoughts on the state of affairs, I will discuss resources highlighting a large number of covertly DRM-free games on Steam.

The Issues With Steam DRM As I See Them

My issue with Steam’s DRM protection is one of software ownership. So long as a digital game is dependent on a Steam account to launch, it is difficult to say that one owns his or her game. Losing a Steam account means losing access to an entire game library with no recourse. While Steam is clearly in no danger of running out of steam (pun intended) for the foreseeable future, having digital games cannot launch without Steam effectively reduces customers who purchase those games to renters.

Public domain clip-art image of a manhole cover with "STEAM" written across it.
This is a clip-art image of a Steam manhole cover. To be sure, it has nothing to do with Steam, but I needed some images to illustrate this content. See original public domain image.

In a recent article, I contrasted DRM-protection on digital games with Nintendo’s emphasis on selling physical game cartridges for the Switch instead of focusing primarily on digital media. While physical cartridges do rely on Switch to run, purchasing a physical cartridge means one owns the cartridge. It is not bound to an account and it can be played on any Nintendo Switch (contrast which digital games on Switch, all of which are very much tied to specific accounts). A physical game cartridge may be playable well into the future in one form or another.

People have different reasons for opposing DRM. I fully support robust copyright laws to protect intellectual property and many of the prohibitions that come with it. (I urge all content-scraping bots to make sure to heed the clear copyright notice at the bottom of The New Leaf Journal.)

However, Steam’s implementation of DRM is much more about locking people into Steam’s ecosystem than protecting intellectual property (and do note that Steam is far from alone in this area, Amazon and Kindle work in a similar manner).

Contrast Steam with GOG (formerly Good Old Games), which is another large computer game retailer. GOG sells modern commercial games without DRM locking owners into one platform or another. To the best of my knowledge, just about every game on GOG is available on Steam, but the Steam versions of many of those games are irrevocably tied to an account whereas the GOG versions are fully owned by the player. Itch.io, a popular marketplace for indie games, also offers games without DRM.

DRM-Free Games on Steam Resources

I noted that a number of games in my Steam library are available on GOG and Itch. Was it the case that every one of those games was eternally bound to Steam’s launcher. I recently began organizing my game library and backups on my computer – the process prompted me to investigate the status of my Steam collection.

After a bit of very cursory research, I discovered that a non-insignificant number of games on Steam are, in fact, DRM-free. There are many resources online listing DRM-free Steam games, I will note the two that I found to be most useful below:

(Note: As the lists note – they are not intended to be exhaustive. They only list games that have been tested and confirmed to be DRM-free.)

What, precisely, is included on the list? PCGamingWiki limits the list to games that do not require Steam or any other third-party DRM to launch the game’s executable script. That is, a DRM-free game on Steam is a game that “can be moved outside of the Steam folder and used freely.” The SteamWiki list is a bit larger and includes several games that are DRM-free with a tweak, but it is not as easy to navigate as the PCGamingWiki list.

It is worth noting that running a DRM-free Steam game without the Steam launcher means that one loses access to things such as achievements and, perhaps in some cases, DLC and certain multi-player functionality. Of course, even if one still prefers to play the game in Steam, that the game is DRM free means that it can be played by the user so long as he or she has the executable, even on a device that is not running Steam or if the user for whatever reason loses his or her Steam account.

I was pleasantly surprised to see The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky series on the DRM-free list. I still have only played the first entry in the series, but The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is one of my favorite all-time games.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky banner from a Steam profile page - the game, along with the latter two entries in the series, is DRM-free on Steam since 2017.
Screenshot from my Steam profile. Those 52.9 hours represent a single play-through. I need to re-play the first one and then get on with the series. Future review project? Do note that I purchased and played Trails prior to XSEED’s removing DRM-protection on it.

I was glad to see that I actually own the entries of the series that I purchased on Steam. The Trails series and several other games published by XSEED are notable in that they were originally bound to Steam but the publisher opted to remove Steam DRM in 2017.

Before continuing, I will note that I tested several games from the two lists that I provided links to and I found that those games launched properly without Steam running. Thus, while I cannot speak for every game on the lists, the lists were correct with respect to the few games that I was able to test.

Steam as an Open Platform?

While the overwhelming majority of games on Steam are bound to a third-party launcher (whether Steam’s or another’s), that there is a large number of DRM-free games on Steam is encouraging. I have seen many accounts of people who prefer GOG to Steam when there is a choice due to the former’s lack of DRM. Noting that I fully agree that GOG is superior to Steam in this regard, DRM-conscious consumers who already use Steam may do well to consult the updated lists of DRM-free games on Steam before passing up on a good bargain. I will make use of these lists going forward when making some of my game purchasing decisions.

