Why Steam Family Sharing Is Largely Pointless


Yesterday, Valve announced a new way to share games with friends and family via Steam, breaking some of the taboo surrounding the current methods, but actually doing very little to change the current state of DRM in digital games.

Steam Family Sharing instead makes sharing more convenient, and it’s a policy which actually sounds rather similar to the one which Microsoft outlined – despite the rumours that these were merely 45 minute trials.

While this has yet to see public release, and will go through a 1000 person beta later on this month, the rough plan is to allow each person to designate and share their entire library with up to 10 of their Steam friends – although this is handled on a computer-by-computer basis.

However, there is a serious downside to this system, in that only one person can gain access to a given account’s library at any one time. If Geoff shares his account with Steve, and Steve plays Geoff’s copy of CoD: Ghosts, then Geoff cannot play any of the other games in his library without then forcing Steve out. This would give Steve a few minutes to finish playing, or buying the game to continue, although it would seem like Geoff could go and play one of Steve’s games, if they are both sharing libraries with one another.

This key point reduces this to little more than a convenient time-saver for end users. You are already able to access your Steam account from other computers and devices, by inputting and sharing your account log in details. Two-factor authentication will help to keep your account fairly secure if you do this, but it would still potentially open you up to damaging abuse.

Family Sharing is a more secure system in that regard, and should be more convenient to deal with on a regular basis, but it still effectively locks you out from all of your other games, when there is a much better way of going about things.


Microsoft seems to have actually been very close to the ideal system, by allowing you to designate “family members”, and share your game collection with practically whoever you wanted. This would have let just one person use an individual game license at any one time, but still leave all the other games free for people to play.

Meanwhile, Apple’s policies for the iTunes App Store are even more liberal, letting you download and install any app you want to any device you want. It doesn’t matter who that device belongs to, just that you’re there to type in your password and grab the app for them.

Steam’s system is too lumbered by this nasty inconvenience, in my opinion, but it does two very important things for the industry: it will legitimise the practice of game sharing online, and while jumping in with both feet would have been nice, the practical reality is that publishers and developers are also heavily involved in the terms of this system. Had Valve tried this three to four years ago, they might have been able to brute force the issue through sheer market dominance.

However, it also opens the door to more prevalent use of combined spending power on Steam. In much the same way that you could pool your cash together with friends to buy a game you’re not willing to pay £40 on your own, letting people share their games could potentially drive greater sales on the first day for many kinds of game, and at nearer to full price pull in more cash over the lifetime, as people aren’t waiting around for the major Steam sales each year.

The current plans for Steam Family Sharing are hopefully not the end to this story, and I seriously hope that Valve continue to push their content partners and themselves to lessen and remove these limitations to what is still a restrictive DRM system.



  1. You say it’s pointless…

    But as someone with a large library who regards Vita & PS3 as my primary consoles, I can let my friends or sister play my Steam games.

    Without having to go through the annoying hassles of passwords and Steam guards. Which of course, wouldn’t even let them play on their own account, a big new advantage of this system.

    Friends can make their own progress, with their own save files and achievements- we all know that’s a large improvement.

    • Yes, to a certain degree it lets you share you collection in a simpler and more convenient way. Yet aside from achievement earning, this only offers what you could have done before.

      My point is that they need to go further, to share on a game by game basis, and should have been making these moves a long time ago.

  2. Your Geoff and Steve analogy is fine with me! It’s like lending a disc and then asking for it back. If they say “aww… but I just want to play a few more hours” then go buy the bloody game yourself!

    I think it’s a step in the right direction and the buying power you mention in the last paragraph is definitely where it’s at, for me.

    • But if you want to play a completely different game to the one which Steve is borrowing, that too would boot Steve out of what he is playing. There’s no granularity to the system.

      • It’s more like lending your entire PC.

      • I can see how it’s far from perfect but a positive step in the right direction. Thing is, this is a way to see how much abuse the system gets without them allowing per-game flexibility.

        If you think about a separate Steam account where we’ve bought a few games in the sale, maybe, or something newer but only one of us wanted to play it. That’s where it can work a treat. You, me, AG2297 (and Phill) could easily enjoy a shared account where we all chip in, if need be, or simply contribute to purchases of the sort of titles where we’re not swooping in on day one. Equally, it means there might even be a spare account, as such, if a few of us were playing online and one of us didn’t have a particular title.

  3. You’re bang on, it’s not really the DRM ease-up we’re looking for. But the screengrabs you’ve chosen to use is bang-on where it’s leading to. Big Picture users who have their gaming PC in their family room, and whatever Steam Boxes may come down the road. Valve wouldn’t let SteamBox be released where games are tied to an account rather than a particular machine, as people with families, or say, 3 people living in an apartment together, can’t play each other’s games and they have one machine between the three of them. When this comes out of Beta, I’d expect a SteamBox to be not far behind it.

  4. Hardly pointless. Ultimately, it gives digital gamers the same benefits of disk gamers – i.e. the ability to borrow games off each other. Sounds like a great thing for me and the PS4 will need this feature if the X1 and PC have it

    • It has. Well not officialy. But at least for now, if something is downloaded on the console with one account, you can access that content with any other account and without any restrictions.

    • The PS4 doesn’t “need” a digital game sharing system, just because the competition has it. Sony is making a lot of big moves lately, so those alone should be enough to combat anything Microsoft may have to offer.

  5. The Family Sharing on Xbox One was always just a timed trial, confirmed to be sixty minutes. I hate it when something that was a trick to begin with acts as something legendary.

    • It’s still about as clear as mud, but I’ve seen more quotes and tweets coming from MS execs that say that it’s the full game and not timed, than the opposite.

      We may never truly know until Microsoft come back to the idea.

  6. So they’re not just borrowing one game, but an entire library? Stupid. I’m put off by that, hardly any better than letting the family share the whole account.

  7. In general opinion is absolutely correct, while the headline is absolutely false and it is done so to generate more clicks. I can relate to that, but still „Pointless“ is not the word you’re looking for.

    Steam game Family sharing is something making Steam much better service than it used to be, but at the same time this upgrade is largely inferior to what was expected. It’s not even close to expectations many of us had, but at the same time we should acknowledge the fact that:

    1. There are equal numbers of scenarios when proposed mechanics will suffice, and when they won’t. Especially having in mind huge amount of gamers sharing their accounts now. Life will be much easier for them. And then there is other factors, like multiple devices, vacations, diferent gaming habbits (some people play right after work, some late into the night) etc. etc.

    2. It’s a small step for players who wish to share the games, but it’s a huge leap for steam. It’s not a secret that previously they were unwilling to even talk about anything relating to property sharing and/or transferring to other users. So with this beta they’re basically releasing genie out of the bottle and having in mind that Steam is considered as an example of digital trade, this move is not pointless at all.

    • In its current form it is largely pointless and a wasted opportunity, unless they back it up with further changes to their polcies. That is my genuine opinion.

      But I’ll grant you that it’s maybe a touch strong for the headline.

  8. I can see why you used the word pointless Stefan, it’s not an ideal system but I think what’s important is that it’s better than nothing at all. I doubt this is the end of the story, whole library lending will probably change to individual game loans with some clever restrictions, it might just be a matter of waiting for Steam to work out licensing issues or something like that.

  9. I think this system would see most use in the form of library swapping. As you mentioned in the part: “although it would seem like Geoff could go and play one of Steve’s games, if they are both sharing libraries with one another.”
    I think that’s a good enough opportunity for Steam gamers to play their buddies’ games while those buddies play theirs.

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