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Quick Impressions: Steam's Big Picture Mode


The “Big Picture Mode” for Steam reached open beta today. BPM, in short, is basically a console-like interface for Steam that is designed to be a lot more controller friendly. Obviously the idea of “console-ifying” will get the Master Race elitists screaming that any departure from keyboard and mouse is heresy (even though KB&M is only truly superior for shooters and real-time strategy games) but BPM is more or less Valve's attempt to bridge the gap between the console world and the PC world in an attempt to make us all one big happy family, as it should be.

How does Big Picture Mode stack up? It's definitely a great step in the right direction.

You can launch Big Picture Mode simply by clicking on the “Big Picture” icon that's in the upper left hand corner of your Steam interface (you have to opt into the Steam Beta in order to have this, at the moment). Trust me, you'll be able to see the button I'm talking about pretty easily. If you're somehow blind and can't see the large obnoxious button, hit the dashboard button on your Xbox 360 controller and BPM will load up for you also.

After clicking the “Big Picture” button Steam, pretty quickly I might add, switches up to it's shiny new interface. The interface itself is actually rather reminiscent of the Xbox 360 Dashboard, it's just a lot cleaner looking because you aren't blitzed with Doritos advertisements or asked to suffer through Kristen Stewart's “acting” in Snow White & The Huntsman. The start-up screen for BPM gives you three pretty clear-cut options; Store, Library, and Community. It should also be noted that launching the web browser and a more direct messsage-your-friends screen are mapped to the left trigger and right trigger respectively (if you're using a 360 controller). The main three choices are pretty clear; Store takes you to the Steam store, Library takes you to your games (from there you can filter by all games, recently played games, installed games, and favorites), and Community takes you to your Steam friends lists.

When you go to the Library section of BPM your games are presented in large banner-like thumbnails from which you can scroll through and select, again similar to if you would be scrolling through a list of games on your Xbox. Highlighting a title takes you to a more detailed screen that will give you four boxes, each box giving an option (or options) such as installing or playing your game, which of your friends play this game, achievements, going to the store page for that specific game, recent news on this title, etc. Again, this is nothing that's new or unfamiliar however it's still a pretty slick interface. I didn't do any direct comparing but it seems like games take a moment or two longer to launch in BPM versus the old-fashioned way (if you're rocking a solid state drive, though, you won't notice any difference likely).

After your game launches, if you wish to bring up the Steam interface mid-game it is done so by hitting the Xbox dashboard button (again, just like 360) in order to perform all of the standard Steam functions. Unfortunately, BPM doesn't come with any built-in controller mapping software so if you have games that do not natively use gamepads (Amensia, Mass Effect) you'll have to keep X-Padder ready to go in the background.

One of the new highlights of Big Picture Mode is the daisywheel interface Valve made for using a controller in place of a keyboard for chatting with friends. Screenshots of it are out on the net, so I'm not going to explain how it works because I'm lazy at the moment. In short I'll just say that this interface isn't too bad for typing. Obviously you'll get nowhere close to the efficiency of a keyboard, but it serves its purpose admirably. That being said I'm not entirely sold on it being any better (or worse, for that matter) than a typical on-screen keyboard like you see on the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360. Maybe it's just because I'm used to those options more so than what BPM provides, however it would have been a good idea to provide both the daisywheel and a more standard on-screen keyboard.

Valve pimped the BPM's web browser as the “world's first first-person web browser”. Well, to be honest I'd be interested to see what a third-person web browser would look like. Would it be an over the shoulder view of me surfing for not-porn on my computer or something? BPM's browser is better than the PS3 web browser in my opinion, but by how much (or little) is the real question. Instead of loading a webpage and having one of the analog sticks emulate a mouse pointer (like you'd probably expect), the user moves the entire page around with an analog stick and a static reticule in the center of the screen acts like a mouse. Essentially it functions like a first-person shooter, where you put what you want in the reticule and click, the only difference is that instead of shooting someone you load up your not-porn. Whether or not its a better or more efficient way of navigating a webpage with a controller is a big “I dont know”. Personally, I found it a bit disorienting myself and I think I would have preferred just having a typical mouse pointer (if you use BPM with a keyboard and mouse, the web browser functions like a typical web browser, FYI). The web browser could also use a few more options, such as being able to edit the names of websites you bookmark (for example: so my Destructoid bookmark just says “Destructoid” and not “Destructoid: For Gamers by Gamers”), or perhaps some kind of ad-blocker. I also had an issue logging into Destructoid via BPM with a controller as well, but just to clarify I can't entirely be sure if it was a BPM issue or whether or not it was Destructoid's goofy (and by goofy I mean not-thought-out) tab order with their login screen.

Big Picture Mode isn't perfect. The web browser packaged with BPM currently doesn't seem to have much flash support, which could kill off its use for some people. Having Steam's BPM interface pop up with the Xbox dashboard button can be problematic if you have any games that also use Games for Windows Live, such as Dirt 2 or Fallout 3. I've had some issues launching a few games via BPM (for example, Max Payne & Max Payne 2) and the titles wouldn't launch what so ever. I should also mention that games which require a launcher, such as Skyrim, also still require a mouse in order to click the “Play” button to launch the game since the controller-mapping doesn't carry over into the launcher. The issues with BPM vary from minor to somewhat bothersome but it's technically still in beta and it's only been out for a day, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Valve push out fixes for a lot of the early issues found in BPM.

I've been pretty much a console gamer most of my gaming life. However, I've been trying to jump back into the world of PC gaming for a decent amount of time now because of Steam and to escape a lot of the crap that has been plaguing consoles. Assuming Valve keeps up with polishing Big Picture Mode (which is up in the air, considering how Valve-time works), this new Steam feature could be an excellent gateway for console gamers who want to make the jump to PC gaming without sacrificing the more pleasant living room experience. Initially these are a few of the things I'd immediately suggest for improving Big Picture Mode:

-Better support for games with their own launchers.
-An ability to boot Steam straight into Big Picture Mode
-Integrate a built-in button-mapping program (a la Xpadder)
-Multiple text-entry options

If you're happy with your more traditional PC gaming setup, or are one of the types who sit only a few inches from your monitor or stick with keyboard and mouse all of the time, BPM will probably not be for you. It's a little rough around the edges, obviously, but I'd definitely recommend Big Picture Mode if you're one of those people who want some of the best of both worlds from PC and console gaming. At the moment I have Xpadder's autoprofiler rigged to jump through various hoops to let me use my PC from the comfort of my couch, however I'm already in the process of ditching that in favor of Big Picture Mode.
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About Sephzillaone of us since 9:27 AM on 07.15.2008

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Who am I? I'm a guy who plays video games, talks way too much about comics and movies, likes Godzilla and Robocop. Why should you read my blog? Because when I write I have fun, make up bullshit lists, and when I do get a little serious with some blogs I try to be insightful and use resources and facts to try and back up my opinion as much as I can. And if you don't follow my blog, I'll send you a picture of a sad kitten who wants some love.

Also, I tend to debate a lot and get up on a soapbox a bit from time to time. I like to debate for the sake of debating and I tend to find it fun to get other peoples perspectives on things, and sometimes I like to play devil's advocate a bit just for the sake of it. Basically, don't take me so serious sometimes even if it seems like I am being serious.

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