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The Real Big Picture

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Valve wrapped up a week of announcements detailing their plan to move Steam out of the home office and into the living room.  Let’s recap the announcements themselves and have a little fun speculating on what Valve is thinking.

On Monday Valve revealed SteamOS, a Linux derived, freely downloadable, dedicated implementation of Steam that will be available soon.  SteamOS is promising dramatic improvements to graphics performance thanks to some intense optimizations of the graphics subsystem.  This one point is important because Valve is doing their best to eliminate one of the advantages that gaming consoles have, their purpose-built, highly optimized over time graphics libraries.

We really need to take stock here.  As much as I am a fan of gaming on the PC, Windows or other general purpose operating systems are a terrible platform for gaming simply because there is so much other stuff going on behind the scenes that siphon away resources that could otherwise go towards gaming.  These platforms do have their place, I wouldn’t be able to write this article without them, so don’t lump me into the console zealot crowd that believes that the PC is nothing but a glorified calculator and real gamers play Call of Duty and nothing else.

That said, I do have to agree with them on one point.  Consoles make far better use of their limited hardware than the PC ever has.  Sticking with the Call of Duty reference, if you compare Call of Duty 2, a game that was released day and date with the Xbox 360 to the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts, it’s easy to see the marked improvement in visual fidelity.  This increase in visual quality happened on the same hardware, so it begs the question: What is that three year old Geforce GTX 480 really capable of?

That’s why SteamOS is so exciting to my nerdy brain.  In a few months, we’ll actually get to find out.  Maybe the difference is minor, but I think that more than likely we will see that with the right platform, less powerful hardware can still offer a great gaming experience.

Wednesday saw the introduction of Steam Machines, a platform to run SteamOS on.  Valve is partnering with hardware manufacturers to build machines of varying specs, but unfortunately they have yet to show what those specs will be.  To remove as much complexity from the process of picking a machine as possible, there needs to be an easy way to tell what a system’s capabilities are.  Perhaps we’ll see the return of the old MultiMedia PC level system.  That would make the most sense, as you can’t really expect the general consumer to have to weigh the benefits of having 16GB of RAM as opposed to 8GB, or whether they should spend 200$ extra on a GTX 770 as opposed to the Radeon HD 7870.  If defined well and adhered to, a level system could make things easier.

The new Steam Controller prototype.

The new Steam Controller prototype.

Finally, on Friday we got to see the new controller that Valve hopes will become a standard for PC gaming.  The controller forgoes analog sticks in favor of dual track pads.  A touch pad similar to what Ouya had on their controller is in the middle of the controller itself.  The buttons seem to be spread across the entirety of the controller, on the front, and on the back as well.  By the looks of them though, they do not seem to be physical buttons, but touch areas.  I don’t know how well that’s going to work, but it is definitely a unique approach to a controller.

The controller will feature compatibility with every game on Steam via keyboard and mouse emulation.  Valve is hoping that their community will create bindings for games and share them via Steam Workshop.  By the time this platform is ready for a general release, I would be surprised if a good part of the games in the Steam catalog don’t have mappings already available for them  There will also be an API that developers can use to add Steam controller support to their games.  What we do not yet know is whether this controller would have XInput support if it were plugged into a Windows machine.  While you can get away with Keyboard and Mouse emulation for most things, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to leave out this established API that many console ports and Indie games use already.

Those are the pieces, now here’s how they fit together.

Steam will allow for local network streaming of your game library to a SteamOS machine.  So you could play games on your big gaming PC on a less powerful machine in the living room.  That would allow for games that have yet to be ported to SteamOS to be playable.  That’s a good short-term solution, but Valve isn’t thinking short-term gains.

Any other company would be absolutely crazy to make the bet that if they offer an optimized operating system, a groundwork for a hardware platform, and a standardized input method, that anyone would use them.  Most would not take that risk.  Valve can though, because of one key fact:  If SteamOS doesn’t work out, it’s not going to ruin them.  They’re making money being the number one PC game distribution platform.  It’s where developers want to distribute their games.  When you’re worth 2.5 billion, you can afford to take a risk or two to see how things shake out.  At worst they lose a few tens of millions of dollars, they’ll make that up in a year or two.

For SteamOS, Valve is making the bet that a small fraction of their 50 million user base will jump to the SteamOS train early.  They’ll help shape the platform, and evangelize it to their friends.  As the platform gets better, more users willcome on boardt, which in turn is going to mean that developers will not want to ignore it.  If they can get 2% of their user base on board, that’s a one million person marketing department.  It will be an interesting platform to follow, whether it succeeds or not.

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