SteamOS: What Valve Did And Didn’t Show

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I wanted to wait until Valve made all its announcements before I put any speculation here about what they’re doing with Steam Machines and Steam OS. Overall I think the announcements were a bit premature, but depending on what Valve’s aims are, if they nail this I really do think it could change gaming forever.

The only nearly “complete” product Valve had to show off was the software side — SteamOS, which is basically a Linux distro built specifically for gaming. The thing is, I don’t think this (or any part of this whole equation) really affects existing PC gamers at all. There are some details about how drivers might work and how some developers might no longer be hamstrung by DirectX, but if you’re already fine with Windows gaming then you can pretty much just keep using Steam on Windows.

What this is really about is establishing an open (or nearly open) platform for living room gaming, which I think could be a big step up for the medium. In my opinion, every medium needs to have at least one open platform hosting its content — a platform that isn’t totally controlled by a gatekeeper. No single company decides what movies get released on DVD, or what books get published, or what music is made. With most media people just release things, and then a multitude of storefronts sell and curate those things. That environment basically doesn’t exist for console gaming yet.

For gaming in general that open platform is PC, or more specifically Windows, but it remains in its own world divorced from the living room, and Valve is trying to build a bridge to bring it there, possibly into the hands of people who already prefer the living room. It’s still unclear who Valve is actually targeting with the Steam Machine initiative, but I still think it’s at least partly designed to bring Steam to console gamers.

Why make a whole new OS for that purpose? Because people who play games in their living room don’t like putting up with the complexities of Windows just to play some video games. Desktop Windows is not a video game operating system. It has thousands of great games but its main strength (and almost only remaining saving grace in today’s market) is productivity — it’s the pickup truck of operating systems where most people just want a car. A lot of gamers prefer PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo because they are primarily gaming operating systems. SteamOS could be seen as an attempt to create a system that’s for games first, optimized for the living room, and open. Some people are already trying to turn Android into this.

SteamOS is also a benefit for Valve itself if it takes off because it makes sure the company’s entire business (as well as the businesses of a lot of other PC developers) isn’t tied to the fate of Windows. Gabe Newell is one of many critics of Windows 8, and a lot of people are afraid of the OS’s future. If something happens to dissolve or severely damage the viability of Windows as an open gaming platform, SteamOS is an attempt to create an escape route for Valve and other PC developers. Valve also probably just doesn’t wanna pay Microsoft to license Windows on the Steam Machines.

Still, the most important thing about any platform or operating system is software support, and that’s kind of what Valve hasn’t shown yet, which is unfortunate. Valve confirms that SteamOS at launch will already have hundreds of games, and they even claim to be working with publishers to bring AAA games to SteamOS in 2014, but we’ll see. The current assumption is that this library will include the roughly 300 games on Steam that already run on Linux, but I would’ve really liked for Valve to actually name what publishers and developers they’d gotten into bed with, and maybe even some actual games. Most indie developers today support Linux, but basically no AAA publishers do. SteamOS getting that AAA Linux support could be a fairly big deal for Linux gaming.

What about publishers like EA and Ubisoft that have their own PC distribution stores? According to Valve, you’ll be able to install whatever software you want on SteamOS. If SteamOS takes off, I don’t see what would stop EA and Ubisoft from creating SteamOS versions of Origin and UPlay respectively. Heck, Amazon could sell SteamOS games through some kind of Amazon games app the way they already sell Android software. Or GameFly, or Gamers Gate, or GOG, or GameStop. It’d actually be kind of interesting if this promoted other PC game stores to create distribution software for the living room.

Exclusives will also be a way to attract customers, but it won’t happen the way a lot of people seem to expect. In fact I don’t think any game will be exclusive to SteamOS itself, especially not the hypothetical Half-Life 3 or Left 4 Dead 3. I could maybe see those games being exclusive to Steam and not come out on traditional consoles (at least for a while), but not just SteamOS. SteamOS in living room boxes is meant to expose the store to people not already using it — people who buy those games on Steam for Windows are still giving Valve the same amount of money. The platform Valve is trying to push here is Steam in general, not SteamOS. Also, of the 300 existing Steam Linux games, almost none have console versions, so they could be considered exclusive in that sense.

As with the software, I would’ve liked to see Valve actually name the hardware partners it’s working with. The announcement of Steam Machines is basically what a lot of people had already guessed — that there will in fact be many machines built by multiple manufacturers all running the same OS. This is essentially the “one console format” dream people bring up every now and again — a transformation of console gaming into something resembling DVD players, many different models that all play the same content.

Now that Valve has confirmed it though, it’s no less interesting a turn of events. For starters you now have a much wider range of price points for consoles that all run the same games. Even if the need for manufacturers to sell above cost (since they aren’t selling the Steam games and Valve probably won’t subsidize them) leads to higher prices than consoles, competition will surely drive prices down over the years. Combine that with how the PS4 and Xbox One will remain stagnant hardware for several years, and a few years from now you could end up with Steam Machines that are very competitive with consoles in terms of both horsepower and cost.

I just wish Valve would have named names. Dell? Alienware? MSI? I know this is basically the announcement of a beta, but Valve shouldn’t have made these announcements out to be bigger than they really are.

The real test of the whole console gamer angle will be how accessible the whole SteamOS experiment is. Steam’s greatest triumph is how much it has lowered the barrier of entry into PC gaming from a software angle. Steam simplifies the process of installing PC games, keeping them updated, and even installing mods. It would make sense for Valve to try to do the same thing on the hardware side. The reason console gamers prefer consoles is because they don’t wanna deal with maintaining GPUs and RAM, or making sure they have the right drivers. Basically, Valve needs to get to a point where your average gamer can buy a Steam Machine from the store, hook it up to his TV, and immediately start buying and playing games on Steam.

It’s pretty easy to guess that it was really the last announcement — the Steam controller, that threw everybody for a loop. This is another area where Valve probably announced too little, too soon.

We’ve got some developer impressions, but it would’ve been nice if Valve actually showed us a demonstration of the controller instead of just a picture and a description. Still, this controller is an attempt to tackle a problem that nobody really expected Valve to tackle.

When hooking up a gaming PC to a TV, one of the biggest issues that comes up is how you’re gonna handle that keyboard and mouse while sitting on a couch. I really don’t know much about these biometrics or haptics, but I wish the best of luck to Valve in its attempt to make a proper controller substitute for the computer mouse. If it turns out I can competently play Civilization V or DOTA 2 on this controller, sign me up.

People are mystified because the Steam Controller basically throws out the whole book on controller design. It looks especially alien to console gamers because it wasn’t designed for console games. It comes from a train of thought and problem solving that console game pads have never followed. You even have the PS4 controller adding a touch pad in an attempt to bring mouse-like control to the living room. That’s why you gotta give it a shot, and why Valve needs to let people actually watch this thing in action as soon as possible.

Really that’s what needs to happen for this whole initiative. People are still pretty confused as to what the Steam Machine plan is or who it’s for. Maybe Valve’ll do something big at E3 or whatever. All we’ve seen so far is just potential, and massive potential at that, but nothing concrete.

BULLETS:

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