Valve launches new Steam API features for third parties to improve online gaming

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Late last week Valve announced a raft of improvements to Steam’s backend services for game developers, promising new networking features and protection against hackers and script kiddies looking to ruin everyone’s day. There’s also some performance bonuses in there as well, although it’ll take some time before these materialise in the games you play on Steam that use Valve’s network.

The new features are part of Steamworks, now at version 1.44. These are exposed as APIs that developers can use for free if they are distributing their games on Valve’s storefront, and Valve uses the same services for DotA 2 and Counter-Strike: GO, among other in-house titles.

The first new feature is API access to Valve’s matchmaking network. Valve has gobs of bandwidth ready to go, but it’s mostly used for delivering downloads and some matchmaking. By utilising the network for end-to-end networking in games, Valve provides developers with a secure channel over which to relay their game data, and since Valve is their own content provider (as a global CDN), you never need to traverse into areas of the internet that are not secure in order to offer multiplayer for your game. Valve touts their CDN’s strength as being mostly DoS-proof, because anyone attacking the infrastructure would need to bring down multiple data centers to dent their offering.

As a bonus, being on Valve’s CDN means that all traffic is managed by Valve directly, and not ISPs. The network can more efficiently link hosts together by choosing optimal paths that take advantage of their network design, rather than sending you from hop to hop trying to take the shortest possible path across multiple channels. The chart above shows how much ping is reduced in games for clients who previously played these games with the CDN routing turned off. Most people see a reduction of 20ms in their pings just by using Valve’s network instead.

Also now on the table is an end-to-end encrypted hybrid TCP/UDP protocol (of sorts) which Valve calls GameNetworkingSockets. Valve says they’ve developed the protocol as an open-source project that replaces TCP transmissions, but has most of the benefit of the UDP protocol, and by default will protect players against eavesdropping on their connections as well as man-in-the-middle attacks. UDP isn’t a guaranteed delivery protocol because there is no message sent back from the client to the server that the data was received in the correct order, so it isn’t susceptible to the same denial-of-service attacks that would impact a service running over TCP.

This is the first offering of its kind from any storefront, and Valve says they hope to continue to improve the service and offer it to third parties. During GDC2019, the company says they’ll announce more new features for the Steam client for gamers and developers.

Last Updated: March 19, 2019

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