If you have been around computer games long enough, and had a look at more mainstream releases, there's no doubt you have heard of the various game distribution methods out there. While audio games are usually just downloaded from the developer's site, most mainstream developers use a third party store to help with handling the purchase, downloading and DRM for their game. These stores also often offer additional helpful features, such as tracking achievements as well as leader boards and match making for multiplayer. The most popular of these stores is Valve's Steam. First released in 2004 to help with DRM on their release of Half Life 2, it has since been adopted by almost every publisher out there.
With the recent rise of game accessibility, a lot of indie and even tripple A titles have become accessible for the blind, with games such as Code 7, sequence storm, alt frequencies and Skullgirls all offering full screen reading support requiring no assistance to start the game and enjoy all of its features, and this is just scratching the surface of what's out there. However, the Steam service itself has a reputation of being notoriously difficult, if not impossible to use with a screen reader. Many people will outright ignore Steam releases as a result because they think it's impossible to use if you're blind. This is simply not true. In this guide I will show you just how easy it is to set up Steam on your computer, create an account as well as download and purchase games. As you'll hopefully see, this is just as easy as using a developer's website but comes with some aditional benefits.
Downloading Steam and account creation
To get started, head over to steampowered.com. Before you click the install Steam link, you should make an account on the website first. To do so, click login, and on the page that loads click the join steam link which will be below the log-in form.
At this point I was going to tell you how you'll now have to deal with a frustrating, inaccesssible Captcha that was a pain in the ass to solve, even using third party solving extensions. However, it looks like Valve has made this process far easier since I last used it, replacing their old, inaccessible captcha with the modern Recaptcha 2 from Google, which usually boils down to checking a "I'm not a robot" checkbox. Sometimes it may be that you're on a shared connection or your browser blocks some Google tracking scripts from working, in which case you may be presented with an audio Captcha to solve but this should not be too difficult. The rest of the sign-up process then just involves filling out the fields for your nickname, E-mail address, password, and reading the various licenses and agreeing to them. Just follow the prompts and make an account. Once you're done, go back to the frontpage and click the install link. Download the installer and run it. The installer uses standard controls, so it should be easy to figure out. Check the radio button for the language you want to use (even if it seems checked when you first launch it, check it again to be sure) and click next. When you're asked for where to install Steam, think about where you'll want your games to go. If you have a computer with 2 drives, one for your most used apps and a bigger one for other data, install Steam to the bigger drive as changing the path where games are installed is not very straight forward with a screen reader. Finally, click install. When you're prompted to run steam when the installer finishes, uncheck the box before you click finish as we're about to make a small change to our configuration.
Setting up for better accessibility
From this point on, the guide assumes you're using the Windows version of Steam. Steam for Mac does not have all of these features, so using it is more tricky and beyond this guide.
The installer should have created a desktop icon for you. Find ig and press alt+enter to change its properties. You should be placed in a text box containing a path to the steam executable. Go to the end of the line, past the quote, type a space and add the following text to the end:
-no-dwrite -login yourusername yourpassword
Replacing yourusername and yourpassword with the details you used to sign up earlier. The no-dwrite switch configures Steam not to use directX to display its interface, instead falling back on more traditional Windows APIs. While you won't get speech just by tabbing, screen readers will at least be able to navigate and read the text using their review features - screen review in NVDA and ZDSR are known to work best, the JAWS cursor should also work. Not including this switch will result in your screen reader not seeing anything at all!
The second switch is pretty self explanatory and logs you in automatically. If you don't want to do this to not leave your details exposed, you can remove this switch and instead log-in by launching steam and using your screen reader's review to click on the username and password boxes and filling them out. Also, these settings will not be applied when Steam launches automatically with Windows so it's best to remove it from your startup items in task manager so it stays out of your way when not used.
If you do this for the first time on a new computer, you will most likely get a notice from steam guard asking you to verify with a code that was just E-mailed to you. If you followed the guide up to this point, your screen reader should read this prompt out. If you get it, copy out the code from the E-mail, and in the steam guard window press enter, paste the code and press enter again. Steam should then tell you the verification was successful. You can then close the window.
