SteamOS and Microsoft’s Mistakes

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The reception to Valve’s CES presentation of Steam Machines has been kind of muted, and I think the main reason is a lot of people are still confused as to what exactly Valve is trying to do. I think the best way to describe how Valve is different is that it’s currently making plans for something that might happen 10 years down the line instead of trying to make a huge impact on the market today. I’m trying to collect what my previous thoughts have been on this in the following post.

In 2004 when Valve first started up Steam, people didn’t really understand why the company was tying Half-Life 2 to this strange DRM service. Now a lot of PC gamers won’t buy games without it. Admittedly though, I kind of bought into the hysteria over the idea of Valve actually making some kind of impression on the console market. That’s still a possibility, but it probably isn’t Valve’s primary objective. What Valve is trying to do is possibly what Microsoft should have been doing a decade ago.

I’ve made asides about this before: how one purpose of SteamOS is as an insurance policy against what may or may not happen to Windows in the future. I think this is Valve’s veiled statement that over the last several years, Microsoft has really been a terrible steward of Windows gaming.

Really, almost everything Valve has done for the PC platform is what Microsoft should have been doing as the company that runs Windows. Microsoft tried to consolize Windows with Games For Windows Live but failed miserably, as they’re finally putting a bullet in the service’s head this summer, and Steam became… pretty much what GFWL should have been. Microsoft’s neglect of traditional PC gaming on their new Windows 8 platform is more telling I think.

I saw Windows 8 as a perfect opportunity for Microsoft to maybe reform GFWL into something that links with Xbox — imagine buying a game like The Walking Dead Season 2 and playing it on your Windows tablet, your Windows 8 PC, and your Xbox One. Microsoft might still do that for apps in the future but I have a feeling traditional PC games could be left out of this. A robust XBL-style service built into Windows 8 would probably scare Valve a bit too. But nope, the game selection on the Windows 8 store right now is almost nothing but mobile fare.

And we of course know why — Xbox. Even higher ups at Microsoft are rumored to be disappointed with former CEO Steve Ballmer’s plunging what used to be a software company into consumer hardware. Microsoft wanted its own PlayStation 15 years ago, and then it wanted its own iOS, and now there are people there possibly threatening to actually sell the Xbox division and return Microsoft strictly to its software roots. If Microsoft wasn’t actively neglecting PC gaming in favor of Xbox we’d have a Windows 8 version of Forza 5 and it would announce Halo 5 on both Xbox One and Windows 8. The only legitimately good things Microsoft has recently done for PC gaming are Xinput and continuing to iterate on DirectX. And Valve’s SteamOS initiative even involves its attempt to wean developers off DirectX.

Furthermore, people point out Windows 8 as a factor in declining PC sales, as it’s trying to be more like the tablets and phones that are replacing PCs for the vast majority of consumers. Valve head Gabe Newell doesn’t attempt to hide his fear that these new closed-box platforms threaten the currently open PC platform.

Lastly, and most ironically, I think the Steam Machine initiative is something Microsoft could have done long ago. It’s what Xbox could have been.

Imagine if instead of trying to make another PlayStation, Microsoft simply said it was going to partner up with hardware manufacturers to make console-like devices that ran a sort of “console version” of Windows — an open gaming OS oriented for TVs. It would maintain Microsoft’s position as a software company while also bringing it into the console space. It’s just a question of whether such an idea was possible in 2001 or 2005. This is part of what Valve is doing today.

I think by releasing SteamOS Valve is pretty much saying “Y’know what? If Microsoft — the operator of the OS that is the foundation of PC gaming, isn’t going to be a leader of PC gaming, then someone else is going to have to step up.” If the living room approach causes a few console gamers to convert over to Steam, then that’s cool too. Who knows, maybe Valve will decide to actively go in that direction in the future. The most important thing to understand in that though is SteamOS and Steam Machines are going to be a very slow burn.

I think this new article from USGamer points it out well. The manufacturers of those Steam Machines do not expect them to explode out of the gate as fast as a new PlayStation or Xbox. They expect them to sell modestly over the course of years and maybe even decades. There will still be SteamOS and Steam Machines when Sony is releasing the PS5.

BULLETS:

  • Man. I’m hyped for whatever it is Area5 is doing.
  • My Steam user review of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is up. http://t.co/sPhBd29XXy
  • I just found out about Cops: Skyrim. http://t.co/3X1dOR5X8f
  • Interesting blurb from Kill Screen on No Man’s Sky. http://t.co/evT7MtwYNl
  • Nobody reading this has been through a pulled hamstring have they? How long does it take to stop hurting whenever I bend over?
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