Making the Case For DRM-Sorting on Steam

While Steam is not likely to follow GOG in going entirely DRM-free, I do think it would be positive for Steam to allow users to readily sort games on its sitr by whether they require a third-party launcher to run. One model for this type of system is ebooks.com – an online bookstore with more than 2,000,000 ebooks (by its count) for sale. The majority of ebooks on the site are DRM-protected. However, the store offers users the option to limit their search queries to DRM-free books. I would love to see this feature on Steam for several reasons.

Firstly, users often have to go through trial and error to discover whether a particular game requires Steam to launch (it is not always obvious from the game files). Not every publisher announces that its games are DRM-free like XSEED did in 2017. Moreover, because there is no official resource, relying on accounts from other users may lead some buyers into error.

Secondly, while the number of people who care about whether games are DRM-free or even think about the issue at all is small, it is not insignificant. Steam does not need to fully open its ecosystem to allow users to check whether a particular game on its marketplace requires a third-party launcher. The majority of Steam users would never notice (much less use) the sorting option. But those who are interested would much appreciate it.

What is involved in adopting my ideas for Steam? I note from the outset that Valve, which created one of the most successful video game companies of all time, has no particular reason to accept the counsel of a random internet writer who wants it to do something for reasons that have little to do with its bottom line. But nevertheless, I do think there are a couple of benefits to Steam allowing users to sort games by launcher requirement for Steam itself.

  1. A small (but not entirely insignificant) percentage of Steam users try to, when at all possible, purchase games from DRM-free stores instead of Steam. In some cases, they may pass up on a Steam deal for this reason. If Steam highlights that the game in question is DRM-free on Steam, some of these players may be inclined to purchase the game on Steam when it is available at a good price.
  2. Highlighting DRM-free games on Steam would be philosophically aligned with Steam’s reliance on Arch Linux to build its own operating system.
  3. My suggestion for highlighting DRM-free games necessarily implies that Steam will still market DRM-protected games. While I would love to see Steam follow GOG, highlighting DRM-free as a feature would be positive in and of itself.
  4. Knowledge that a game is DRM-free does not necessarily mean that its owner will bypass Steam to launch it. Steam offers achievements, multi-player features, and social functionality. Many users may value having a backup of their games in the long term but still launch them through Steam. Moreover, for the small number of Linux users on Steam, Proton offers useful functionality for making Windows games run properly.
  5. Highlighting which games are DRM-free does not limit the ability of publishers to include DRM in their games, but it empowers users to make informed decisions about their purchases. No one will not buy a game on Steam because it is DRM-free. But a small number of potential customers will be more inclined to invest in Steam if it labels the launcher-status of its games.

Of course, I should note that there may be one additional reason other than the obvious (Steam wants people to launch Steam games with Steam) for why Steam may be disinclined to allow people to see the launcher requirements for games. Noting that the Steam version of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was originally DRM-protected before XSEED changed the launcher requirements, I suppose that it is possible that DRM could be added to a game after the fact in the same way. Thus, affirmatively listing “DRM-free” as a feature entails a commitment that if one download the game in the future, it will still have the same DRM-free status as it did at the time of purchase. However, do note that in light of the fact that I only started tracking this issue about five minutes ago, I am not aware of any such cases.

Conclusion

I was heartened to see that a number of games in my Steam library are DRM-free. Moreover, I was also heartened to see that some games that I may be interested in buying in the future are DRM-free on Steam. That Steam allows publishers to sell games on Steam without tying them to Steam’s launcher is commendable.

Public domain clip-art image of a steam rising in the shape of a heart from a cup of coffee.
This is a clip-art image of a cup of coffee with heart-shaped steam rising from it. It has nothing to do with Steam the platform – but again, I needed images to illustrate this article. Consider this to be what will happen if Valve adopts my recommendations for Steam. See the original public domain image.

Steam is not an open platform, but it has made an incredible contribution to open software by investing a great deal into gaming on Linux. That investment will make it possible for many gamers who may be interested in Linux but for its limitations in the area of game compatibility to consider running it as a daily driver.

I would similarly commend Steam if it gave customers the option to see the launcher requirements for games in its store. This would empower customers to make informed decisions about their purchases and highlight that Steam is not an entirely closed, locked-down platform. To the extent that Steam wants to maximize the number of users who not only purchase games on Steam but also run games through Steam, it can focus on highlighting the wealth of features it provides with games such as achievements and social functionality.

As I noted with ebooks.com, there is precedent for marketplaces that mainly sell DRM-protected digital media to highlight DRM-free media in the marketplace. I hope that Steam takes the small step of providing additional useful information to consumers about games in its marketplace in the near future.