Purrchasing and installing games
Now that you're done, it's time to grab that game you wanted. There are 2 ways of doing this, both of which are accessible. The first is just using your web browser by going to the steam page and searching for the game or by clicking a direct link to it. Purchasing is pretty self explanatory, add one or more games or DLC to your cart, and go through checkout. The first time you do this Steam will ask you to add a paypal account or credit card. Once the purchase goes through, the final page will offer 2 links. Click the first one that says "Yes, I have steam, install the game". Assuming you started Steam, it will open an installation window telling you how big the game is and how long it'll take to download it. Simply press enter to confirm that you want to begin the download. It may then take a moment for Steam to initialize your disk and allocate space for the game. This is signified by a small piece of text being added to the window which isn't read automatically and sometimes not picked up by screen readers in their review. So, you might think that nothing has changed but don't worry, this process can take a moment especially with larger games. TO check if it's proceeding, go to the last line of the window with your screen reader's review mode. Once Steam is done initializing, the cancel button at the bottom of the window will change to a Finish button. Either click on it or press enter again to close the window. Steam is now downloading your newly acquired game. To check up on it, look for Steam in your system tray. If something is downloading, you will see its percentage and download speed on the icon. Once the download is complete, your new game will have a desktop icon. Press enter on it to start playing! Just make sure that Steam is running first.
The other approach of buying a game uses the Steam app itself, and it's not too ddifferent from using a browser. It's also a the method you'll want to use to install games you already purchased on a new computer, or ones that you deleted and want to get back.
Valve has recently began modernising Steam and converting it more and more to use a modern Chromium based user interface, with the store and chat getting this treatment first. What this means for us is that those sections just appear as normal webpages to screen readers, making them very easy to use.
To get started, just find the steam window. If it's not there, bring it up by clicking on the system tray icon. It should open to the store page automatically and your screen reader should be able to interact with it as if you were in a web browser. The experience here is very similar. Find the search box and locate a game. If you want to buy it, add it to the cart and follow the prompts. If you already have the game, below the add to cart link you will also see an option to "play now". Clicking on it will immediately start the installation process as described above. From this page you can also look at your stats for the game and see any achievements you unlocked. This is all done from these web like pages so should not pose any accessibility issues.
To uninstall a game, simply do so from the programs and features section of Windows, just like any other program. Again, just like with launching a game Steam is used to perform the uninstallation so be sure it's running before you do so.
If after installing steam, modifying the desktop shortcut and launching you get absolutely nothing, double-check that you have entered everything correctly under the desktop icon. If you still get nothing, have your screen reader run OCR on the Steam Window. With NVDA, it can be done by pressing NVDA+R, with JAWS it's JAWS+O, then w. If the OCR shows you text, check that the desktop shortcut has the -no-dwrite switch. If OCR finds nothing, your Steam installation appears to be corrupted. Reinstalling it should help.
If after Steam launches you see a bunch of text, but the store doesn't seem to be there, Steam might have opened to a different section.
There are 2 ways of getting to the store, or the friends section if you closed it. The first is that Steam has a menu bar at the top of the window. If you switch to screen review and keep going up, you'll eventually see it, it'll have a menu for Steam, view, friends, games and help. Below that is your name, and you might also see a number here if you have pending friend requests. Further below that will be another menu bar, with store, library, community and your name on it. You can root your mouse to one of these to navigate, but because this is a menu as soon as you root the mouse there it'll automatically expand and change the screen on you with more options which is confusing.
So, the fastest way to get to the store or any major section of the app is via the system tray icon. Close the steam window if it's open, Find the system tray icon, do a right click by either pressing applications or Shift+F10, and then use screen review to select and click on an option. You'll see a few of the games you played recently, plus a few shortcuts to quickly find your friends, store, library and to exit steam.
Steam also offers additional social features. You can add friends to your friend list, which lets you chat with them, invite them to multiplayer games or join one that they created as well as compare scores. The chat feature also uses the modern web interface so can be used with no problem. You can bring it up by right clicking the system tray icon and then clicking friends. The chat feature can also be accessed using the Steam iOS and Android apps, which also allow you to buy games remotely install them to a computer if Steam is running on it. In addition these features can also be accessed from anywhere on the web on steampowered.com so if you find something isn't working that you want to access, chances are that feature will work better on the web.
In conclusion, using Steam with a screen reader now isn't too different to using a web browser. If you're not interested in the social features you don't have to interact with the interface at all and your usage of steam can simply boil down to first starting Steam, followed by the game that you want to play, all while enjoying the benefits of a modern app store. DRM is all handled in the background so all you have to do on a new computer is log into your account. Most games will upload your progress to the Steam cloud, so you can just pick up where you left off or even play without internet access if you need to. If the game gets updated, Steam will install the update automatically and by going to its page on the web you can read what's new or even sign up to its community section to talk to the developers and other players.
And that's all there is to it. Happy gaming!