Back in March I did a post speculating on Valve’s hints that they may be working on hardware to bridge the gap between PC gaming and the living room. At the VGAs Valve boss Gabe Newell more or less confirmed it, and gave his thoughts on what other hardware manufacturers might do. It is no doubt and intriguing prospect with lots of possibilities, but I’m still a bit worried as to how it would actually work.
What I think Valve is trying to do is lower the hardware barrier of entry into PC gaming. Over the years they’ve broken down the software barrier. Through Steam they’ve made buying, installing, and running PC games far cheaper and easier than it was a decade ago. The only major barrier left that keeps the masses out is the hardware — the cost of a gaming PC compared to consoles and the relative complexity in setting one up.
Big Picture Mode has already sort of started the process by making PC games fit better in the living room. Newell thinks that companies like Dell and HP will next year begin selling, essentially, PCs built for the living room, which when you think about it is a very viable option in today’s market.
More and more news keeps coming in about how PC sales are down in the face of smartphones and tablets that perform most of the tasks for which most people even use PCs. The one major unconquered space in digital media consumption so far however is the living room. You’ve got the smart TV market, but no one device has made a big impact there. Apple hasn’t made its big push to truly bring iOS into the living room, whether it’s in a TV or a set top box. Microsoft is probably trying to gear the next generation Xbox into a vehicle to bring Windows 8 into the living room. PC manufacturers might see this last battleground as an escape route. Maybe they’re trying to find a way to make PCs relevant again by making them more accessible.
I think if you look hard enough in a Best Buy you can already find these little “HTPC” (Home Theater PC) boxes that for a few hundred dollars will play a bunch of digital media on your TV. I imagine Valve might take something like that, and beef up the hardware to the point where it’ll play video games with dizzying graphics. Maybe they expect entrenched PC manufacturers to follow suit.
The main problem is figuring out what operating system these things would run.
In my opinion the obvious choice remains Windows, since that’s where the bulk of PC gaming still lies. However, Newell has made no secret of how unsatisfied he is with Windows 8, and a few other PC game developers have agreed, saying it leads to a future where Microsoft locks down Windows and kills the open PC.
At the same time, Newell’s been talking a lot about Steam on Linux, enough for people to speculate that Valve is working on just migrating to Linux or even creating some kind of Linux-based “Steam OS” for its set-top box. The idea is to probably turn it into the Android of PC gaming or something. The main problem there is getting developers to support it. It’s the same problem any console manufacturer faces.
If that Steam OS were to happen, I imagine it would just be an option alongside Steam on Windows and Mac OS — another software platform on which Steam runs. That’s cool, but for this whole plan to work Valve would still have to convince enough developers to support their alternative operating system.
Valve has gone to great lengths to make Steamworks as attractive as possible to developers, offering a whole bunch of useful features to them for free. Perhaps they could add Steam OS compatibility to the package at no extra charge. In my opinion, for that support to come, Microsoft’s future iterations of Windows would have to piss off PC game developers so much that they decide to embark on an exodus from it.
Another side of this whole problem is how Microsoft itself feels. Maybe I’m just overreacting, but from what little I’ve experienced of Windows 8 and what speculation indicates for the next Xbox, I’m getting the feeling Microsoft just doesn’t care about conventional PC gaming anymore. What if they want to kill it in favor of Xbox?
If the next Xbox is indeed going to be Microsoft’s official vehicle with which to bring Windows 8 into the living room, they may not appreciate other hardware manufacturers trying to do essentially the same thing but without their control over it. Windows may be their platform, but Windows games don’t translate back into licensing fees for Microsoft the way Xbox games do, unless of course they go through certification for the new Windows 8 store, which is already unpopular with PC developers.
It’s situations like this that make me wish Microsoft had already tried this whole thing back in 2001. Apparently back when Microsoft originally announced they were making a console, many assumed they were just gonna try to bring Windows itself into the living room in the form of a “console” that basically played PC games. Maybe it would’ve worked if they’d have instituted the Xbox controller standard in PC games back then along with introducing a service that simplifies the software in a way similar to Steam. Maybe back then people couldn’t see that far ahead.
Anyway, let’s look at the pros that could emerge from some kind of new living room PC gaming market.
Most importantly, it would be an earnest attempt to draw console gamers away from consoles and towards PC gaming. I imagine Valve and the hardware manufacturers might try to get the hardware barrier of entry low enough, but still attract customers with increased flexibility and superior graphics. Having various manufacturers build their own “consoles” that could boot the same OS would offer players more options too. You could see cheap systems similar to modest gaming rigs, or more expensive setups that try to fit the monster gaming PC into a friendlier package. Competition and subsidization would also drive prices down over time. In a sense, it would achieve what a lot of people have wanted for a long time — a unified living room gaming standard between multiple pieces of hardware, instead of closed consoles. Trying to introduce this kind of system right alongside the launch of new consoles is also excellent timing.
- Jee-woon Kim ‘Under Consideration’ to Direct Live-Action Jin-Roh Film http://flip.it/mpY5B
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- Huh. Xbox version of Portal 2 is $30 (we’re talking full price here), PS3 and PC versions are $20. Why?