Is Steam power the future?

The world of digital distribution is making "going down to the store" as old-hat as, well, an old hat. The most convincing example of online shopping goodness is Steam, a powerful system from the creators of the mighty Half-Life.

Steam is to games what iTunes is to music. Valve's creation may work on a smaller scale than Apple's huge store, but it solves more problems.

While music and video stores simply upload files and take payments, Steam integrates the initial game delivery with patching, multiplayer gaming, digital rights management, anti-cheat detection and cheat banning.

Launched in 2002, Steam really only became famous - or infamous - with the release of Half-Life 2 in November 2004. The problems which occurred then still haunt the public mind, though in reality many have since been solved - in fact, Steam itself is different following a major update in October 2005. Yes, it even quietly updates itself.

It also offers far more games now, as Valve has moved to distributing titles created by others, such as Mark Healey's Rag Doll Kung Fu, Ritual's upcoming SiN Episodes and Tripwire's excellentRed Orchestra Ostfront 41-45 (see the Red Orchestra reviewhere ).

All will quietly download whenever you're connected to the net (it won't hog all your bandwidth, so it's OK to keep doing other things) and you needn't wait for it to finish before disconnecting. It just picks up where it left off next time, rather than starting all over again.