In the wake of recent Steam news it became clear that Valve means serious business in their fight for dominance over the living room. There has been a lot of talk about Valve their plans, ever since the initial release of “Big Picture”, which gave Steam a console-like interface for living room TV’s and included controller support. The next step will be the launch of its own Steam oriented operating system, Steam machine and a Steam controller. It might very well be that the fight for the next generation will be won by Valve
instead of Microsoft or Sony.
Steam has shown 30% growth since 2012 and currently has 65 million users. That’s more than Xbox Live (48 million) but less than the Playstation Network (110 million). It’s striking that PC gaming is up while PC sales have declined 11% since 2012. According to Newell this is because of the closed direction Microsoft and Apple are pushing for. Newell believes that systems which are innovation-friendly and embrace openness are going to have a greater competitive advantage to closed or tightly regulated systems. Let’s take a look at what they've planned and see if he might be right.
Valve will be using SteamOS as its crowbar to break open the PC market. It’s a Linux-based solution for bringing gaming to the living room and it’s an operating system build around Steam itself. We can expect a significant increase in performance since Windows or Mac OS are no longer required. There will be no overhead and the hardware can be used entirely for gaming. Best of all, it’s open and it will be free forever. This is a smart move. Hardware companies can build their own Steam machines and users can make changes as they see fit.
Steam’s huge library of games will be compatible with SteamOS and Valve has already announced that we will not see any SteamOS exclusive games from them. In fact, this same philosophy is applied when they talk to third-party partners. They encourage them to put their games in as many places as possible. By using in-home streaming, Valve is offering a solution for games that don’t support SteamOs natively.
Combined with Steam’s existing features and you no longer have an operating system but a collaborative entertainment platform. There’s a catch though. However open and great the Linux community is, driver support has always been an issue. Regardless of how much effort that went into improving this, it’s still no match to the superior driver support of Windows. However, the Steam machine could be the solution to this problem.
According to Valve, entertainment isn't a one-size-fits-all world. Conventional consoles lock users into closed platforms. Doing something similar would go against Valve’s whole philosophy. They want you to have a choice. That’s why they are working with several partners to bring us a wide array of Steam machines in 2014. Recently Valve revealed its first prototype. It’s a nice streamlined box designed to be like a PC gaming rig in a size that’s more appropriate for the living room.
All of its parts can be swapped out and replaced and according to early testers, it’s a powerful and really quiet
machine. Which we probably never get to buy due do to fact that it’s primarily used for soliciting feedback from hardware, developer and user communities. They don’t want to build it without costumer and manufacturer input. Something we normally don’t see with hardware development. Speaking of which, there’s no point pushing for living-room gaming without a proper input device that accommodates every different kind of input requirement for all the 3000 games on Steam.
The new Steam controller will offer a superior control scheme and will use high precision input with low latency performance. The most prominent feature is a set of circular trackpads instead of the usual analog sticks. These trackpads will offer haptic feedback which goes far beyond the simple rumble features we know today. By switching to trackpads, the controller can support games that were normally only playable with a mouse and a keyboard.
The controller also has a central, high resolution touchscreen which, when pressed, can be used as a button. This feature has been added to allow for an infinite number of actions without having the need for physical buttons. It can be used as scrolling menu, a circular interface or something else entirely. It all depends on how developers use it. There will be tools available so that the community can make its own configurations and share them. Those that tested the controller were mostly positive but keep in mind that Valve’s is still working on improving it.
Steaming into the future:
Having a Steam machine, with SteamOS and a Steam controller, that will allow you to play a wide array of games in the living room, sounds like a guaranteed hit. But there are some concerns. With consoles you don’t have to worry about meeting a game’s requirements. We don’t know how Valve is going to handle this with Steam machines and what about the driver support for hardware changes you make?
Another downside could be a possible fragmentation of the PC market. This would force developers to think about which platform they are going to support. In-home streaming only partly solves this problem. Talking about developers, will enough of them support SteamOS? Will the streaming quality be good enough? Will the price be right? Enough things to speculate about but you can already see how Valve is giving itself the space and flexibility to rapidly iterate and improve for when they’ll make mistakes.
Be that as it may. Steam is a huge and successful platform that isn't limited to hardware. Its community, the workshop, daily deals, sales and cheap games are all very appealing. With in-home streaming, every PC, Mac, TV, laptop, and even tablet could be a potential platform for Steam. Its loyal followers will undoubtedly applaud this next step. But will it convince the traditional console crowd or the ‘casual’ gamer? Time will tell.
Please note that I wrote this for Mapcore (Design Community).